If I needed to sum up what went wrong with the 2011 Liberal campaign in a sentence, it is a quote that Jane Taber got just before the election started in March. "The campaign is shaping up like 1993, with the GST replaced by corporate taxes, and helicopters replaced by jets,' a senior Ignatieff MP notes." The same MP went on: "Then, like now, the Tories are focused on the Liberal leader, while the Liberals will again promise national childcare, education funding and some sort of infrastructure."
When I first read that quote, I couldn't help but cringe. 2011 is nothing like 1993 - and it never was going to be. The country is different, our opponents are vastly different, and the Liberal Party's voting coalition as it existed in 1993 is different. There is certainly no mass nostalgia from anyone other than the most partisan of Liberals for 1993. It was, seemingly, only us Liberals that remained the same as we had been almost 20-years earlier.
Of course elections are never won or lost based on one reason and this one is no different. The Liberal Party of Canada have been handed a disastrous result for numerous reasons - some that were new to this campaign, some that were a long-time coming.
First a proviso: I have lots of people who I consider friends who gave thousands of hours of their time to the national and local Liberal campaigns. In lots of ways, they did a wonderful job. This was a professional, slick campaign. While what follows may sound harsh, please be assured that (a) it is not intended as a personal shot against anyone but rather to the effort as a whole; and (b) I only write it because I really do care about the future of the Liberal Party.
We entered the election with a clear strategy to triangulate the NDP on just about every single issue save Afghanistan. Pick an issue, look at the NDP, look at the Liberals, we consistently got as close to them as possible. The strategy was to push the NDP down, polarize the election as a choice between us and the Conservatives and bob's your uncle. At least that was the theory.
For the first two weeks of the campaign, the strategy was partially working. The election was polarizing between the Conservatives and Liberals. The NDP's numbers were staying low. Sure, the Liberals were still double-digit support behind the Conservatives but to the extent the strategy was intended to achieve certain results, there was hope.
And then the debates came, Jack Layton started to gain traction (for a bunch of reasons that will be analyzed to death here and elsewhere) and then the fatal flaws of the strategy quickly crystallized. In short: (a) Layton's NDP have never been and never were going to be the NDP of 1993. We were never going to get them under 15 per cent, never mind the 7 per cent they got in 1993 - to think otherwise was based on hope not reality; (b) You can't fake sincerity. The NDP believed in the positions both parties took, the Liberals less so. The voters got that. Why vote for a pale pink imitation when you can vote for the real thing; (c) It allowed the NDP to jujitsu us aside rather easily by focusing on leadership given that there was little to distinguish our platforms; And (d) once the NDP gained momentum, we had little to go after them over.
But there was of course more at play than simply our short-term strategy. We made the classic mistake that many losing campaigns make, which is to assume the general public hates your opponent - Stephen Harper in this case - as much as the partisans do.
Some will point to leadership. No, we didn't lose just because of Michael Ignatieff. The same way we didn't lose just because of Stéphane Dion or Paul Martin. Ignatieff did fine in the campaign - in some ways admirably - and there is no reason to think that having any other Liberal on the posters, with everything else about the party and the campaign remaining the same, would have led to a different result.
There is no denying that the pre-writ ads against Ignatieff worked. Again. We swore after Dion that we would never let this happen to us again. We did. There were many other lessons from the Dion election and in particular pre-election writ period that were not learned this time around. That is just inexcusable.
Sitting out the fight on cornerstone issues
From a personal perspective, there were two low-points of the Liberal campaign. The first was when the issue of national unity was raised. For at least 40 years, this has been the Liberal Party's bread-and-butter, our raison d'etre. We are the party of national unity. When the issue was brought up, Harper quickly wrapped himself in the flag and took on the role of Captain Canada. He intentionally decided he would own the issue and try to turn it into a strength for him and his party. We said we don't want to discuss national unity. Pass. We wouldn't speak out against extending Bill 101 to federally regulated industries, we wouldn't defend the Clarity Act, wouldn't speak out against NDP nonsense on the Constitution - that was literally verbatim from Brian Mulroney's misguided constitutional adventures. We didn't want to go there, had nothing to say in response. My anger over this decision was not great for my blood pressure.
The second low point of the election for me was during the English debate when Gilles Duceppe and Jack Layton were debating reasonable accommodation, multiculturalism and immigration. Duceppe started highlighting a very Quebec-centric position on the issues in the one-on-one segment, Layton played along. Stephen Harper jumped in and gave a fairly impassioned defence of multiculturalism - of diversity as our strength. Michael Ignatieff did not.
To understand how our politics have changed in the last decade stop and let those two low points sink in. The Conservative Party of Canada now, at least in this campaign, owns national unity as an issue - we had nothing to say about it. The Conservative Party of Canada now owns multiculturalism and immigration as an issue - we had nothing to say about it either.
I could keep going on the shortcomings of the 2011 campaign - the ads, the polling, our seeming obsession with our party's history that only makes us look like we're stuck in the past. I could keep going and literally write a 50-page memo outlining everything we need to get better at but it's time to look to the future.
The challenging road ahead
Yes, I believe that the Liberal Party of Canada can and will have a bright future if we make some tough but necessary choices. In fact, this could be an extremely exciting time and opportunity for the Liberal Party. How does this play out? Time will tell, of course. I see our party breaking into roughly four camps in the days and weeks to come:
1. The NDP merger/cooperation/coalition group. I have made my views on this option pretty clear in the past. Nothing in this campaign has changed those views - in fact, quite the opposite. The Liberal Party of Canada is not a "left-wing party". Not when we are at our best. The Liberals and NDP have radically different cultures and visions for the country - at least they should have different visions. Unlike the PCs and Alliance/Reform, we were never one party that had a divorce. But the party may decide to pursue this option. That's the party's right, of course. I won't be a part of the new, merged party but it's a democracy and is certainly a legitimate option.
2. Reform everything about the Liberal Party. Top-to-bottom. New blood, new voting coalition - there's not much that stays the same in this new Liberal Party. This is obviously my preferred option and I will discuss it in more detail in the days and weeks to come.
3. Put a fresh coat of paint on the party. Nobody will say they are in this camp but I will have no doubt that there will be some Liberals who think we just need to "run a better campaign" or "get a better leader" and everything turns around. You will know people in this camp if they start speeches by talking about our glorious history, refer to the Liberal Party as a "family" rather than a political party and claim that "Canada needs the Liberal Party." I would put it at more than 50 per cent that this group wins the day, which really worries me because this option dooms the party to more of the same in terms of results.
4. The fourth group will be Liberals who reject the NDP merger talk, think the radical reforms in option No. 2 are impossible to achieve based on the "old guard" (for lack of a better term) who still control most of the current party and have no interest in remaining in the same old, same old Liberal Party. These people will seriously consider starting a new party or just stop being a part of partisan politics for a while. Hopefully this group remains (as it is today) miniscule because if it grows, it is very bad news for the future of the Liberal Party.
The future of the Liberal Party could be exceedingly exciting but not if we enter into the next election looking the same and reflecting the past instead of the future. I will try to give my opinions on what that future should look like in the days and weeks to come.