It is perhaps too soon to judge the impact of the Liberal Party of Canada's ideas meeting, held in Montreal last month. A fascinating exercise, it was never intended as a policy conference per se. The announcement on its final day by Leader Michael Ignatieff, that the Liberals would freeze corporate tax rates and cut the deficit to about $17-billion within two years of being elected, was rote. Policy, especially attention-grabbing policy, is something the Liberals haven't done very well for some time; where they do stand for something, it is usually wedded to doctrine associated with past glories. That can change, and it is possible the ideas meeting will help, but in addressing their policy deficit, Liberals should closely study the performance of the Conservative Party in the current British election.
It is hard to accept that Conservative Leader David Cameron has been criticized in the U.K. for an alleged failure to stand for something; next to Canada's loyal opposition, the Conservative Policy Unit is a veritable world-class think tank. The Conservative manifesto is inspired, with arresting policy on everything from health care and education that supports an overarching drive to redistribute power from the state to citizens - its so-called "post-bureaucratic age" - to a visionary plan for a "National Citizen Service" for 16-year-olds that just might succeed in making disaffected teenagers better, more engaged, citizens. All of this supports the claim by Mr. Cameron, in Thursday's Guardian, that "there has been a strange reversal in British politics. Labour have become a reactionary force while the Conservatives are today the radicals."
Even with positive poll numbers and a clearly exhausted Labour Party under Gordon Brown, Mr. Cameron has a challenge before him. But the leader's own youth doesn't hurt. Nor does the sense of fun the Conservatives are clearly having, producing a series of wry, stylish, political posters like "Labour: Telling people what to do since 1997" and "Bye, bye bureaucrats." Alongside this impulse for less government, there is also a carefully cultivated image of moderation, which makes it feasible for Mr. Cameron to reach out to the Guardian's centre-left readership. There may yet prove to be scary monsters in the closet, but British Conservatives present, to use Mr. Cameron's own words, as "a progressive party in tune with the modern world," and the policies match the rhetoric. Canadian Liberals have much to learn.