A year from now, will there still be a Liberal Party in power anywhere outside Prince Edward Island?
If a party is not in power federally or in any large province, is it still a major party? Or is it just an older, more venerable equivalent of the Greens?
These are the questions-of-existence that Liberals face across Canada. Salvation, if the party is to be saved, lies in a number: 20,000.
Before we get to that number, a quick tour. At the national level, not only are the Liberals leaderless and struggling to attract the support of even one voter in five. The ongoing gradual elimination of public subsidies threatens the party’s ability to function.
In Quebec, Jean Charest’s Liberals trail in the polls. If they are defeated on Sept. 4, revelations of corruption from the Charbonneau Inquiry could render the brand toxic, opening the door to the CAQ or a provincial NDP as the default federalist alternative to the Parti Québécois.
In British Columbia, a new Conservative Party, led by John Cummins, threatens Liberal Premier Christy Clark from the right, even as Adrian Dix’s NDP dominates in the polls. If the Liberals lose next year’s election, the party could go the way of Social Credit, the previous conservative-in-all-but-name alternative to the NDP in B.C.
In Ontario, Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty pulled a rabbit out of the electoral hat last year, but he now heads a minority government, challenged both by Tim Hudak’s Conservatives and Andrea Horwath’s NDP.
In other provinces … actually, there are no other provinces where Liberals are in government, outside the Ghiz administration in PEI. Conservative parties of one stripe or another govern Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick. The NDP holds sway in Manitoba and Nova Scotia.
The national and provincial wings of political parties are, of course, almost completely unaffiliated. But they do share the same brand name, and that matters hugely.
Seven years ago, the Liberal brand dominated federally and in the three largest provinces. A year from now, it could be associated with power nowhere outside Green Gables. With virtually no affiliation between brand and government, how does the idea of Liberal survive?
There is a reason for this existential decline. For years, now, polls have shown that voters care about two things above all: health care and the economy.
But polls also show that voters don’t believe governments can do much to improve the quality of health care. They do believe governments influence the economy: by raising or lowering taxes, balancing budgets or running deficits, helping to create jobs or helping to lose them.
Furthermore, about four voters in 10 agree with this statement: Government policies usually do more harm than good. About six in 10 believe government can help. This is what pollsters and analysts mean when they say the Canadian electorate is polarizing.
Those 4-in-10 pessimists generally vote Conservative. The other six vote Liberal, NDP, PQ, BQ or Green. Increasingly, they appear to be inclining to the NDP as an unambiguous alternative to the laissez-faire Conservatives. This is what is killing the Liberal brand. It doesn’t identify strongly with either side of the debate. This could prove fatal.
If the Liberal brand is to be revived, the federal level is a good place to start. And that’s where that 20,000 number comes in.
This is how many people have joined the newly created category of Liberal Party supporter. These aren’t dues-paying members. They simply affirm their support for the party and its values. And they will get to vote, along with members, for the next leader. In essence, the Liberals will hold one large U.S.-style primary next April to select a new chief. Any Canadian who wants to can cast a ballot.
Depending on who runs, and how successful the candidates are at defining – or redefining – the Liberal brand, that nascent core of 20,000 supporters could grow to 200,000 or 2 million.
In that sense, who leads the Liberals after April matters less than how many people sign up as supporters. For if the party is to create a new national base, those supporters will be that base.
The future of the Liberal brand depends on what 20,000 grows to. The party will live or die by the final number. It’s as simple as that.