When Canadian Liberals dealt with big defeat: merger, a new party or something else.


After becoming Leader of the Liberal Party in Canada, Justin Trudeau wrote an autobiography “Common Ground”.  The early chapters cover his life as the son of a Prime Minister, then his career as a bouncer, ski instructor and high school teacher. The book moves on to how he became a non-party political activist, then a Liberal candidate and (by just a few hundred votes) an MP in 2008, then party leader in 2013.

To me, a very interesting part of the book is that which deals with events after 2011.

In 2000 the Liberal Party was in government with 172 seats. They fell to just 34 seats and third place by 2011.  He says about that:

Some blamed the Conservatives’ negative attack ads… many were convinced [defeat] was the result of [the Liberal Party’s] leadership.  The truth was a lot more difficult and painful to face: [the voters] gave the Liberal Party the drubbing it had earned.

In power… the party had become focussed on itself rather than on [people] who supported it, elected it and faith in it.

After the election Trudeau and like-minded MPs, candidates and activists held a 3-day retreat to discuss what to do next.

He freely admits that merger between the Liberals and the NDP (Canada’s Labour Party, who had come second in the election) was seriously considered. Such a move was endorsed by former Liberal Prime Ministers and former NDP leaders. Some said it was the only way to beat the Tories under first-past-the-post.

They also considered starting a completely new party without negative baggage associated with the Liberals.  Trudeau writes:

Was the Liberal Party in the way?  Did our continued existence perpetuate Conservative rule and therefore imperil much of what [we] had fought for?

A hard pragmatic view led to the conclusion that a brand new party could not build the infrastructure to win the next election. He and his colleagues would instead fight for leadership of the Liberal Party and reform it  – a project which was ultimately successful in Trudeau becoming Prime Minister at the next election.

The key point is that the group were not focussed on tribal loyalty to the Liberal Party as an end itself.  Trudeau argues that a self-centred attitude within the party is what had led to its downfall. The party’s focus had to be on the public not on the party.

If we were going to win back their trust, we were going to have to earn it.  We had to prove we were in it for the.  We needed a new mission, new ideas and new people.  The first step was to refocus the party’s mission where it belongs: on the needs, hopes and dreams of ordinary people.

The “something else”, once merger or a new party is rejected, is focussing on voters.  Looking out instead of in, reconnecting party and public.

“Common Ground” is a book to add to your summer reading list.

* Antony Hook was #2 on the South East European list in 2014, is the English Party's representative on the Federal Executive and produces this sites EU Referendum Roundup.

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  • Cllr Steve Radford 7th May '16 - 10:49am

    shame Liberals didn’t do the same under Steel rather than the SDP Alliance mess

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 7th May '16 - 11:25am

    I am not sure David Steel’s position was anything like the Canadians’ position in 2011. Charles Kennedy’s position at the Lib Dem high in 2005 was more similar to it in vote and seat share.

    Canadian Liberal success has been based on building a bigger tent, which is what the Alliance did.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 7th May '16 - 4:58pm

    No to Steve, Yes to Antony , a bit of both to Justin !

    We need to learn from like minded parties and people .But be careful with Trudeau analogy .His illiberal stance on disallowing any Liberal candidate to be selected who does not support the abortion law of his fathers era , the most odd law in the western world , in that it has no limits to it at all , and , not allow a conscience vote , is appalling.His manner during his insistence on his policy , arrogant .I favour legal abortion.I also favour a Liberal approach to voting with principle .The decision by Trudeau revealed much more interest in ramming the one home at the expense of the other.People criticise Cleggism, and Blairism,I think Trudeauism far less aware of the traditions of the party philosophy at times , apart from loyalty to his father .

  • Steve Comer 8th May '16 - 8:54am

    Let us not forget that the Liberal Democrats post-1992 also succeeded in ‘building a bigger tent.’ In 1997 we picked up a lot of tactical anti-Tory votes, but by 2001, we were staring to build up a core group of voters for whom we were first choice.
    This accelerated after the Iraq war and was most notable in 2005. That year we won seats like Cardiff Central, Bristol West, Cambridge, Manchester Withington. Leeds NE etc. These all had a similar demographic of younger more educated voters who would never vote Conservative. Many worked in the Publis Sector or in small professional businesses.

    We held onto those voters in 2010, but after that we sent out a message that we didn’t care about them, that we were anti-public sector workers, and believed shrinking the state, privatisation, and cuts were the only way. It wasn’t just the Coalition, or tuition fees, it was our cavalier attitude to public sector pensions and redundancy terms.
    To quote Max Boyce ” I know because I was there was there”, as a Lead Member on the LGA Lib Dem Group, and as a member of the National Executive of the Public and Commercial Services Union.

    I think we can learn a lot from the success of “the grits” in Canada, Several years ago I read a book called “The Big Red Machine: How the Liberal Party Dominates Canadian Politics.” It was written before the Trudeau revival, but is still worth a read: https://www.amazon.ca/Big-Red-Machine-Dominates-Canadian/dp/077481196X

  • Bill le Breton 8th May '16 - 9:35am

    Here is good advice, “The first step was to refocus the party’s mission where it belongs: on the needs, hopes and dreams of ordinary people.”

    Anybody, any Party, doing that at the moment?

    We’d expect them to be successful if they were, wouldn’t we?

    We are not going to like the answer …. the answer is the SNP.

    Told you, we wouldn’t like it. We may not like many of the policies of the SNP, but they have tapped very successfully into the strong feeling that the Westminster elite are all about feathering their own nest.

    And we are branded with that image as much as the Tories and Labour.

    To take Trudeau’s advice we would have to find again our anti-Establishment credentials – reject Westminsterism.

    We have the right leader to do that. But everyone has become so ‘established’ … it permeates everything we say – and the way we say it – every policy, every stance.

    Based on what we have done in the last 12 months and how we are reacting over the last two of three days, I don’t think we have it in us to do that. We have forgotten what we knew. We have lost our way and still don’t realise it, let alone be willing to realise it.

    Are we ready to learn from the SNP?

  • Sue Sutherland 8th May '16 - 6:05pm

    I agree with Bill. The SNP have given people hope and were wise in the way they challenged Westminster’s traditions as soon as they arrived. I also think the idea of the 3 day retreat is an excellent one.

  • Steve Comer 9th May '16 - 8:23am

    Well said Bill.
    The SNP have succeeded in hoover up most of the centre-left vote in Scotland,whilst convincing many former Labour and Lib Dem voters that they will stand up for them and the unionist parties will not.

  • Bill le Breton 9th May '16 - 8:35am

    Steve, great to see you here in recent days.

  • Neale Upstone 9th May '16 - 10:58am

    We need strong leadership if we are to achieve what JT did in Canada. Frankly I cannot see this happening while we are so cowardly around the economic reforms we need to make to give us a safe, fair and prosperous future.

    The only parties in this country that are standing out from the establishment (monarchy, banking, London-centric) at the moment are the Greens and the SNP.

    It often pains me to recall the preamble to our constitution and compare that to our economic policy, and things like the support for the London is all that matters HS2 (signed off by one our our own – against party policy).

    I cannot believe we have yet another policy working group looking at a fragment of economic policy.

    Until we acknowledge as a party that we need root and branch reform of our money supply (a fight worth having with the EU); our tax system (to tax the free lunch not work) and our benefits system (to give people a basic income without a demeaning battle at a job centre), we’re going to continue as “also rans” seeking opportunity in oppositionism rather than progress from principle.

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