Time to rebuild

The federal Liberals, long considered (especially by themselves) Canada’s natural governing party, marked a historic low point after last week’s elections left them with only 34 seats in Parliament. A day after the trouncing and after failing to be re-elected in his own Etobicoke-Lakeshore riding, Michael Ignatieff stepped down as Liberal leader. Many believe he was not their best choice to begin with.

This sea change has now given Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party the majority he so long desired. And the New Democrats with 102 seats, the largest in its history, will now form the official Opposition.

This is not the first time that the electorate has made such a wide swing in an election, but the victim has always been the party in power. This time, however, Canadians voted out the Opposition. So what is to become of the Liberals? No doubt they will take the time to understand what went wrong for them as they set about rebuilding the party.

The Liberal leader, among other things, was crushed by the steady Conservative offensive that negatively characterized him as “just visiting” and “in it for himself”. The Conservatives did a similarly effective hatchet job on Ignatieff’s predecessor, Stéphane Dion. Talk about a one-two punch. And while it may seem a superficial matter, being telegenic actually counts for much. Ignatieff may have been effective when meeting the crowds in person but that did not translate to those viewing him only on television.

More important, what the current Liberals need to understand, if they don’t already, is that in the public’s mind they have lost their definition. With the Conservatives we have a fair idea of what they represent with their focus on law and order, reducing the size of government and the emphasis on the interests of Western Canada.

Likewise, the NDP are seen to be the voice of the working family, especially those who exist on low incomes, as well as trade unions.

Today’s Liberals, on the other hand, are neither fish nor fowl in a world that is so busy that it has little time for nuance when it comes to political parties.

It will take some doing for the Liberals to find themselves again because, with an aging mass of voters, interests have shifted to the right of centre and the Conservatives have that covered.

To have a chance of surviving the Liberals must return to the grassroots to define or redefine who they are and what they represent. It certainly would not be the first time it has been necessary for this party to do so. After being in existence in one form or another since before Confederation they should know this. What they need is renewal.

Given the past decade of Liberal infighting and issues of integrity including the sponsorship scandal that soured Quebec voters on the Liberals, the party should consider this a timeout from the electorate.

They need to be reminded that they have to continuously cultivate a relationship with voters. A mistake they made, for instance, was to take the ethnic vote for granted. A corrective lesson can be taken from the Jason Kenney playbook. The Conservatives’ immigration minister made it his personal mission to build up a strong relationship with ethnic voters over a protracted period. He fostered mutual interests with new Canadians with the result that many now identify more with the Conservatives.

Liberals also must reach out to individuals who are not currently members of the party but who have the potential to not only become members but also to run for office, especially young people.

The NDP is facing some skepticism because of its new roster of young people elected in Quebec, yet the party has been renewed. It will be interesting to see how leader Jack Layton handles both the job and his new caucus.

Meanwhile, the Liberals need to do much more than a bit of spring-cleaning if they are to get back in the game. And they have four years in which to do it.

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