Can Liberals find sweet spot between prosperity and equality?

Special to The Globe and Mail

Those whose job it is to figure out how the Liberal Party makes more space for itself between the NDP and the Conservatives will be tempted to chart a complex array of policy differences.

Such an exercise, while it might be useful for policy development, probably won’t have a lot to do with the way millions of voters make their choice in the next election. Issues such as environment, trade, health care, defence, democracy and crime are all fodder for a good debate, but chances are none of them will be the most important ballot question.

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Hazardous as it is to guess at what may be the key point of tension this far in advance of the next election, it’s not unreasonable to imagine it will come down to interplay between two concepts: prosperity and equality.

For the Liberals, at 35 seats, looking to stage a major comeback, this is a gut check issue. When they have been most successful, they were known as a party with sound, centrist economic management policies, combined with abiding concern for the needs of the less privileged. This was and remains a winning formula.

When they lost, it was often because their economic policies seemed too interventionist, and their program as a whole too expensive. To become competitive again the Liberals need to win votes lost to the right, and even more votes lost to the left.

The natural temptation of some Liberals might be to concentrate primarily on winning the votes lost to the left, by focusing on social justice or equality more than economic growth. The recent political debate about Occupy presumes that a choice must be made between a preoccupation with prosperity and a focus on equality. Implicit is the notion that those who talk of prosperity must lack compassion for those who are struggling. But voters know this is a false choice. And it's also bad political strategy.

Those who are most aggrieved about poverty and equality will be the least accessible voters on the left for the Liberal Party. A more rational strategy would carve out new ideas for advancing prosperity and improving equality. More job opportunities for all, and better income growth for those who have been struggling.

Canadians are worried about the problem of equality and a growing income gap. But they don’t believe these problems have been willfully caused by the wealthy, or by Canadian corporate greed on steroids. And so they are looking for policy ideas that step outside of the “zero sum game”, 1 per cent versus 99 per cent framework.

In that most Canadian of ways, mainstream voters want a focus on strengthening the economy for everyone, not limiting the gains at the top to narrow the gap with the bottom. This is the sweet spot available for the Liberals.

In what I've heard so far, the Liberals in this convention come off as fairly pragmatic and centrist, less tempted by the charms of ideology. They seem as passionate as they have traditionally been about the challenges facing those of lesser means, but drawn to ideas that solve problems rather than drive wedges between classes of people, or between business and workers.

To the left of the Conservatives and the right of the NDP, there is room for new thinking about how to increase prosperity and improve equality. The other parties seem more drawn to the zero-sum-game framework.

Whether the Liberals want to make this space their own is part of the existential question just below the surface of this policy convention. And the path they choose may well determine how successful they are in the next election.

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