What the Liberal Democrats could learn from Obama, Sanders and Trudeau

Justin Trudeau by Canadian Pacific CCL FlickrAs a young American woman who has interned in the Canadian Parliament, volunteered for American campaigns and is now working in the British Parliament, it has been interesting following the 2015 British Parliamentary elections through a variety of lenses. The recent change of government in Canada and the ongoing presidential election in the United States seem worth unpacking, in order to delve into possible lessons which could be learned by Liberal Democrats from these other spaces.

I propose that there are lessons worth learning from two American Democrats, President Obama and Bernie Sanders, as well as Canada’s new Prime Minister Trudeau. For the former, the reasons may be self-evident. President Obama rose from a relatively unknown position into an incredibly influential presidency. For Bernie Sanders, it is worth understanding how another political outsider has once again come to challenge Hillary Clinton in her bid for the presidency. Though he will likely lose the primary, Mr. Sanders has been a formidable opponent from a stance that rarely would be noticed in the United States. With regards to the Canadian elections, I would like to explore the ways in which a party can move from a third-party position into a powerful government in the way the Liberals have done under Trudeau.

There are three characteristics which President Obama and Bernie Sanders have shared in their campaigns: they excel in grassroots organising, they offer clear messages of hope, and their platforms are cohesive. The first point, grassroots organising, is something which Liberal Democrats would benefit from greatly. Bringing staunch supporters out to volunteer in elections is a powerful force to reckon with, especially in university areas. In my home state, Ohio, both Obama and Sanders effectively coordinated university students to participate in the electoral process as vocal volunteers. From what I have seen, it seems that the Liberal Democrats could recruit a significant amount of volunteers from universities for the 2020 elections. This is a lesson sorely learned by the Liberal Democrats in the aftermath of the 2010 elections.  Understanding the implications of reversing stances on university tuition prices is a hard lesson, but it does offer a high incentive for maintaining consistency in the future.

Hope for change in the future of politics has also driven these American campaigns. In 2008, Barack Obama campaigned powerfully with a message of hope for change in the future. Today, in 2016, Sanders is using this same message to shape all his policies. Sanders has taken the frustration of American people with mainstream politics and channelled it into a focused campaign for change. As the United Kingdom faces tough decisions over the next year regarding the refugee crisis, the possibility of a Brexit, and shifts in benefits and so forth, there will likely be a significant growth in the proportion of constituents hoping for change. The Liberal Democrats can choose to be this voice, pointing to a bright future.

Finally, it is important to understand how a clear message benefitted the campaigns for both Obama and Sanders. This last point is especially important to consider. As Liberal Democrats conduct business for the remaining duration of this Parliament, the party should strive to maintain a clear, cohesive message for constituents that will provide ample room for the electorate to feel empowered and encouraged.

As for the Canadian interpretation of events, I think it is imperative to understand that a third-party can make a sweeping comeback into Government. The Liberal party took a significant hit in the 2012 Canadian election.  They became the third party as the NDP swept into opposition. Yet today, the Liberal party once again holds a majority Government.  There is a strong message here for Liberal Democrats in the UK: never give up hope!

* Anne Curie works for Lord Roger Roberts

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Tony Dawson 18th Mar '16 - 2:56pm

    It takes more than hope. It takes a Leader who is prepared to lead and give inspiration! And that doesn’t just mean ‘better than the last one’. It demands a quantum leap.

  • The trouble is that to so many of the people the Lib Dems need to connect with is that this is the party of ‘No More Broken promises’ the party of Tuition fees and the dreaded Bedroom Tax. I think engaging those voters is almost impossible. Maybe it really is all over.

  • It’s nice to have hope, but in reality the British Lib Dems are not in the same league as the American Democrats or Canadian Liberals. Our Lib Dems would count 4th place in any of the upcoming assembly elections as a success, they are miles behind.

  • Matt (Bristol) 18th Mar '16 - 3:11pm

    I want to agree with Alex H, and the positive aspects of this article. A positive vision of hope for change is sorely lacking, and I hope we are the party that can articulate it.

    But progressive politics is so shattered in the UK right now, we may only be able to make that case in alliance with other voices on the left and centre, as we will not be trusted or heard if we make it on our own. A genuine coalition of voices of that nature is something we haven’t yet built, and we may not genuinely want to.

