The Leadership Narrative

Way back when, a few months after the last federal election, I replied to the Susan Delacourt’s “Is the Liberal Party dead?” question, echoed ad nauseum in the nation’s press, with a warning to be wary of forcing Canadian politics to fit a certain narrative.

That narrative presupposes the inevitability of a polarized left-right dichotomy; in other words, it’s natural and normal to have large social democratic and conservative or Christian democratic parties alternating in power, perhaps allied by necessity (as in Great Britain) with a small, squeezed, and increasingly insignificant centrist third party. Canada isn’t different; Canada is late. Our 2011 happened a hundred years too late.

I still don’t buy it. However attractive the theory might be to political scientists, journalists, and geeks like me, I don’t believe for a nanosecond that Canadians base their votes on an understanding of 1920s British politics. If anything, Canadian politics fit any pattern less now; what marks federal elections since 1993 has been voter volatility, not predictability.

The thing is, I’m right and I’m wrong – right in theory, wrong in practice. I’m convinced that we do a disservice to the electorate by framing politics as win or lose, us versus them. The NDP used to rail against this polarization, although now that they’re one of the two leading federal parties, the narrative suits them just fine.

But realpolitik tells me that, no matter what the ideal, we Liberals have to face the unpleasant reality that we’re destined for a lifetime in third place unless we learn how to play the game (again). Even as we reject a left-right narrative, nevertheless we must frame federal politics as us versus them – the pragmatic, moderate Liberals against the ideological extremes of the CPC and NDP.

Thus I’ve accepted what every poll, every study suggests is true: people don’t vote for policies, they vote for leaders and parties.

In terms of repairing our damaged brand, our efforts haven’t yet paid off, but I think (I hope?) that we’re on the right track. Liberals, on the whole, have been remarkably upfront about the challenges we face. So far we’ve mostly just talked the talk; there’s still too much internal cliquishness, still too much reliance on politicians, provincial executives, and directors who were at the helm for the disasters of 2008 and 2011. We haven’t fully reformed, but at least no one’s suggesting (anymore) that if we were just better Liberals, we’d win.

The leadership is trickier. There are still too many Liberals looking for a saviour-leader, for the next Trudeau (and mostly, these people seem to favour Trudeau as the new Trudeau, which is unfair to both Pierre and Justin). We’re used to choosing our leaders from a talented pool of experienced caucus members and former cabinet ministers, but that pool is increasingly shallow. I respect our MPs, but I do not believe that we should choose our next leader necessarily from their ranks.

Why not? Well, it doesn’t fit the narrative of a party seriously competing to win in 2015.

I’ve thought long and hard about this. I’ve watched Bob Rae as interim leader, noted the good and bad press, observed our MPs in the House, seen how the Tories will frame the debate with Rae at the helm. (They’ve plotted this for years, by the way; during prorogation, my then-MP, Conservative Daryl Kramp, was clearly issued talking points about Rae’s record as premier.)

I was a Rae supporter in 2006 and 2008. For that matter, I’ve meandered politically along the same path as Rae – I was a Liberal first, a New Democrat in 1990, not a New Democrat by the mid-nineties, and now, again, a federal Liberal. That’s not a coincidence; Rae’s conversion changed my perception of the Liberal Party.

But now, a decade later, I can only come to one sad conclusion: Bob Rae won’t be my first choice for the permanent leadership of the LPC.

I just don’t think it will fly. Against a seriously crappy interim NDP leader, we gained a little ground but still ended up in third place. Then the NDP picked, frankly, the strongest candidate they had for the leadership and immediately we were back to May 2011 levels of support. Why would those numbers change simply by transforming Rae from interim to actual leader? Our next convention will be essentially meaningless if the end result is exactly the same.

I always assumed Rae was, well, not absolutely forthright about not running for the leadership, and while I don’t believe that the national executive should prevent his candidacy, I know how this will be perceived by many members. Will they cease to be Liberals? Probably not, but it’s entirely possible that a large group of Liberals will sit out the next election cycle if it can’t rally around a fresher, newer leader than Rae.

We can’t afford another 2011. If we’re earnest about contributing positively to Canadian politics and, ultimately, government, we need to unite the party, not to reward the last man standing after all others have faltered.

For a year now we’ve taken comfort in our belief that we punch above our weight in Parliament, that Rae’s experience and ability make us equal to the NDP in the House, and as credible an alternative. But it’s not true. Rae is a good debater, yes, but our team has become somewhat ill-mannered in the House. We’re loud. We heckle. When the NDP speaks, even when we agree, we ignore them. (Of course, they do the same to us, and that’s why I don’t like it.)

We look old, frankly, and that’s not just because only two of our MPs were first elected last year. Even our younger MPs seem dated compared to the CPC and NDP caucuses. Let’s not be naive; those parties look like the face of Canada in 2012 and we look like the remnants of the class of ’93. I don’t believe we can portray ourselves credibly as fresh, new, youthful, or innovative if the face of the party is a former provincial premier first elected federally in 1978.

It just isn’t enough to present a progressive program based on well-meaning moderate policies: if we can’t sell our leader to the masses, we aren’t going to win or even retake the Official Opposition. A Rae administration might well resemble Chrétien’s – socially liberal, fiscally prudent, capable of brokering interests effectively – but as Chrétien clearly understood, you can only worry about government if you’re able to win an election.

I believe that, instead of rejecting the “leadership narrative,” if you will, we need to steal it back. We need to be more clever than our opponents. It may have taken Jack Layton seven years to become Jack Layton, but he started out as a newcomer to the federal scene – as did Harper, as did Mulcair – and I just don’t see how we can market Rae similarly.

Of course, I realize that Rae’s supporters constitute the single largest camp within the party, and I did hesitate (for four months, in fact) before writing this post, for a few reasons. I’ve always tried to steer clear of factions; even for internal positions, I tend not to endorse unless I know someone well. I assumed I would make clear my feelings about the leadership when I declared for a candidate, not before the race has begun.

I also don’t want to make an enemy of Bob Rae or anyone who supports him. Rae got me into politics in the first place. When my old EDA hosted Rae for a fundraiser, I insisted on making the introduction (and I do have a funny story from when Rae was my prof at U of T). I like Bob Rae a lot, and if he is chosen as our next leader, I won’t defect, I won’t quit, and I won’t sit on my hands. I’m no expert, and no one can predict how election dynamics affect outcomes (cf the NDP in 2011). I’m not writing off my own party if it picks a leader who isn’t my first choice…and note that I wrote first choice.

Plus I’m in it for the long haul. I’ve thought about it, and I just don’t see myself as either a Tory or a Dipper. If those were my only options, I’d probably quit politics.

I also hesitated because I know my party’s tendency to infighting and I would be aghast if anything I said or wrote damaged the Liberal Party. But I also feel that the only alternative is to whisper conspiratorially in backrooms or be, heaven forbid, one of those “anonymous Liberal sources.” My goal is not to undermine my leader or my party. But we’re supposed to be a new, open, democratic Liberal Party. We’re the only party that allows supporters, even if I’m not sure we know yet how to engage them.

We’ve also actively rejected the notion that the next leader will be chosen “by consensus,” like Ignatieff was. There is too much risk that party members will buy into the press narrative that Rae’s leadership is inevitable and the next convention will be another coronation, not a contest; I worry that Rae is too similar to Dion and Ignatieff to fend off Conservative attacks, too well-known to appeal to moderate centre-left voters, especially in Ontario.

Ultimately my concern is that, under Rae, we’ll become very comfortable as the third party and, well, let me put it this way: I didn’t sign up as a Liberal to become a New Democrat.


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