Poor Mackenzie King. Canada's longest-serving prime minister, mysterious and misunderstood, was haunted by the spectre of the once-great British Liberal Party, squeezed out between the left and right. And now, almost 65 years after he stepped down, King's worst nightmare has almost come to pass: For the first time in Canadian history, a Liberal convention will choose the leader of a third party in the House of Commons.
It's too bad that Liberal strategists don't seem to have spent much time examining King's legacy during their lost decade. What they would have found were secrets of success that had little to do with the kind of charisma and charm associated with the party's current front-runner, Justin Trudeau. Instead, King's strategies were simple but effective: Build from liberal values, find the "sweet spot," and introduce new and practical policies that could spell electoral success.
King was obsessed with the NDP's forerunner, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, which threatened Liberal fortunes in the 1940s, particularly in Western Canada, and among the "working class," considered the Liberals' purview. In response, King painted the CCF as a socialist menace, while lifting policies deemed sensible enough for Liberals. Years later, Lester Pearson adopted a similar strategy in the 1960s to bring the Liberals back to life, with a modern twist on social reform that would frustrate NDP hopes, and a more overt emphasis as the party of central Canada.
That ideological sweet spot was the ability to blend business-oriented liberalism with a version of social liberalism sympathetic to equality of opportunity. Today, even as political scientists debate postmaterialism and postmodernism, and even as party systems elsewhere are being buffeted by increased polarization, that blend of liberalism still resonates for many Canadians. There's an obvious political space, growing wider, in the search for a credible alternative to the Conservative government.
In short, the problem isn't the absence or rejection of liberalism in Canada, but rather the inability of the Liberal Party to articulate a purpose for liberalism, and to draw a policy map that could address the concerns and aspirations of Canadians. The other problem is that, in the past decade, the Liberal Party has been unable to link this policy exercise to the more practical dimension of electoral mapping: the need to win votes. Instead, it tacked too far toward uncharted waters under Stéphane Dion, then hid for cover in the middle of the road under Michael Ignatieff. In so doing, it left itself open to attack from both left and right, and failed to capture voters' confidence and imagination.
Can a new Liberal leader enable the party to renew liberalism and recreate electoral success? Despite the polls that show a positive "Trudeau" effect, this leadership contest has been a reminder of the lack of substance and organization that still plagues the Liberals. What could have been a spotlight on new ideas and the potential for political heft has turned out to be a lot less inspiring. The danger now is for Liberals to believe that a fresh face means a fresh start, without the essential process of policy renewal and the uphill climb of organizational rebuilding.
Like Lester Pearson, the new leader should remember that it's not about rebranding the Liberal Party but about finding a meaningful voice for liberalism. And like Mackenzie King, he should beat back the spectre of being squeezed out of the middle by forging a platform that finds solid ground on that now-elusive sweet spot.
Antonia Maioni is an associate professor at McGill University.