Throughout the long salad days of the Liberal Party of Canada, it stood for many important things. It still stands for these things, but they’re either less important now or have been adopted by other parties, leaving the Liberals as only one voice among many.
From the time of Clifford Sifton in Wilfrid Laurier’s government, Liberals were the immigrants’ party. They backed a more open immigration policy than the Conservatives, who tended to be the party of white Protestants with a few Irish Catholics. Now there’s an all-party consensus on immigration, and the Conservatives, having starting driving up immigration levels under Brian Mulroney, fight for immigrant votes even more forcefully than Liberals.
Liberals were the bridging party between Quebec and the rest of Canada, and between francophones and anglophones. Quebec has now faded from the consciousness of other Canadians, and vice versa. The relationship is so distant as to have become more mutually tolerable, so there’s neither a crisis nor much interest in bridges, which means not much interest in a party that usually stood for a strong central government.
The Liberals were the classic middle-class party, although they had plenty of wealthy supporters and used to win more trade union votes than the NDP. The middle class, however, has been under tremendous financial squeeze. Its numbers are shrinking as income inequalities widen. The pressures on middle-class families make them want to keep more of what they earn, precisely the pitch Conservatives have successfully made to them.
Liberals were always the party of Canadian nationalism, but Conservatives are busy creating their own identification with historic, national symbols: the military, the monarchy, old wars and former Conservative prime ministers. And Canadian nationalism, which seemed to need nurturing for so long, has become ubiquitous, boisterous and self-confident, the property of no party any more.
All these, and other, trends have been eating at the Liberal Party for a long time. Think of the chunks that have fallen away from the once-formidable Liberal coalition: francophones outside Quebec, many multicultural Canadians, blue-collar workers in the industrial cities of Ontario, federalist francophones in Quebec, Jews, Atlantic Canadians in cities such as St. John’s, Halifax, Moncton and Saint John, the “business” Liberals from Toronto. It was an impressive coalition, malleable when necessary, mobilized around the broad ideas for which Liberals stood.
It’s early days since the shellacking of the last election for the remains of the party to gather in convention, as will happen this weekend in Ottawa. Everything remains temporary about the Liberals: its “interim” leader, Bob Rae; its sense of policy direction; its building up (if possible) of a better fundraising machine; its national executive.
It’s easy to be critical of this state of suspended uncertainty, but what else would one reasonably expect from a party trying to pick itself up from the mat? The country is four years from an election, and all speculation about the political future is futile.
A pessimist would say that the country has passed the Liberals by; that the West is ascendant and the Liberals have not spoken to that region for several generations; that Quebec no longer cares; that the lower middle class is largely lost; that the Liberals have become, as the British Liberals once were, a collection of intellectuals and individualists who get elected here and there and raise intriguing ideas but have neither the cohesion nor rootedness in any one place to contend for power.
And all this might be true, save for the possibilities of hope to which Liberals might cling – that the NDP leadership candidates are deeply traditionalist in their thinking, with none offering a broadening of the party’s appeal; that the Harper government, despite its huge advantages, can’t break above 40 per cent in the polls and seems determined to govern in the most polarizing ways possible; that Canada remains a fundamentally pragmatic, non-ideological kind of political entity; that the Liberals have served up two less-than-inspiring leaders in succession and can’t do worse the next time; and that, at the next election, the Conservatives will have been in office for roughly 10 years, when the democratic instincts for change can imperil any party’s grip on power.