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How Deep the Liberal Divide?

Rift could hand Conservatives a long reign.

By Rafe Mair 6 Feb 2006 | TheTyee.ca

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The problems of the Liberal Party of Canada may be more serious than first appeared.

There is a tendency to think that what looks permanent is permanent. Except nothing is. All things, good and bad, come to an end, sometime. The Liberal Party has been Canada's centre-left party since I can remember, pushing the Tories so far right that unless the Liberals badly screwed up, they are forever out of power, while confining the NDP to where it mainly appeals to union leaders, which is not necessarily to say the rank and file, and college professors. By adopting policies of the left, the Libs have kept the NDP at bay and by retaining policies of the right - free trade and the GST, for example - have kept the Tories out of power most of the time.

But, one might well ask, isn't the Liberal Party so strong that they will always come back, even from major defeats, as they did after Diefenbaker and Mulroney, much less narrow ones as we saw on January 23? Peter C. Newman in Saturday's Globe and Mail thinks so. Perhaps it is, but it's interesting to see what happened to the Liberal Party in Britain.

Another land, long ago

Prior to the First World War, the government of Asquith, which included men like Lloyd George and Churchill, was riding high. Seeing the emerging Labour Party taking over the left, the Liberals, under Home Secretary Winston Churchill and Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George, brought in what, for the day, were massive social reforms, thus cutting the feet from under Labour. Sound familiar? They then took on the then power bastion of the rich, the House of Lords, and won. As the country went into war, the Liberal Party was invincible. Except the war went badly and Prime Minister Asquith formed a coalition with the Conservatives and shortly after Lloyd George mounted a coup and succeeded Asquith as PM. This created a breach within the party that ensured that for the next 90 years, to the present time, they would never regain power.

We had then, a British Liberal Party with a breach from top to bottom which never healed. They became a sort of useful party of the centre that voters could use when they got pissed off at their favourite party, especially in by-elections, but nothing more. Over the years, they've benefited occasionally from voter discontent with the Labour or Conservative parties but have never even sniffed power.

It will be argued that the difference is that in Canada, the Conservative party has its own internal troubles and, besides, only has a minority government. That's true. And this spec piece would be without substance if the Liberals were poised with a united party and a popular leader who could win - but they aren't. The "A" list of candidates for leader have all said "no thanks" and the best of the "B" list, Allan Rock, has said the same. The party is broke and discredited by its last years in office. And they have a rift - the Martin-ites and Chretien-ites - approximating that between Asquith-ites and Lloyd George-ers when the Conservatives at their famous 1922 meeting at the Carlton Club ended the coalition.

Philosophical breach?

The question is simple - is the breach in the Canadian Liberal Party just a bit of an internal spat or is it deep-seated, representing a philosophical breach?

For any speculation of a long-term Liberal Party electoral drought, three things must happen.

First, Stephen Harper must govern well and from the centre where most Canadians are, so that he is the favourite going into the next election. Second, the NDP must come up with leadership and policy that indicates they are ready for and entitled to be spokespeople for the Centre-Left. Thirdly, the Liberals must prove unable, in the shorter run at any rate, to come up with the leader who can put the Chretien-Martin schism behind the party and regain public confidence.

Stephen Harper should prove able to do his part. He has a minority, to be sure, but who's going to bring him down? Only the Liberals combined with the Bloc have the numbers to do this, but the Liberals are a long way from wanting another election. So are the Bloc. Gilles Duceppe knows that Tories have been able to show well in Quebec in the past.

Unless Michael Ignatieff is something more than a professor from Harvard who writes, who will lead the Liberals in their fight to be reborn?

It's a tough call to say how Harper will govern or whether Jack Layton can move himself and his party into the centre sufficiently to capitalize on Liberal woes.

Indeed, it's all speculation. I don't say that any of the above will happen.

All I say is that something very like it happened in a parliamentary democracy much like ours under rather similar circumstances.

Rafe Mair writes a Monday column for The Tyee. His website is www.rafeonline.com.  [Tyee]

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