Understanding Differences in the Canadian and UK Liberal General Election Strategies in 2015.

I recently reviewed Kenneth Carty’s “Big Tent Politics, the Liberal Party’s Long Mastery of Canada’s Public Life”, which was published after Justin Trudeau had become Liberal leader but before his sensational win in the General Election.  Liberals went from 34 seats to 184 seats and majority government.

As I noted in the review of Carty’s book, in his analysis the key planks of Liberal dominance of Canadian politics were expressing liberal values as national identity (being Canadian and liberal are the same thing, and we alone speak for all parts of the country), having a winner’s mentality (we will do whatever it takes to win, such as dropping unpopular policies even if they are close to the party’s heart), being a brokerage party (a big party that brings different groups together and finds fair compromises between their interests), and having popular leaders who build up a successor to hand over to.

This chart plots opinion polls throughout the 2015 election campaign and the rise from 3rd to 1st place.



To help understand the story of this  election I read Christian Basu’s “One Voter’s Diary”.  Basu is a Canadian blogger.  He has a background as a financial trader and author but worked for the elections commission on their helpdesk during the campaign (answering voters’ questions about where and how to vote, and so on).  He says he has generally voted Conservative but doesn’t see himself as a die-hard Tory.  He was briefly a Conservative member but only attended one meeting.

His diary is not a campaign insider’s account.  It is a daily account purely from a voter’s point of view.  He records the parties seemed to be doing each day, what was reported in the media, what polls indicated, how televised debates went and how social media was reacting or influencing the campaign. It makes for a fascinating account.

The common ground between the Canadian Liberals and British Liberal Democrats’ values is clear.  But it was also clear to me that in 2015 the parties approach General Elections in very different ways.

Of course we had different starting points.  We were in coalition government.  They were in opposition.  Both of us were in third place with a similar vote share and proportion of seats at the last election (2010 here, 2011 there).  They went into the election around 20% in the polls, we were down around 8%.

Basu’s book made apparent to me differences in positioning in the course of the campaign:

UK Liberal Democrats 2015 campaign Canadian Liberals 2015 Campaign
Tax We will cut tax for the lowest paid. We will tax the richest 1% more.  We will cut taxes for the middle class.
The deficit We will continue to cut the deficit. We have started work on this in coalition. We might run a deficit if we take office.  The key thing is to invest in the things that will create growth in the long term.
If no party wins a majority We won’t work with the SNP.

We might work with Conservatives or Labour.

We won’t work with the Conservatives.

We could work with the NDP or Greens.

Basu’s book may be an interesting addition to summer reading lists.




* 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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  • kevin colwill 29th Jun '16 - 9:36pm

    As a old school Westcountry Liberal I’ve always had much more common cause with the mainstream Labour opinion than with the Tories, even David Cameron’s version of the Tories. The field is opening up for a socially liberal, radical and above all progressive voice to counter the rise of the populist right both inside and outside the conservative party.
    I’ve no idea where Labour are going. It’s unimaginable that Labour MPs who have no confidence in Corbyn as their party leader could campaign for him to be Prime Minister. i can’t believe the Unions will let that happen but I didn’t believe a lot of things that have happened in the last week.
    The Lib Dem party should be in contact with disaffected senior figures in Labour to offer them a Plan B should Corbyn fight on and retain the leadership of their party. I’d suggest that Plan B should be co-operation in what remains of this parliament and a an electoral alliance where Lib Dems do not stand against anti-Corbyn Labour MP’s.
    The quid pro quo being the obvious. An agreement to work towards a change the voting system to reflect the will of the people and not dictatorship by whoever gets the better in the FPTP system.

  • Why is it why don’t like the SNP more than we don’t like the Tories and Labour? Independence aside.

    As to Labour’s problems there’s probably one person likely to be less successful than Corbyn at inspiring the voters and that’s Angela Eagle. All the dynamism of a dead snail. The anti-Corbynistas are a very broad church from left and right. I don’t think we should be doing any pre-election deals with people that could be very opposed to a Lib Dem agenda. And the people chose FPTP over a fairer system – that’s democracy.

  • Kevin colwill 29th Jun '16 - 11:34pm

    “And the people chose FPTP over a fairer system – that’s democracy” but it’s not set in stone like some unchanging law of physics. One think I take my hat off to the hard core Eurosceptics about is their resilience and perseverance. They had convictions and stuck with them over decades. Eventually they built a broad coalition to deliver their objective.
    PR may seem like an unpopular idea of esoteric interest but then so did Brexit. The politics as normal may return quick enough or we may have had a paradigm shift. There may be small l liberals in Labour unwilling to march to oblivion with Jezza and equally unwilling to accept steal Ukip’s clothes in order to sure up the core vote.
    It may be just the opinion of misty eyed old man but the choas of the referendum demonstrated to me that progressive voices need to work together or right wing populism takes over.

