The Liberals and the muddled middle

Whatever they do, they'll still be wedged between the Tories and NDP

Liberals face tough test in the muddled middle

Photograph by Cole Garside

If any prominent Liberal might be expected to think of the party as a family affair, it would have to be Montreal MP Justin Trudeau. Heading into the federal party’s convention in Ottawa this week, though, the son of the iconic former prime minister, the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau, says Liberals must use this opportunity to start projecting a new, decidedly non-familial party image. “The sense is that the party has too long looked at itself as a family, or a club, or a very strict hierarchy,” Trudeau told Maclean’s. “We need to make a shift to being much more of a movement. It’s hard to join a family.”

Talk of wrenching the Liberal mindset from cliquish to welcoming, its processes from top-down to bottom-up, might sound like mere hopeful rhetoric from a party laid low in the election last May 2. But the 1,500 or so hard-core Liberals expected to attend the Jan. 13-15 biennial convention will be debating concrete ideas for changing the rules about who gets to shape their party’s direction. The key proposal would give designated supporters—Canadians who would have to sign on to Liberal principles, but not be required to buy memberships—the right to vote in the party’s leadership race, and maybe at nomination meetings for candidates at the riding level.

It remains to be seen if the paid-up Liberal members who make the effort to travel to Ottawa for the convention agree to empower far less committed supporters. The idea is being championed by the party’s national board. After last spring’s drubbing at the polls, hardly a Liberal official or MP left standing denies that the Conservatives and New Democrats do a better job of keeping their bases energized and engaged. Instead of calling for their party to just copy Tory and NDP approaches, however, senior Grits are arguing they must chart a different course from their more ideologically motivated adversaries.

Stephen Harper’s machine has long since mastered techniques for pushing the buttons of the staunchest Conservatives. The government’s top priority might be the economy, but the ruling party never neglects issues like scrapping the gun registry or imposing longer prison terms—topics that fire up its right-wing volunteers and donors. Under the late Jack Layton, the NDP might have struck a moderate stance, but Layton never hesitated to lash out at “big corporations”—reassuring left-wingers they still had a home. By cleaving to the muddled middle, Liberals find themselves pitching mostly to voters far less prone to that sort of fierce partisan loyalty.

In fact, Trudeau says he often meets Liberal-leaning moderates, especially among younger voters, who just aren’t inclined to sign up. “People look at labels as much more fluid these days,” he says. “We will be opening up to people who will feel connected to the party, but not necessarily to the formal idea of membership.” By replacing the old emphasis on recruiting members with a new push to identify supporters, the Liberals would no longer have to fight the reluctance of many self-defined centrists to join.

Crafting messages that appeal to cautious moderates, but still grab the attention of voters, will be tricky. But New Brunswick MP Dominic LeBlanc says Liberals cannot afford to veer left or right, since the party must somehow simultaneously win back votes from the Tories on their right and the NDP on their left. “This is a critical question for the party,” LeBlanc says. “How do we occupy the progressive social agenda and, at the same time, remove from Mr. Harper the phony title of great economic manager?”

Trudeau suggests focusing on “evidence-based policy,” a phrase increasingly heard in Liberal circles as the catchphrase for their alternative to what they argue is the Conservative pattern of ignoring data and research. Trudeau cites Tory policy moves such as cancelling the long-form census, imposing mandatory minimum sentences for a raft of crimes and opposing Vancouver’s Insite supervised injection clinic for intravenous drug users. He admits “evidence-based policy” doesn’t exactly have the ring of a traditional rousing party slogan. “It’s a lot easier to be mad at something,” he says. “It’s easier to motivate people when they feel marginalized or on the fringe.”

Getting across any nuanced message will cost big money. Veteran Saskatchewan MP Ralph Goodale has been coordinating the party’s bid to revamp its lacklustre fundraising for the past few months. Donations flowed in at a respectable rate in 2011, Goodale says, despite the horrible election outcome—or perhaps because of it, as the party’s dire condition prodded previously blasé backers to open their wallets. When the final 2011 tallies are in, he says the party will have raised more than the NDP, but only about half as much as the Conservatives. “Not long ago, [the Tories] were beating us by three to one,” Goodale says. “We can’t delude ourselves, however—we’ve got a long way to go.”

The party’s national board is proposing to abolish its old revenue committee, and create a more streamlined fundraising operation under a new chairman and a professional manager. Goodale is angling for a multi-million-dollar budget for a centralized fundraising operation. As well, Liberals at the convention will be asked to vote for the establishment of a so-called “strong start” fund, a war chest to allow the party to fire back against the expected Conservative attack-ad assault when a new Liberal leader is chosen in 2013. Both of the last two leaders, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, were trashed by remorseless Tory advertising long before they got a chance to hit back on the campaign trail. “This is a proposal,” says MP Marc Garneau, “to make sure that if the Conservatives do this again with the new leader, we’ll be able to retaliate with some available funding.”

Garneau happens to be a possible leadership contender. But speculation among Liberals about who might succeed Ignatieff, who stepped down immediately after leading the party to its collapse from 77 to 34 seats last spring, has been surprisingly muted. Reeling from the election result, the party opted to put off picking its new leader until 2013. Along with the proposal for letting non-member supporters participate in that selection, Liberals at this week’s convention will consider adopting a U.S.-inspired “primaries” model of regional voting for the leader, which would be staged over 10 to 16 weeks through the spring of 2013.

Chatter about who’s likely to run can’t be entirely stifled as the party reconsiders its leadership process, membership, fundraising and organization. The hottest question in the convention hallways could be whether interim leader Bob Rae might be allowed to stand. When the former Ontario NDP premier took on the stopgap position last year, it was on the condition, imposed by the party executive, that he not try for the permanent leadership. But Rae has lately declined to rule out the possibility that he might run, if the party brass lifted that restriction.

Leadership is always a distracting subject for party insiders. But Liberals can hardly afford to give themselves over to it this week. Their bid to change the fundamental notion of who matters to the party—only full-fledged members, or softer sympathizers too?—should command their closest attention. A full-blown split over that idea could demoralize an already battered party. Even a half-hearted compromise outcome might signal that party insiders oversold their boldest idea for a new start. If they suffered last year’s defeat as a family, Liberals will want to feel they’ve taken a decisive step this week on the path to redemption as a movement.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.