Polygonic

That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

Of Liberals and Labour

Canada and the UK share quite a bit – a Queen, a language, and an unhealthy love of chips. But they also share a common soap opera – that of their long-ruling, defeated, and now struggling, centre-left big-tent political parties.

Since its all-defining double-helix leadership was vanquished in May this year, the UK’s Labour Party appears to be at real risk of tearing itself apart with self-doubt, identity crises, and factional malice. Kiss-and-tell autobiographies by party elders betray an utter lack of concern for the party’s respectability, and add fuel to the disorienting fire of a come-one-come-all leadership contest. What’s the party about? A hard question.

The parallel saga of Canada’s Liberal Party can be instructive to Britain’s Labourites. Indeed, the two sagas appear to be differentiated mainly by a time delay of about four years. So, for any Labourites looking for an oracle as to what the mid-term future may bring them, and what post-defeat missteps to avoid, it may be helpful to take a gander across the big salty pond.

A quick review of the two stories: Tony Blair’s Labour did in 1997 what Jean Chrétien’s Liberals did four years earlier, in 1993 – unseat a dreadfully unpopular Conservative government and render it practically unelectable. The Liberals did rather a better job of it – smashing Canada’s Tories to a laughable two seats in Parliament (helped, of course, by the fact that the Tories also splintered apart into factional and regional parties: the populist, right-wing, western Reform Party, and the anti-federalist, socially liberal Bloc Québécois).

After these landslide successes, Liberal and Labour fortunes would come to resemble each other in character – both ended up more fiscally conservative than supporters had idealised, and both enjoyed success through a powerful political fusion of internal party factions. Canada had Chrétien and his finance minister Paul Martin, and the UK had Blair and his finance minister Gordon Brown. In each case, the budget men brought their wing of the party into a unified fold, both men were (rightly or wrongly) regarded as economic geniuses, but both men also coveted the job of Prime Minister – a ruinous, volcanic desire that would ultimately destroy the factional unity that was so necessary in a big-tent centrist party such as each of these.

The Liberals, with their four-year headstart on Labour, suffered from this earlier as well. By 2000, the Chrétien/Martin rivalry had become a soap operatic nightmare, and the defining feature of the party itself. That, coupled with the perceived unelectability of the hated Tories, contributed to Liberal policy drift. If you barely need to try anymore, where are the ideas coming from? Competition, that fount of political creativity, was not directed against other, apparently moribund parties – it was directed within.

This of course also described the Blair/Brown rivalry in its own time. When Chrétien won his third term, he promised to serve it in full, but was soon ousted by a frothing and impatient Martin wing. Blair equally promised to fulfil the whole of his third term, but was just as unceremoniously rent from his position by a frothing and impatient Brown. Neither Martin nor Brown acceded to the job of PM through a scrutinising leadership contest, but, in essence, by coronation.

Financial scandal had beset both parties (though the Liberals more so) – the sponsorship scandal for the Liberals, and cash-for-peerages which affected Labour. But the electoral challenges were bigger than these scandals. Neither Martin nor Brown had a watt of the ruthless charisma of their vanquished heroes, and though both lusted for the absolute power of the top job, neither seemed able to know what to do with it once they got it. Such tour-de-forces in cabinet, Martin ended up nicknamed “Mr. Dithers,” and Brown went from “Stalin to Mr. Bean.” Mean epithets both, but ones that stuck.

One big difference between the sagas emerges in the third term: Martin did call an election relatively early in his tenure, whereas Brown famously bottled it after the party convention. Had Brown gone ahead with a general election in November 2008, many analysts foresaw a slim victory or hung parliament as the result. That’s indeed the result that Martin got, and he led a minority government for scarcely two years before its collapse. In the end, though, both Martin and Brown had brief Prime Ministerial careers, distinguished by policy drift and nervous surprise at their own communication and decision-making incompetencies – both the Liberals and Labour fell from office leaderless, directionless, shocked and discouraged.

That is the Labour Party of 2010, and it was the Liberal Party of 2006. So what happened afterwards in Canada?

The Chrétien/Martin duopoly had totally defined what power and party identity were. Everyone was either a Chrétienite or a Martinite. They may have hated each other in the end, but neither side genuinely foresaw any scenario in which neither force would hold sway. And then suddenly – they were both gone.

The leadership contest which followed was filled with recrimination against the party’s own recent past. Every candidate (all twelve of them!) promised big change. No one took the party’s record as a trophy and championed it. All were determined to define themselves as something wholly other.

