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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Sept. 30, 2009.

CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

My favourite books when I was in high school were the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series.

The series recounts the satirical and surreal adventures of a puzzled Englishman who escapes Earth after it is destroyed by a race of intergalactic bureaucrats, aided by a friend who is actually an alien (and an interstellar hitchhiker previously stranded on our world.)

The Guide of the title refers to a Wikipedia-esque travel tool that contains everything from drink recipes to survival tips.

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The cover of said Guide is emblazoned with the phrase " DON'T PANIC!" in bright, friendly letters as a helpful reminder to keep calm in even the worst circumstances.

Now is a time for Liberals to consult the wisdom of the Guide, because the latest Angus Reid survey could be construed as reason to lose one's mind.

The poll is summarized here with detailed tables here.

The findings are basically that public opinion is more or less back to where it was at the time of the last election.

The topline findings are all within the margin of error of the actual results in 2008.

The underlying trends are more troubling, however.

Quebec shows a significant dip in the Conservative vote vs 2008, but that vote is diffused between the Liberals and Bloc. More troubling is that in nine of the ten CPC held seats in Quebec, only Pontiac saw the Liberals finish in second. This makes it hard to see more than a handful of seats changing hands, and the Liberals getting only some of those.

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The situation is dire in Ontario. The Conservatives only won Ontario by five points in 2008, but this survey has them up by fourteen points. Such a result in an election would see the Conservatives pick up an increased seat count, possibly a dozen or more.

By way of history, today's fourteen point margin between Conservative and Liberal is just a hint behind the seventeen point (PCPC 47, LPC 30) difference from the result of 1984. That rout saw the Liberals hold 14 seats to 13 for the NDP and 67 for the Mulroney Tories on a 95 seat base.

In other regions, the changes are all marginal.

A summary of the findings as translated to seats would be this: if an election were held today, the Liberal Party would get fewer seats that they did in 2008, possibly far fewer.

So, what are the Liberals going do?

There is a course of action that involves gnashing of teeth, rending of garments and general furniture smashing by the Liberal caucus and grassroots.

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But that will only make the situation worse.

Michael Bliss wrote in today's Globe of the reversal taking place between the Liberals - long the natural governing party - and the Tories - long the natural losing party.

That reversal is not fixed or permanent, but it is a very real threat. The determining factor will be how the Liberals manage the next few weeks, because a panic will lead only to the confirmation of this worrying trend.

Tim Powers recently noted the dangers of the Liberals adopting the dreaded " Tory Syndrome." (A minor quibble would be his attribution of the title to Jeff Simpson when I think it was the academic George Perlin who coined it, but that's beside the point.)

Perlin's theory is elegantly summarized in a paper by Stephen Clarkson and Rachel Gibson that was presented to the CPSA meeting in 2006.

I crib from that paper below, with apologies to the authors who themselves were summarizing Perlin's work and then applying it to the Liberal Party of Canada to explain its traditional dominance of Canadian electoral history.

"In the conclusion to The Tory Syndrome, Perlin summarized the significance of intensive survey research on Progressive Conservative party leaders, members, and backroom operatives by arguing that a complex vicious circle perpetuated losing conditions only periodically interrupted by the Liberals' capacity to defeat themselves. Failure, in effect, bred further failure.

1. Leadership. The Conservative party had a tradition of selecting divisive, understandably inexperienced leaders who tended to perpetuate factionalism rather than mend internal party divisions.

2. Candidates. Generally speaking, when two parties pursue similar basic goals the party which holds the most promise of winning has greater success recruiting people with first-rate credentials. Given that that the political odds tended to be long, the Conservative party did not normally attract highly qualified, ambitious men and women whose motivation for entering politics was to get into cabinet and have a direct effect on policy.

Consequently, predictable areas of parliamentary talent -- the civil service, universities, business and corporations -- were taken over by the dominant party.

