Going into the Liberal policy conference in Montreal last weekend, the papers were full of comparisons to the Aylmer conference of 1991, or even the Kingston conference of 1960—places of lore, where deep thinkers conjured up new ideas that later propelled the party to victory.
This is how the media imagines policy is born. You close the doors, pour some coffee, and brainstorm for a few hours, like advertising copywriters on a deadline, until a new idea pops into your head. The new idea is so obviously superior to the old that you are elected. Or, conversely, parties fail to meet the media’s demand for “new ideas” and are condemned to electoral hell.
By that standard, the conference was a failure: the only “new idea” to emerge from Montreal was a proposal to freeze corporate tax rates. But perhaps that wasn’t the point. Perhaps the point of the conference was rather to educate Liberals in some unpleasant realities: fiscal, social, political. The point, it seemed to me, was to tell them this wasn’t Kingston. The country’s problems are much different than those it faced in 1960, and so are the solutions.
Which is to say: the Liberal party itself is in a vastly different place than it was then. In 1960, the intellectual winds were blowing the party’s way. The solutions it proposed—public health care, public pensions, a vast expansion of the welfare state—were on the leading edge of contemporary thinking. By 1991, they were playing catch-up, grudgingly accepting the wisdom of free trade and balanced budgets. But against an exhausted Conservative government, it proved enough.
Today the situation is far more dire. In 1960 or 1991, it was still possible for Liberals to hope that, with a turn in the political tides, they could be carried back to power in relatively short order. In 2010, that is a harder case to make. Much is made of the failings of their current leader, Michael Ignatieff, as much was made of the failings of the last, and of the one before that. But the truth is that the Natural Governing Party is in the grip of a historic political realignment, which it is all but powerless to resist.
The only surprise is that we did not see it coming long ago. As recently as 2003, it was still common to refer to the Liberal party as an unstoppable political dynasty, and to Canada as a system almost of one-party rule. Yet that impressive imperial facade concealed deep fissures. The Liberal empire was cracking up, and had been for more than 50 years.
Go back to 1949. In that year’s election, the first under Louis St. Laurent, the Liberals took 191 of 262 seats to win their fourth straight majority. More impressively, they won a majority of the seats in every region: Ontario, Quebec, the West, and Atlantic Canada. Today they control only the last.
The West was the first to go. The Liberals’ western caucus was cut to single digits in 1957, then obliterated in the Diefenbaker sweep the following year, a calamity from which it has never recovered: 1949 was in fact the last time the Liberals carried the West. In most elections since they have struggled to win a dozen seats.
But that was not so much of a problem for the party, so long as it maintained its historic lock on Quebec. The Liberals won six of seven elections from 1963 through 1980, yet only once (1968) carried the rest of Canada. The difference was Quebec: under Pierre Trudeau, the Liberals routinely racked up more than two-thirds of the seats in the province. But the Mulroney sweep of 1984 ended that, and the party has never really recovered there, either.