November 27th, 2013 | 45 Comments
[Welcome, National Newswatch readers!]
While Justin Trudeau's Liberals are trying to shape an economic policy that "builds from the middle out", the political challenge they face is to rebuild their party's vote-share from the centre out.
During the last general election, as John Ivision and others reported at the time, the Liberals' objective was to pursue a two-election strategy in which they would roll over the NDP in 2011, and then having consolidated the centre-left could turn rightwards and defeat a new Conservative leader in 2015. This was the strategy advocated by then-Ignatieff chief-of-staff Peter Donolo, the bulk of whose political experience came in the NDP-less era from 1993 forward, and who readily admits now that they underestimated the NDP in the lead up to the 2011 campaign.
Others have pointed to the lack of fit between the more blue-Liberal vibe of leader Michael Ignatieff and the nod-left tone of the party's "Family Pack" platform. If the party wanted to shift to the left to pick up NDP seats, undoubtedly they had the wrong leader to do so. But at the end of the day, it was exposing their flank to the right that was more costly to the party's seat count on May 2.
There was certainly more positioning than policy being considered during the Liberal leadership race of 2012-13, with the exception of Deborah Coyne who laid out extensive policy options, Joyce Murray who staked out clear policy positions and electoral strategy on the party's left, and Martha Hall Findlay who explicitly advocated a blue Liberal shift, having personally paid the price for lack of sufficient right-ward defences as her Willowdale seat fell along with sufficient others in north Toronto and the 905 to give the Conservatives their majority.
The approach of the Trudeau leadership campaign was for the most part to defer the left-vs-right decision as long as possible, by emphasizing values of Liberal pride, and "hope and hard work", rather than stake out policy positions that could constrain their options down the road. And what policy positions Trudeau did advocate were balanced off against one another. For a position against Northern Gateway, there was support for Keystone XL. For a strongly free trade orientation, there was opposition to ending supply management.
More recently, it has become clear to some observers (not only me) that the Liberals are orienting themselves economically more towards the right. This is a wise decision on their part, given the current weakness of the Conservative government, and also the availability of seats that should be low-hanging fruit for them that the NDP is unlikely to contest on a priority basis. Think Willowdale, but also Eglinton-Lawrence, York Centre, Thornhill, Newmarket, Vaughan, Oak Ridges, Halton, Oakville, Burlington, Wellington-Halton Hills … pretty much any seat with high average incomes and educational attainments, and no historic working class or social democratic voting traditions.
Even in Toronto Centre on Monday, the Liberal margin was bolstered generously from the Liberal-Conservative swing polls in Rosedale, while the NDP added to its strength south of Bloor and otherwise defended its base vote which should be sufficient to win the seat on its new boundaries in 2015.
To the extent that Justin Trudeau's election night remarks about Jack Layton were premeditated rather than ad-libbed, I'm guessing that this clear on-going effort to usurp the upbeat positioning of Barack Obama, personified by Jack Layton in Canada until his recent death, is a key part of the Liberals' play towards their left flank (along with the legalization of marijuana). Again, it's their best play, particularly given the sunny magnetism and youthful demeanour of their new leader, who is strong on the hustings if not in the House. But it did not prove sufficient to collapse the NDP vote in either of the central Canadian by-election seats.
Where Trudeau went too far on Monday night, was in explicitly trying to claim Jack Layton's mantle so soon after his death (and if you doubt the continued depth of feeling about this on the orange team, you haven't watched how your orange friends' Facebook feeds change every year on May 2, August 22 or any of the other meaningful anniversaries). First of all, it was an over-reach of Quayle-an proportions in the sense that if you have to say you're the next Layton instead of simply showing it, the proposition suddenly becomes ridiculous. Secondly, it showed Trudeau not to be a gracious winner (the way Layton had always been) and incapable of observing the gentleman's convention that election nights are for marking the temporary end of hostilities, to allow the parliamentary process to proceed.
But with more far-reaching consequences, Trudeau's comments touched a nerve within a party that has to this point maintained a disciplined public face of solidarity even as it grappled with its own changing of the guard. He at once thoroughly galvanized his competitors for the centre-left behind leader Tom Mulcair, and caused real damage to any future working relationship between the two opposition parties. These are mistakes the far more strategically adroit Layton would never have made, as he prized above-all his ability to work across party lines.
Looking ahead, there are seats the Liberals' growth at the expense of the Conservatives makes easier for them to win (such as the two-way races listed above), and others where it puts the NDP in a better position to win (Saskatchewan, southwest Ontario, and the interior of BC for example). The shadow cast by unpopular provincial governments mid-term will be felt more by the Liberals in 2015 (think Nova Scotia and BC) than by the NDP (as this past month in Manitoba). If the Liberals pursue their current path, and the government continues to suffer under the weight of its own scandals, they could see the Canadian political spectrum reshaped into a Liberal-vs-NDP contest with the Conservatives holding up the rear as a third party: arguably a better reflection of the range of Canadian political views that we have at present.
On the other hand, if they try to fight on two fronts simultaneously, any mistake could see them squeezed from both sides.