  • Stevan

    Because they’ve destroyed the us in Scotland?! More seriously I think it’s more that many of their policies seem to focus on centralising control/power, eg having a centralised state focused on Holyrood, rather than devolving power to the Scottish regions.

  • Bill le Breton 30th Jun '16 - 8:14am

    This is a very helpful piece. It seems to me to show clearly that ‘positioning’was the key difference between these two ‘sister’ parties.

    Gordon Lishman has recently written a very useful’essay’ that also explains why the UK Liberal Democrats came to position itself in an environment in which Tory values had triumphed over the last 30 years. http://www.socialliberal.net/social_liberal_response_to_the_eu_referendum

    When you try to position yourself at the ‘centre’ of something you lose control of your position. What appeared in 2007 to be the centre was unrecognizable as the centre when the views and values of Roy Jenkins or Jo Grimond were thought to represent its character in the mid 1970s.

    I am not sure that Canada was isolated from this movement of the ‘centre’ . Our sister party just decided to pitch its tent according to core Liberal values and not at some point defined by others as the ‘new centre of politics’. That is confirmed by the ‘differences’ in policies listed above.

    Of course our ‘values’ and the policies they produced for the 2015 General Election were also at work during our time in Government, especially in the first two years. So the UK public had a ‘record’ of the effects of our values, as well as their latest expression when they voted in 2015.

    On top of this, those values also influenced our campaigning style from 2007. We abandoned how we campaigned in the decades running up to and including 2005, because those in charge were not driven by the values that had underpinned the philosophy behind that campaigning. They saw it as a technique without a’soul’ and implanting a mechanism – that of the 2010-15 ‘centre ground’ – it was a different spirit, and one that gelled neither with the activists nor with the electorate.

  • Stephen Booth 30th Jun '16 - 8:21am

    The Canadian result is interesting but drawing conclusions from other countries’ election campaigns can be misleading. By our standards the Canadian electorate must be far more volatile. A moments glance at the opinon polls chart confirms this. I cannot recall in 50 years of general elections in the UK anything like the shifts shown in this chart, and over just 3 months. What caused it I can only guess. Canada is an enormous country and maybe the “good news” about the Liberals too awhile to reach local newspapers in the furthest corners. More info needed please.

  • @Bill le Breton

    I totally agree – well said.

  • Bill le Breton 30th Jun '16 - 8:37am

    I campaigned for the Liberal Party first in the February 1974 election. Back in the UK from a spell abroad, in the late 70s I campaigned for the Party again running up to the 1979 election and actually stood for election to a Borough Council on the same day. We won and I found myself in a controlling group. Within two years I was Leader of the Council, possibly the only council the Liberal Party controlled at that time.

    I say this to explain what then happened to an ordinary person who identified with the Liberal Party but who had no experience of University politics or any knowledge of Liberal history and philosophy. I was lucky in that Peter Chegwyn and Roger Hayes were also in that group – both superb campaigners and champions of Liberalism. They introduced me to ALC where I met other superb campaigners and champions of Liberalism – the two went hand in hand. They shared a common cause – they were members of a movement that practiced Community Politics. This was my Liberal apprenticeship. One that continues to today. I am still an apprentice. I have been fortunate with my ‘masters’ and ‘mistresses’ and the lessons I gained from them.

    Some context: I met Paddy Ashdown years before he was an MP. He too was a campaigner and a champion of Liberalism. He would not have won in Yeovil without being both- they were two sides of the same coin.

    Somewhere along the line the link between campaigning and Liberalism fractured and was lost. For example Clegg and Laws are Liberals of the old school. They are not campaigners and a community politicians, They are utterly different to me.

    Why is that relevant? Because I and people from my tradition are no longer representative the typical Liberal Democrat who is more like Clegg than like those who gave me my apprenticeship. Here’s Gordon Lishman again:

    “Justin Trudeau appealed to voters in a country where people shared his liberal vision and attitudes and even his opponents knew that they had to fight on that territory. In England, we have lost that battle over many years. A successful liberal government can only be based on a country with liberal values at its heart. “

  • Bill le Breton 30th Jun '16 - 8:39am

    Thank you Nick.

    Finally, Again, here is Gordon; “That means campaigning on liberal issues at every level and using the respect we earn locally to build support for a liberal vision based on social justice, human dignity and respect for others. It also means turning our party into a debate about how to achieve those things, arguing ideas and policies through with liberals throughout the country and with everybody else. It is not about tailoring manifestos to existing prejudices, avoiding difficult issues on doorsteps and “getting out the vote”.

  • Simon Banks 5th Jul '16 - 5:06pm

    Does “middle class” in Canada mean what it does in the UK – reasonably well-off business, managerial and professional people and people studying or retired on comfortable incomes – or what it does in the US – the working class but not the underclass?

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