3. Caucus. Those Conservatives who did get elected became accustomed to their position on the opposition benches, where they developed a culture of opposition, revelling in criticizing the government in the relative certainty they would never have to implement their own ideas. Approaching all forms of debate in an attacking, destructive manner, the party appeared to lack any ideas of its own, providing the public with little incentive to switch its allegiance.

4. Policy. Given the low likelihood that they would be placed in the position of having to implement their platforms, policy debates in the party became a proxy for maintaining internal factional feuds between the supporters, say, of John Diefenbaker and those of Robert Stanfield. Because they tended to be out of power, they saw bureaucrats as covert Liberals and had little experience in responding to the ideas of policy experts from the business or academic worlds.

5. Backroom. Along with its anti-intellectualism, the party's back room tended to be weak in terms of lawyers, advertising and PR executives, and other professionals who traded their electoral smarts for the prospect of patronage to come once the party was elected.

6. Grassroots. At the same time, the rank-and-file in the riding associations across the country recruited themselves from those who were, sociologically speaking, citizens who felt disempowered and alienated.

7. As a result of this vicious circle of self reinforcing factors, the Progressive Conservative party ultimately presented a cantankerous, bickering, negative -- in a word, unappealing -- face to the voter.

Having explained the Progressive Conservative Party's defeat in the early 1960s, we believe that, turned on its head, Perlin's theory also provides a powerful structural explanation for Liberal Party success over the next four decades.

1. Leadership. Thanks to its many years in government and the longer tenure of its leaders, the Liberal Party renews its leadership by choosing from a pack of claimants who are generally experienced in government with credible chances for making an effective prime minister.

2. Candidates. With the prospect that, if elected, they will be part of the government, the Liberal Party tends to attract the movers and shakers who would like to make a difference by affecting public policy.

3. Caucus. Because Members of Parliament sitting on the government back benches know they have some chance to be in the cabinet, be appointed parliamentary secretary to a minister, or receive some other reward for good behaviour -- such as a junket to China or an eventual judgeship or elevation to the Senate -- they develop a culture not of opposition but of unity. However much they may disagree with the prime minister and his coterie, they know that they must keep their opinions quiet for the greater good not just of the party's electoral prospects but of their own political careers.

4. Policy. Accustomed as they are to receiving policy recommendations from bureaucrats with whom they have working relationships, Liberals see policy as an instrument with which they can maintain their appeal to the public by resolving problems in need of solution. For similar reasons, they remain open to policy proposals coming from intellectuals and experts.

5. Backroom. Since patronage in the third party system is a benefit enjoyed by the party elite rather than its grassroots, the Liberal Party's back room is amply staffed by lawyers, consultants, and other professionals whose expertise bolsters the party's campaign capacity.

6. Grassroots. As confirmed by the research carried out by William Cross and Lisa Young, Liberal Party membership at the riding level is not just the biggest of all parties but it is the youngest in its age profile and the highest in education levels. In addition, it has the best gender balance and the highest representation of francophones.

7. As a result of this virtuous circle of interconnecting factors, the net electoral result is that the Liberal Party has tended to present a united, progressive, capable -- in a word, appealing -- face to the public."

Clarkson and Gibson's elegant summary of Perlin and their application to the mythical "Natural Governing Party" Liberals of old rings true today, but in reverse.

The fact of the matter is this: if the Liberals behave like losers, they will be losers. If the Conservatives act like winners, they will be winners. How you conduct yourself has immediate and constant impact on the electoral fortunes of your party.

Therefore, if the Liberals react to this latest poll with disunity and predatory attacks on the Leader and his circle, the party will simply be energizing the death spiral which they find tugging at their shirt sleeves.

If Liberals react by closing ranks against a deadly external threat and present a united, progressive and capable face to the world, the party may begin to avoid the fate this poll merely forecasts.

That will open the door to commence another round of extremely hard slogging to move the party forward.

There is an old saying that "it's not what happens but how you react that counts."

This will be a reaction that counts for the Liberal Party of Canada, possibly for decades

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