December 10, 2019

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Hopes for a Liberal revival are fading

In recent months, much airtime has been given to the Liberal party's decline behind the NDP in the polls. Interest in the Liberal slump is understandable. The party was in power for so long, having won 18 of the 28 federal elections held since the expansion of the franchise in 1918, that it was referred to as Canada's "natural governing party." Liberal revival will therefore signal a return to a federal politics that is very familiar. But continued Liberal decline will indicate Canadian politics has fundamentally transformed, and that we have as a country entered uncharted electoral territory.

I have substantial doubt about the Liberal party's ability to bounce back from the shellacking it received in the 2011 election. There are several reasons for this.

First, the 2011 defeat is unlike previous Liberal defeats. The Liberals have been in power for so long in Canadian history that their defeats (notably the 1911, 1930, 1957, 1984 elections) have been momentous, remarkable occasions. But 2011 produced a far worse result for the party — just 19 per cent of the popular vote, below even John Turner's share of 28 per cent in the 1984 debacle.

As well, in the past, the pattern was for the Liberals to lose but then quickly return to power within one or two elections. To use the same example, the party lost badly in 1984 but, two elections later, was back in power with a majority government.

In contrast, the pattern for the present-day Liberals is the opposite. Since their defeat in the 2006 election, the Liberals have consistently moved further from, rather than closer to, being back in power.

In part, this departure from the historical norm reflects the party's response to its defeat in the 2006 election. Following past defeats, Liberals quickly mobilized to address organizational problems that existed in the party. Re-election followed shortly thereafter.

My impression of the party after 2006, however, was that Liberals dawdled, sure that Canadians would soon return home to the party once they found the magical leader who would solve all their problems. It was only after 2011 that the party seriously engaged with the question of organizational reform. It may now be too late for those reforms to make much of a difference.

Perhaps more damagingly, the 2011 result is not an aberration, but rather the culmination of a very long-term decline in Liberal support in Canada.

To demonstrate this, one only need look at the average vote shares received by the great Liberal leaders while they were in government. Under Wilfrid Laurier, the party won an average of 50 per cent of the vote in its winning elections. Under Mackenzie King and Louis St. Laurent, that average had declined to 46 per cent. Trudeau's time in office saw that average fall further to 43 per cent. Under Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, the Liberal party average fell to 39 per cent. From 2006 onward, the party has averaged 25 per cent of the popular vote.

Against this historical backdrop of decline, Chrétien's three majority governments seem less like a triumph and more like the party's last gasp. Chrétien relied in part on vote-splitting between the right-of-centre parties to win. But once the right-of-centre parties got their act together, the Liberals' hold on power quickly crumbled.

Furthermore, by losing so badly in 2011, and with their ability to form government seriously in doubt, the Liberal party seems to have lost much of its reason to exist. The Liberal party has always been a pragmatic party, its priority being to both win and govern rather than have a strictly coherent set of policies that were vigorously implemented once in office.

The Liberals may not have given their supporters much in the way of policy rewards. But they made up for this by winning so often, providing supporters with access to power in a way the Conservative party and NDP never could. But with its reputation for inevitable power seemingly gone, what can the party now offer potential supporters?

In addition, the Liberal party is caught in a spiral in which continued electoral failure makes it more and more difficult for the party to revitalize. This is because the party has always attracted its most talented elites explicitly because it was seen as the ideal vehicle in which to ride directly into government.

It is doubtful Pierre Trudeau, for example, would ever have thrown his lot in with the party in its current state.

There is, however, one silver lining here. Despite its losses, the Liberal party still seems able to attract well-known or even star candidates. These include, for example, former general Andrew Leslie, former Toronto police chief Bill Blair and, in Winnipeg, former councillor Dan Vandal and mayoral candidate Robert Falcon-Ouellette.

The presence of strong candidates suggests that, despite its failures, not everyone has given up hope the party can return to power. The Liberal brand still has draw. But if this talent pool dries up in the near future, it may indicate history has indeed turned the page on the Liberal party's days as a party of government in Canada.


Royce Koop is an associate professor in the department of political studies at the University of Manitoba.


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Updated on Wednesday, July 29, 2015 at 8:17 AM CDT: Corrects spelling of name.

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