    I don’t know if I go all the way with Malc, but he is right that due to a solid history within recent memory of being seen and respected as a viable ‘safe pair of hands’ in government, both the Canadian Liberals and the US Democrats are starting form a long way above us.

    In particular, Justin Trudeau’s name itself is a remind of a recent past of strong, popular leadership, in the form of his father. At a UK wide level, we share none of those advantages, although we do have (or we had) the street-fighting characteristics of Bernie and Obama. But do we have the internet-based, direct person-to-person cash-raising ability that they have? I suspect it is the UK Greens who have learnt from that textbook, and not (or not always) ourselves.

  • Thomas Shakespeare 18th Mar '16 - 6:25pm

    @Tony- Personally I think Tim is a great, inspirational leader who can communicate what it is to be a Lib Dem better than anyone else I know of. The assertion that Tim does not have the capacity to inspire seems totally unfounded. He was elected with a 10% margin, totally democratically, less than a year ago. Perhaps it’s time for the whole party to respect that result, regardless of one’s own stance, and get on with campaigning for a liberal democratic country?

    I would add that we are a democratic party with a tight-knit parliamentary group (doublespeak there, I’m afraid 😉 ) ! With just 8 MPs Commons decisions will always be made collaboratively. When you have 8 colleagues in the commons, ruling by decree is not a wise move, nor is it productive.

    Re your prior comment, credibility starts from the grass roots up. Why did our 8 MPs hang on to their seats? In no small part because they are true grassroots politicians who stand up for local people. That is something we need to emulate at every level – from the Lords to the London Assembly to district councils. If we want to get back to 50 MPs, which will take years – I make no bones about that – we need to get on and do what we do best. Campaigning. Changing Britain from the grassroots up.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Mar '16 - 12:25am

    There’s not much to learn from Bernie Sanders. If we include him then may as well include Ted Cruz for ruthless voter targeting and use of humour, or Donald Trump for getting the media to run so much of his campaign.

    I’ve got a small problem with Bernie because I think he has based too much of his campaign on hate for bankers and as the Washington Post called it: Bernie’s fiction filled campaign.

    Thanks for writing to us though. I’m in a reflective mood, seeing people on Facebook call Iain Duncan Smith evil and wondering if I fit their definition of evil. Good job I mainly only post my political opinions on Twitter and here.

    Not very impressed with Trudeau either, but Obama is a hero of mine.

  • Neil Sandison 19th Mar '16 - 4:22pm

    Being Liberal is not a sin .being fair ,open minded, democratic and inclusive is a badge of honour not a cross to bear .Keep in line with the preamble of our constitution and be proud to be a liberal democrat .

  • Geofrey Payne 20th Mar '16 - 8:19am

    The key point about Obama, Sanders and Trudeau is that they are transformative politicians. Once you capture the public imagination and have some momentum behind you then you can do these things and they work. Can Tim acheive that? I don’t know. He needs to get himself noticed and I suspect that means he should stop listening to those who persuaded him to support replacing Trident.

  • If only the Lib Dems had 1% of the inspiration of Bernie. The fact that the Lib Dems refuse to talk about the banks, fixing financial capitalism, and are blunt about class and inequality in Britain, mean that they are destined for perhaps permanent irrelevance. Silvio is probably right.

  • Richard Underhill 27th Mar '16 - 7:06pm

    Senator Edward Kennedy was the great expert on health care reform, as Hillary Clinton commented in her memoir on her time as First Lady. It is shocking that the USA is the only advanced western country to lack universal health care. The BBC TV series on President Obama shows him struggling to legislate in his first term, at a time when the Democrats had a majority in both houses of Congress. Seven US Presidents had failed, but Obama was determined to succeed.
    The death from cancer of Senator Kennedy was expected, but his seat was the safest in the USA for the Democrats. In a Special Election (by-election) they lost it, thereby endangering the entire policy for the people of the USA, including seven million who had no health cover. The candidate takes the blame for unwise statement/s about a popular sporting team (Red Socks). Obama campaigned for her, but was unable to save her. Republican opponents made gains in the mid-term elections, including the Speaker (leader) of the House of Representatives from Nancy Pelosi.
    Obama was keeping a manifesto promise. When Bill Clinton suffered similar losses in his first term he was breaking a manifesto promise not to raise taxes, according to Hillary Clinton’s memoir. She will have learned from both experiences. She needs to do more than win the Presidential (general) election, she needs to make gains in Congress.

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