NO one can deny that Bob Rae, the interim leader of the once mighty Liberal party, has his work cut out for him. This summer, he criss-crossed the country speaking at breakfasts and barbecues trying to solve the conundrum he has faced since the May election left the Liberals for the first time as the third party in the House of Commons, with only 34 seats: How to rebuild the party and reconnect it with Canadian voters.
The popular vote numbers are telling. In the 2004 federal election, the Liberals, who won a minority government led by Paul Martin, received 4,982,220 votes. With Michael Ignatieff at the helm in May 2011, that figure was reduced almost by half, to 2,783,175.
Much of this loss was in the West and Quebec. In the four western provinces, the Liberals won 14 seats in 2004, averaging 28 per cent of the popular vote, yet only four seats in 2011 with an average of 12 per cent of the vote. In Quebec, a Liberal stronghold for much of the 20th century -- and where Jack Layton and the NDP won 59 of 75 seats with an impressive 42.9 per cent of the vote -- the Liberal demise was much more decisive. In 2004, Liberals won 21 seats with 33.9 per cent of the popular vote versus seven seats in 2011 and a mere 14.2 per cent of the popular vote.
So where do Bob Rae and the Liberals go from here? "Rebuilding," he said in July, "means figuring out how to make ourselves into a better fighting machine, which cannot just survive, but grow stronger even while we're out of power, and come back with the best, most modern techniques for winning the trust and support of Canadians."
The solution is not he argues merging with the NDP. "The Liberal party is a broad-based, progressive-centrist party that has historically been, you know, different than those two other parties," he has said.
As a former NDP premier of Ontario, Rae knows what he is talking about. Indeed, this dreamy notion that a new Liberal-NDP party could easily defeat Stephen Harper and the Conservatives ignores the die-hard loyalty of many Liberals and the party's long history. The assumption, moreover, that right-leaning Liberals and left-leaning NDP voters would automatically embrace a Liberal-NDP union is fallacious.
Several times the Liberals faced similar rejections at the polls. They subjected themselves to internal dissections, regrouped and won over Canadian voters again.
In the spring of 1930, Rachel Bleaney, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King's soothsayer, had assured him that should he call an election, he would be successful. Several months later, the spirits and Bleaney were proven wrong. R.B. Bennett and the Conservatives, promising to solve the developing economic crisis, won a majority. Most shocking of all to King was the loss of 20 seats in Quebec, where the Liberals had been very strong since the 1890s.
In the ensuing five years, as Bennett grappled with the Great Depression, the Liberals gradually reorganized. But it was by no means a smooth transition. King and the party were humiliated by a scandal involving secret deals and payoffs over the massive Beauharnois hydroelectric project and many high-ranking Liberals and Liberal newspaper owners and editors whispered among themselves that King's day was over.
King, who had a stubborn resolve, ignored the rumblings. He convinced business magnate Vincent Massey to head the newly revamped National Liberal Federation. Massey, in turn, with help from Norman Lambert, built up the Liberal coffers and held a conference near his estate in Port Hope, Ont., in September 1933 where an impressive group of speakers (among them Winnipeg Free Press editor John W. Dafoe) met with members of the Liberal caucus to fashion a progressive Liberal party platform. By the time of the next federal election in October 1935, King, who did not adopt as progressive polices as many Liberals wished, easily trounced Bennett and the Conservatives, the start of more than 20 years of uninterrupted Liberal rule.
Again in 1960, the party, now led by Lester Pearson, after having been beaten badly by John Diefenbaker and the Conservatives in the 1958 election, met for five days in Kingston for a "Study Conference on National Problems." The intensive get-together, engineered mainly by Toronto businessman Walter Gordon (a future Liberal finance minister), provided the framework for a revitalized Liberal party platform. Gordon also raised funds, shaped policy and hired Keith Davey, an imaginative sales and ad man, to rebuild the party's organizational and public relations structure. As Diefenbaker self-destructed in 1962, the Liberals were prepared to take advantage and did so, winning a minority government in 1963.
In 1933, and particularly in 1960, the Liberals were able to rebound because their attacks on the government were complemented by a "positive plan... informed by a coherent philosophy and a clear narrative," suggests Thomas Axworthy, the Winnipeg-born political strategist and Pierre Trudeau's principal secretary. "Serious thought, new voices and party engagement committed to improving the life chances and choices of every Canadian were the strength of Kingston," he adds. "It is a formula still relevant today."
History is not static, of course. Stephen Harper has seemed to have found the winning policies and state of mind to appeal to a broad cross section of Canadians, though his support in Quebec has yet to materialize. This might be the first area the rebuilding Liberals should target.
It is true that neither Mackenzie King nor Pearson had to worry about a nationalist party such as the Bloc Québécois taking a majority of the province's 75 seats. But the recent showing of Jack Layton and the NDP proves that with the right combination of personality and policies, it is possible for a non-nationalistic party to once more capture the hearts and votes of French-Canadians. Figuring out how to take advantage of this new political reality might just be the initial step towards yet another reincarnation of the Liberal party.
Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in an historical context. Levine's latest book, William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Life Guided by the Hand of Destiny, is published this month.