Uncertainty in Liberal ranks was inevitable. The leadership contest featured lots of philosophy surrounding the merits of rewarding old guards vs. the merits of rewarding new blood. It also featured, as is natural in any big-tent party, big questions about whether to carve a distinct identity on the left/centre-left, or to fight the resurgent Tories in the centre/centre-right. In this, there were leadership favourites: would it be the left’s Bob Rae, the right’s Michael Ignatieff, or the uncertain charms of Gerard Kennedy?

Labour, watch out: neither left, nor right, nor charming won out in the intricate latticework of compromise that emerged from the convention. Unheralded, well-meaning, but unelectable Stéphane Dion took the cake. Dion, who might be said to have had Andy Burnham’s chances, but coupled with Alastair Darling’s personality. And now he was leader.

The party was still angry with losing power, and still directionless without its goliaths at the helm. For all Dion’s clever ideas, he had no capacity to forge new unity in this vast, wounded party – indeed, disunity became worse than ever. Compromise, shame, and uncertainty in the party was, unfortunately, perfectly reflected in its leader.

Though Dion is now gone and Ignatieff has led the Liberals for a year and a half, their fortunes are barely any better. Canadian pundits have blamed Martin, Dion, and now Ignatieff in succession, for poor leadership and diffidence. Not unfair claims, entirely – but they’re symptoms, not causes, of identity anguish that plagues the party from root to tip. That is one of the sad legacies of the old power duopoly – it consumed the identity of the party, and then evaporated, leaving too much disorientation and angst. It’s still unclear what it means to be a Liberal in Canada today.

While Labour’s Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell, and soon Tony Blair himself, all offer their post-mortems in best-selling hardcovers, this old guard disrespects contemporary Labour as much as contemporary Labour disrespects them. This struggle to disassociate denies an opportunity to trumpet some of the real progressive successes the party achieved over the years. It creates a political vacuum – where once the centre-left was the self-assured and natural occupant of the electoral mainstream, now cunning and well-financed Conservative forces can stake their claim as the safe option – the one where voters know what they’re getting, the one that quickly comes to appear more mature and prepared for all the trials and tribulations of government.

Make no mistake – Canada’s Tories are anything but “mature.” They are an anti-democratic, anti-parliamentarian force, swathed in deceit, secrecy, and thoroughly right-wing ideas masked in Bush-Junior style “common sense.” The fact that the Canadian centre-left still can’t mount an effective challenge against such easy targets gives testament to the severity of gangland rivalries and relative anarchy within the partisan centre-left itself.

The cases are obviously not really perfectly parallel. Labour’s leadership vote is a month-long ballot involving union, lay members, and the Parliamentary party, unlike the long, single night of horse-trading and automatic run-off balloteering that the Liberals’ used. Canada’s Tories are a genuine neanderthal party, whereas the UK’s Tories have a small, relatively liberal wing in the very person of David Cameron. The standard of debate is different, the media culture is different, and the way in which the public engages with politics is different. The agenda is just not set in the same way.

But Labour faces similar dangers to Canada’s Liberals, and must avoid them – while there’s time!
– Take solace in (and advantage of) a public that is still uncomfortable calling itself broadly “conservative,” and don’t present a shamed and apologetic face about the past. There have been triumphs that are as important today and tomorrow as they were during the campaign.
– Trumpet the economic and social advances made in the previous era, as the public has faith in these advances – what they’ve lost faith in is your ability to manage. Tribal infighting and self-destructive gossip don’t inspire new confidence.
– Pick a real potential winner as your leader right off the bat. And once you pick that winner, give them the party unity and the durable support that’s required to help shape a badly-needed identity before the next election – appearing unconvinced in your leader, shaky on their ideas, always ready for yet another putsch, will reinforce the public’s perception that “these guys couldn’t run a hot dog stand, let alone a country.”
– And don’t spend the next four years navel-gazing – be bold and committed, and fast, as it’s only going to get tougher.


CORRECTION: Apologies for the repeated paragraph earlier – this has been amended

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Filed under: Canada, Politics, UK, , , , , , , , ,

3 Responses

  1. […] insights as to how it might work, and I think the recent history of Canada’s Liberal Party needs to be studied by the UK’s Labour Party, as they get about finding a new leader, identity, and […]

  2. Brittany says:

    “Really, not much different than ANY Government vs. Opposition, of ANY stipre…”It’s a little hard to tell which is which in those two cases, isn’t it? Seems that the Conservatives are most concerned with the party on the opposite benches – which is probably what the Loyal Opposition is supposed to do.Surely there must be more important issues for the party forming the government to talk about. Like, say, governing. “Obsession” seems appropriate; but I’m almost disappointed there was no mention of the Sponsorship Scandal in that time frame, though — The Conservatives have been faithfully whipping that horse for, what, four years now?

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