Well, well, well: it appears that Bob Rae has decided not to run for the federal Liberal leadership after all, despite rampant speculation over the past year that he would if the party let him.
This has to be a relief for people who’d like to see Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative wrecking crew defeated sometime before, oh, 2028.
That was unlikely to happen with the Liberals being led by Rae. Obviously, he carried too much baggage from his polarizing time as the NDP premier of Ontario from 1990 to 1995. As well, he turns 64 in August and would be 67 at the time of the next election.
These facts hardly scream “renewal” to a party sorely in need of just that.
The temptation for the party will be to go for what might appear to be the quick fix, namely choosing 40-year-old Justin Trudeau, son of Pierre and MP for the Montreal riding of Papineau, as its next leader.
That may or may not be a great idea.
At the very least, party members should take a collective deep breath, have a good debate about who they intend to choose and – above all – avoid handing the reins to Trudeau in a coronation, because we all know how that turned out with the last guy.
The problem the party faces at the moment is that the NDP and its new leader, Thomas Mulcair, are attracting a lot of attention in their new roles as the Official Opposition, while the Liberals seem like a spent force.
This is underscored by the results of a new Ipsos-Reid poll, done for Global TV and Postmedia News, which found that a majority (56%) of Canadians agree (19% strongly/38% somewhat) that the Liberals are “a party of the past, not a party of the future.”
Another interesting finding: 52% of Canadians agree (21% strongly/31% somewhat) that “regardless of who the Liberals choose as their next leader,” they’ve “pretty much written off the Liberals.” But the the other half (48%) of Canadians disagree (16% strongly/32% somewhat), believing that the Liberals can rise again. (Ominously, however, 61% of current NDP supporters say they’ve written off the Liberals, as have seven in 10 Conservative supporters.)
More bad news: only 35% agree (6% strongly/29% somewhat) that “the Liberals, not the NDP, have the best chance of defeating Stephen Harper and the Conservatives in the next federal election.”
In a hopeful sign for the party however, three in 10 (29%) agree (6% strongly/23% somewhat) that “of all the federal political parties, the Liberals best represent their personal political values.” That gives the party something to build on.
Clearly, the Liberals have work to do. Most Canadians don’t think they can win the next election, and half have written off the party entirely.
But all is not lost. For one thing, as I’ve argued before, the NDP’s position as the official opposition is hardly secure, and the NDP – unlike the Liberal party, with its historical ties to business and legal circles – has yet to show that it’s a credible national economic manager. Furthermore, the party is trying to gain this trust with MPs drawn from non-traditional power circles, such as organized labour and social movements.
Meanwhile, the new Tory coalition is, for now, razor-thin and based in the West, as well as among traditionalist immigrants and chunks of rural and suburban Ontario. Harper achieved his 2011 majority with just 39.6 per cent of the popular vote, little support in Quebec and relatively few seats in Toronto proper, or in Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa.
If they hope to revive themselves, the Liberals need to appeal to Pearsonian nationalism and engage the pragmatic middle of the electorate in a non-ideological way. They also need to re-engage immigrant communities on non-socially conservative issues by focusing on economic opportunity and upward mobility through education and the security of strong social programs.
In essence, they need to understand that their path to rejuvenation, if not immediate power, lies in portraying the party as the defender of the middle class – that’s the big idea the party needs to keep hammering home. Liberals need to show Canadians that Harper is reducing their chances of staying in the middle class, or of achieving that status.
The NDP speaks of working Canadians (sometimes adding the word “ordinary”) while the Tories talk about taxpayers. The Liberals need to talk about how the middle class is disappearing, or at the very least suffering, under the Harperites, and under neoliberalism more generally.
Fortunately for the Libs, there are encouraging signs municipally and provincially that centrist and centre-left politics are alive and well in Canada.
For one, Premier Alison Redford’s seemingly miraculous last-minute resurrection of Alberta’s Red Tory dynasty in her province’s recent election shows that even deep inside Harper Country, centrist politics can defeat a hard-right alternative.
And in Toronto, Mayor Rob Ford is demonstrating just how hard it is to drag urban Canada to the right. (Granted, he’s a caricature of a hard-right politician, but in voting for Ford and his cantankerous, standoffish belligerence, the city has embraced council gridlock and effectively elected a four-headed mayor in the form of centre-left rookie councillors Josh Matlow and Josh Colle, as well as centre-right councillor Karen Stintz and rookie centre-right councillor James Pasternak.)
Nevertheless, despite some hopeful signs, the Liberals should mull things over carefully before nominating a hairstyle with the right family name. They need to spend time reconnecting with the electorate, and they’ll have to do it as the third party in the House of Commons, and while the NDP is building its own government-in-waiting credentials and currying favour with many of the same potential voters.
In some ways, the Liberals are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
If the party does manage to pull itself off the carpet by choosing Trudeau to lead them in the next election, its success would come be at the expense of the NDP. Which, of course, helps the Tories.
Yet they wouldn’t have won with Rae, and they won’t win with Marc Garneau, David McGuinty or Martha Hall Findlay.
They’re also unlikely to succeed in the short term by going for the quick win with Trudeau, and they’ll look craven trying. As the Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson points out, Trudeau is unlikely to win the 2015 election running as a rookie leader against Harper. But perhaps if he hangs around, Ontario’s middle class voters – the linchpins to electoral success who, Ibbitson argues, seem to be congenitally wary of neophyte leaders – might reward him in 2019.
In the meantime, Trudeau may yet reveal that he has inherited both his dad’s flair for performance and his mom’s brains and flakiness. It’s too soon to tell.
Of course, the Liberals’ best path to power may lie in a merger with the NDP, but longstanding inter-party enmity and the Liberals’ unwillingness to become junior merger partners (like the Progressive Conservatives) stand in the way of that idea. And the NDP – which selected a relative centrist in Mulcair, a former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister – clearly has a plurality, if not a majority, among its members who feel it can make its own independent overtures to middle class voters.
What the Libs really need is a guy like Jack Layton, or even Mulcair himself. Unfortunately, the former is dead and the latter is currently otherwise gainfully employed.
For now, it looks like Trudeau or bust. But for God’s sake, let’s hope someone credible at least makes it an exciting race.