It isn't often that I feel motivated to comment on the status of my former political party. However, the last week has been absolutely disastrous for the Liberals, and it would be remiss of me to not comment on it.
The situation is now being described as a civil war by none other than Sheila Copps. I had the opportunity to meet Miss Copps in 2003 and I very nearly ended up supporting her for the Liberal leadership that year. I bring this up because it is evidence that I respect her opinion and her insights. There were a couple of policy disagreements between us that ultimtaely led in me backing the greatest footnote in Canadian political history, but that in no way limits my respect for her. When she says that the old rivalries are resurfacing with new faces, I believe her. She knows many more people in higher places than I ever did in the Party, so her words should be taken seriously.
So it is the case that in September 2007 the Liberal Party of Canada is still engaged in the same internecine struggles that were damaging it in the period of 2002-2004. Rumours abound of plots to overthrow Stephane Dion's leadership, many of those plots focusing on Michael Ignatieff, but some also fingerpointing at Bob Rae. It is not entirely surprising that the impetus for all of this is a poor performance in 3 Quebec by-elections. Dion is a Quebec man, and it was believed that his long experience with the Intergovernmental Affairs portfolio and his self-proclaimed championing of a cause important to many Quebeckers--the environment--would help rebound sagging fortunes in the province. It turns out that the opposite has proven true. Dion hasn't established his credibility on the environmental file, having been criticized by former Cabinet colleagues who noted his lackadaisacal attitude when he was Environment Minister, and it turns out that many people in Quebec don't really appreciate his handling of Quebec-Ottawa relations. Plus he had a terrible organizational approach to the three elections, losing a long-standing Liberal stronghold and garnering a popular vote in the teens over the 3 ridings.
Cue the plotting. Ignatieff came out of the Montreal Convention as the runner-up to Dion. He was unable to grow his support from his initial 30% range on the first ballot to win the leadership, and I personally doubt that he'll be willing to stick around in Canadian politics as an opposition party critic for a long time when he knows that he could go back to any university and be the head of its political science department. Those hallways are less cutthroat than politics--Canadian and/or Liberal--and I would not be surprised if he regularly hears offers from institutions looking to add his formidable talents to their university. So it's either aim for coup or go back to academia for him. By all accounts, it seems he's going to try the coup first.
However, all of this neglects to look at the biggest problem the Liberal Party faces today. It is not that it's the same cast of stale characters or even the lack of a serious policy platform. It is criminal that they haven't held a policy convention since February 2005, that they don't articulate a consistent set of policies that liberals can rally around, sure. The biggest problem with the Liberal Party today is that it is called the Liberal Party. The brand is broken, toxic even. Back when Paul Martin became the party leader, the membership ranks boasted over half a million. Today it is a fraction of that. I don't know the numbers, but there are no pronouncements of mega-majorities or standing-proud local organizations looking to sign up every human soul in sight (living or dead, eh Joe Volpe?), so it is safe to assume that people have tuned out the Liberals. The absence of a message helps, but the lingering hostility over sponsorship, the fighting, the Martinites, and so much more takes precedence. Back in 2003 there was some hope for Liberals to make breakthroughs in areas that they had been shut out of since the days of Trudeau. Those are long gone, and they're now on the defensive even in bastions like Toronto and Montreal. Announce that you're a Liberal in some places and people may hiss and bear pitchforks.
What can they do? Rebuild, top to bottom. Make concrete steps to differentiate themselves from the Liberal brand of the recent past. Transforming one's image is difficult but it can be done--look at Stephen, formerly "Scary," Harper and his continued success as Prime Minister. Drop the arrogance, drop the "blame the voters" mentality, don't accuse people who disagree with you of lacking a "social conscience," don't formulate talking points around George W. Bush. Talk about your vision, talk about liberal values, compassion, humanity, a "role of pride and influence in the world," things that people can support. If they don't, these civil wars will be without end, and every leader will spend an inordinate amount of time looking over his shoulder to find out who is plotting to put a knife between his shoulder blades.