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The trouble with Liberals

Posted by padams under Election 2011, Election 2011 Campaign strategy, Media Commentary, Political Strategy

Paul Adams

At a town hall meeting in Vancouver last night, I had a chance to see Michael Ignatieff personally for the second time in this campaign. He was, as I remarked upon earlier in the campaign, a surprisingly capable campaigner in front of a partisan crowd. He was sharp, witty, self-deprecating, and handled questions from the audience deftly. Despite the polls of recent days, he seemed to be enjoying himself. At the end, he said he felt almost tearful that this would be his last town hall (of the campaign, I think he meant, though maybe not).

But this threatens to be an earth-shattering election for the Liberals, in which even if they hold on to most of the seats they have at the moment, they may find themselves no longer the obvious alternative to the Conservative government because of the unexpected rise of the New Democrats in Quebec, British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces.

Ontario appears to be an exception for the moment, and remains the place where the Liberals would hope to hang onto the bulk of their seats. But it tells quite a story when one of the country’s leading pollsters, Nik Nanos, explains the failure of the New Democrats to break through in Ontario in terms of memories of the Rae government in the early 1990s.

Not that I am saying he is wrong. But the province of Ontario, not so long ago, delivered all or nearly all its seats to the Liberal party. Not so long ago, some pundits had begun to describe the Liberals as a regional Ontario party with slender tendrils extending into the rest of the country.

But the idea that the Liberals might have some positive attraction to progressive voters — in Ontario or elsewhere — has virtually disappeared from the discourse. And with good reason.

It is worth remembering that Michael Ignatieff systematically avoided presenting a progressive policy agenda — or any other agenda for that matter — during most of his leadership. The party’s approach since Ignatieff replaced Stéphane Dion has been to let the weight of Stephen Harper’s policy and political miscues, and his less-than-approachable personality, accumulate in the minds of voters. Then on that happy day, when an election came around, there would be a swing of the pendulum back to the Liberals, provided they didn’t screw it up by putting out some big policy for the Tories to attack (like Stéphane Dion’s Green Shift).

There was never much evidence, in the polls at least, that this was working, but the Liberals stuck to it. Remember the “blue door” and the “red door” image conjured up by Ignatieff just a few weeks ago. The choice was simple: go with Harper or come to us.

Ignatieff’s passionate attacks on Harper’s misuse of power fit very well with this approach. It provided reasons to vote against Harper, rather than for Ignatieff. And this tone was reflected in the party’s attack ads.

The Liberals also opened a second front once the campaign began. In its platform, it presented policies on education, health care, and elder care that closely resembled those of the New Democrats. It put a clearly liberal stamp on the Liberal party’s approach. Although critics noted that the platform seemed to put deficit reduction as the first priority, and that Liberal promises were only likely to be fulfilled some years out, that was not the way the Liberals spun it.

This was in many ways a traditional Liberal campaign approach: sometimes characterized as “running from the left and governing from the right”. I talked about that in an earlier post.

But the ambiguity of the Liberals’ positioning, which is historic, is now betraying them as the tide seemingly turns to the New Democrats. For several days after the NDP appeared to be growing, the Liberal attack ads continued to run. But in the changed political context, where the Liberals were no longer the automatic alternative, they seemed like New Democrat ads, until you saw the little Liberal logo at the end.

Before long, the Liberals brought out a couple of new ads. One was a straightforward attack on the NDP. The problem was that in its attack on Layton’s fiscally irresponsible promises, and threat to economic stability, the ad very much mirrored the Conservative attack on the Liberal platform.

Another ad, which soon followed, portrayed Harper and Layton as “two sides of the same coin”, accusing the two of having conspired to ditch Liberal plans for day care and environmental protection. The problem here is that the idea that the two men are similar will be totally foreign to most viewers. It does not fit with any pre-existing narrative in people’s minds. The NDP enemies of day care and environmental protection? Most viewers are likely to assume there is some vital fact missing here that the Liberals are keeping from them — that the ad is mendacious in some way. (A more sophisticated viewer might be tempted to note that day care and the environment are two areas which, despite a decade of promises, the Liberals in government did virtually nothing).

In Vancouver last night, Ignatieff for the most part gave his standard stump speech, which worked very well with the mostly Liberal audience. In its attacks on the Harper government’s undemocratic ways, and its promotion of “equality” it could very much have been a New Democrat speaking. Except, that is, when Ignatieff spoke about the NDP, when he decried their promises which he said they had no reasonable explanation of how to fund.

Ignatieff even referred to the New Democrats cap-and-trade plan (without mentioning it by name) as “essentially an energy tax”.

But this attack on the NDP was bolted onto a speech designed for a different day and a different strategic scenario. When asked a question about the environment, he mentioned the Liberals own cap-and-trade plan, this time by name, and without, of course, suggesting it had any implications for the price of energy.

The Liberals are caught in a historical dilemma. Unlike the situation during most of the 20th century, the Liberals are now alone among the parties, in that they have no roots as a populist party. The Conservatives have Reform as a predecessor. The NDP came from prairie populism and union activism. The Bloc from the separatist movement, and the Greens out of environmentalism.

But the Liberals have always been different. They have been a brokerage party with no clear ideological ground on which to stand. No one can ever remember a time when they did — except, perhaps, on the constitution and Quebec, which is hardly likely to help them now.

And as they try to perform a Gestalt in the final days of the campaign, they only reinforce the idea that while other parties stand for something, they don’t.

Paul Adams is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton. He is a former Parliament Hill reporter and worked in the polling industry. He keeps promising to write a book about the Liberals. You can follow him on Twitter @padams29