Once the political powerhouse of Canada, the Liberal Party has, as of recently, found itself in a position that it’s not all too familiar with: that of the third party in Canadian politics. Neither in a position of power nor the official opposition, the Liberals have fallen into what some might call irrelevancy.
The “Upright Centre: Third Party Problems” event, hosted at the University of Toronto by the Young Liberals of Ontario, featured a panel of political and media experts. Mike Crawley, the national president of the Liberal Party of Canada, Chris Selley of the National Post, and Amanda Alvaro, director of narrative media and former campaign leader for a Liberal campaign, came together to discuss some of the issues facing the Liberal Party and to get to the bottom of a particular issue nagging at the back of everyone’s minds: is there any room left for the Liberals?
Traditionally centrist in their political platforms, the Liberal Party of Canada has recently had to define themselves against the backdrop of the right — the Progressive Conservatives — and the left — the New Democratic Party — rather than creating their own party platforms. The Liberals have been branded elitist, out of touch, and ultimately, confused in their political positioning. Is it possible for the Liberals to recreate their brand, or has their party identity fallen too far to combat the PCs and NDPs?
Alvaro described it best when she said “we went from a party that was a natural ally to the middle class, who was in touch with the values of the majority of Canadians, to a party who — frankly — I feel became elitist, entitled, and out of touch. And we took a beating for it in the last election.” This is most certainly the way a lot of Liberal opponents, and some Liberals themselves no doubt, saw the party during the last federal election, when Michael Ignatieff spearheaded the Liberal bid.
But how do the Liberals return from what Crawley himself described as the “uptight centre” to what used to be a party representative of most Canadians and the founder of some of the most influential ideas in the Canadian political sphere? Perhaps there is no going back.
“Trying to chase the centre,” Crawley stated “and always being worried about being too left, too right, taking the wrong position on this, alienating this group, alienating that group, and in the end — too often — saying far, far too little” isn’t going to be a recipe for success. “Liberals have to get it into their heads that all political parties are temporary. Parties come and go all the time,” argues Crawley. Parties suit a need when there is one, and then they can either adapt and stay relevant or fail to do so and fall by the political wayside. This is the fate many see ahead for the Liberals.
Building anew offers opportunities that other parties don’t have. The official opposition party often feels as though they must counteract or react to what the party of power is saying or doing. The third party out can, essentially, do whatever they please with no worries of losing their place. “We’re talking about issues that they deem to be important, which may not be the issues that we should be talking about moving forward,” Crawley argued. “We’ve got to start acting like a third party. There’s nothing wrong with being a third party. In fact, right now in terms of where the party’s at in its history, acting like a third party would be a pretty good thing.”
Being a third party, however, is a notion that Selley argues the Liberals don’t understand. “The third party is the third party, there’s nothing special about the Liberals. Being in that situation just because they’ve governed for so much of Canada’s history, I mean, if there was anything special about or even magical about that brand they wouldn’t be where they are.”
The Liberal party isn’t going to be fixed by a single great idea, leader or campaign. The PCs have a clear, straightforward platform that speaks to their base and gets them elected. The NDPs have at least a moderately clear idea of who they are as a party. The Liberal identity, however, has seemingly lost all sense.
“The notion of renewal or rebuilding,” Alvaro comments, “I think part of what we need to do as a future forward Liberal party is stop talking about the re’s in everything. The renewal, the rebuild. We need to build and we need new.”