Defining a Liberal identity in a narrowing political spectrum
Feb 9, 2013

Defining a Liberal identity in a narrowing political spectrum

The reality of the narrowing political spectrum in Canada is a huge problem for the Federal Liberals as they go about choosing their next leader. I discussed some of the factors behind this declining political space in my previous post, but in this post I turn my attention specifically to the Liberals - and the Liberal Leadership Election - to see how they ought to deal with it.

The stark reality that faces the Liberals is that in the last election they were decimated in the polls. Rightly or wrongly, the Conservatives and the NDP both have distinct identities, and identities that managed to connect with voters. The Liberals need to redefine themselves, and their public persona, so that people can understand what it is that they stand for.

When there is a wide political space, defining an identity is relatively easy. One claims a patch on the wide political spectrum and then moves left or right here and there to gain supporters. When there is a narrow political spectrum, however, it is hard to distinguish between the parties and so establishing a distinct identity is more of a threading the needle type of exercise.

The argument about narrowing political space is not to say the Conservatives and the NDP are identical for surely they are quite different, even if less different than in times past. However, on any particular issue, it is often difficult to find a position that is genuinely in the middle of them. Conservatives' alleged strengths (alleged in the sense that this is the emphasis of their talking points and public identity, rightly or wrongly) is on economic growth, low taxes, and fiscal responsibility. The Liberals echo all of this. The NDP has its strength in progressive social issues and establishment of a strong safety net. The Liberals echo much of this too.

Part of this is just the nature of many issues. One either supports marriage equality or one doesn't. With three parties, the centrist party is always simply copying the position of one of the other two as there are only two options. Or take corporate tax rates. The Conservatives generically want them to go down, the NDP generically want them to go up. The Liberals are forced to always be agreeing with one side or the other at any given moment. There can be differences in policy, and as we shall see these can be important, but on the bigger picture issues of core values, it is challenging to define a truly unique political location for the centrist party in today's political climate.

An example of this struggle is on one of the most contentious issues in Canadian politics: the tar sands, and pipelines. It is a classic political issue because it contrasts two separate, each admirable, values and requires us as a society to make a legitimate decision. On the one hand there are values of economic freedom and the financial benefits to come from extracting oil resources. On the other, there are environmental values and the need for a clean, sustainable system. A centrist position tries to develop the tar sands, and perhaps pipelines like the Northern Gateway, while taking every reasonable environmental precaution. Some Liberals take this position (although there is internal strife). However, it is a hard position to define. Any appeal to environmental claims are being made just as loud if not louder by the NDP. On the right, the Conservatives certainly will play a strong rhetorical game that they are indeed taking environmental precautions and being good stewards. Of course, as we delve into the details, the reality seems to suggest that the rhetoric is quite far from the mark, but the point is that it is hard for the Liberals to truly plot a centrist course here by appealing to values alone that does not just appear as a reductionist mash up of the other parties positions.

Values vs policy:
Conventionally, political identities are crafted with values, with policies being distinct secondary. There is some sense to this in that until we can establish the basic values we share, we can't craft policies that effectively implement these values. Values are big, often rather vague things. They paint the broad strokes of the political canvas, but policies fill in all the details. When there are far apart and conflicting values in the political landscape, a party can identify itself by appealing to its set of core values and this alone is sufficient and distinct enough to give it an identity. In the above discussion of the narrowing of the political landscape, it is values that are being consolidated and homogenized and pushed together, leaving little room for a distinct political identity by claiming certain sets of values.

However, even if we broadly agree in values - and thus can not identify ourselves uniquely based on these values - there is plenty of discussion to be had on the policy front. Indeed, there are often a hundred different ways to try and implement some broader social goal. We can all agree on the idea of universal health care, but there an enormous number of details and variations of this to be worked out. So while there has been a narrowing on the values side, parties can still always lead on all the specifics and details of various policies. And they can define an identity based on the strength of their policy proposals.

Lead on policy:
The solution, such as it is, is thus for the Liberals is to lead on policy. Bold, innovative, cutting edge, brilliantly researched, pragmatic, and highly effective policy. They won't be able to create a unique identify on values alone, and they won't be able to shout louder about their devotion to conventional values than the Conservatives or the NDP, but they can come up with excellent policy ideas and run on those.

Liberals have done this in the recent past. The big gambit for Liberals has been on green energy. In BC, Liberals introduced the carbon tax. In Ontario, Liberals introduced North America's leading feed-in-tarriff program. Stephane Dion ran, and lost, a federal election that was almost a referendum on his Green Shift energy policy. Personally, if the single most important reason why I consider myself a nonpartisan, and not an NDP supporter, and why I endorsed the Liberals over the NDP in the 2012 Ontario election. It isn't that the NDP doesn't say they support the basic value of maintaining the environment or having sustainable energy, they certainly do; it is the Liberals lead on bold policies, usually opposed by the NDP, and were able - to their benefit or to their loss - to create a legitimate identity based on this.

None of this, incidentally, is to be lamented. It is an accomplishment of our modern society that we have come together on our core values. We should hope that we can set aside the ideological clashes and turn instead to the less romantic but arguably more important task of setting effective policy. It is a common problem in politics where politicians spout off all day about lovely values we all agree with, but propose no genuine policy that helps achieve these values. Indeed, it is precisely this dynamic whereby parties espouse social pieties to create a sense of connection with voters, but without any need for substance that can so pernicious. So we should could consider it a good thing that it is a necessity for the Liberals to take a lead on policy if they want to create a distinct identity.

There are risks to this approach. Saying we value education or the environment or capitalism is easy. It is easy to communicate, easy to find an electorate who agrees with you, and takes little risk or effort. Coming up with a bold plan to reform education, or deal with environmental concerns, or boost the economy, is difficult to come up with in the first place, difficult to communicate to the electorate, and leaves one open to criticism on the merits of the policy, where nobody would criticize the merits of the underlying value. However, there are upsides as well. Leading on smart policy, even if not every voter knows of cares about all the details, gives the appearance of a serious party that stands for something and has a real plan to make a difference. Contrast that to a party spouting empty platitudes, and this can be very appealing.

Perhaps the most interesting policy shift of the last couple years from the Liberals was the one adopted at last years convention, pushing for the legalization of marijuana but not giving up the endorsement of the Monarchy. It showed the divisions within the party as the necessity of appealing to a younger generation of Liberals resulted in the pretty bold and progress shift on marijuana  while not managing to get rid of the older establishment's positive view of the Monarchy. There is certainly risks to running on marijuana legalization, but this is precisely the kind of boldness they need. People can spout off all day about the values of liberty and freedom - as the Conservatives are oft to do - but presenting a policy shift like this gets more attention and shapes a unique identity far better than any values rhetoric could hope to do.

Choosing the next leader:
This post hopes to provide a litmus test, of sorts, for choosing the next Liberal leader. Do they have what it takes - and are beginning to demonstrate it during their campaigns - to give the Liberals a defining identity? In particular, are they willing to push aggressive policy ideas as central to the shaping of that identity, or are they merely appealing to long established values and cultural pieties? If no one can do this, the 2015 federal election may not be pretty for the Liberals.

A comment on institutional legacy:
I do believe there is value in institutional legacy; I am with William Burke on that. Politics is not just about ideology and populism and locations on various abstract spectra. It is also about having good groups of people that are pragmatic technocrats capable of the challenges of, say, instituting a social progressive, fiscally responsible government. History books around the world are ripe with examples of leaders who have seemingly admirable and popular values, yet fail to accomplish effective policy and governance when elected. The Liberals certainly have some claim to an institutional throne, what with their legacy. They could claim, for a long time, to have the intraparty depth and experience to provide good governance and effective policy that others, such as the upstart NDP, simply lacked.

That claim, however, is waning. Since the decimation at the polls in 2013, few MPs retain their seats. The Liberal party has struggled on the leadership front for some time now, failing what is arguably the defining test of institutional success: continuing to provide effective leaders. Whoever is elected as the next leader will be the fourth leader since the Chretien/Martin period. The front runner, Justin Trudeau, certainly can claim the last name of Liberal institutional legacy, but is too young to have any actual claim to its substance. For the most part, if the Liberals want to win, they have to do it by identifying a clear political space, and cannot simply rest on their laurels for while their pedigree is undoubtedly impressive, little of it remains in the party of today.

The approach I identified is precisely the approach that can restore this legacy, or create a new one. They cannot shape a unique identity on values alone, and they cannot hope to win by simply resting on a historical legacy of being good policy makers. They have to lead with bold and effective policy now. 

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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