The natural governing party is back

Lydia Miljan
September 26, 2016
The Liberal Party of Canada hit a rough patch in the early 2000s, falling not just out of power but all the way to third place, and for a time it looked one of the most historically successful political organizations in the democratic world was finally out of gas. But a year after its big comeback under Justin Trudeau, writes Lydia Miljan, Liberal hegemony looks as strong and durable as ever, and it's back to the drawing board for the Conservative and New Democrat opposition parties.

The natural governing party is back

Lydia Miljan
September 26, 2016
The Liberal Party of Canada hit a rough patch in the early 2000s, falling not just out of power but all the way to third place, and for a time it looked one of the most historically successful political organizations in the democratic world was finally out of gas. But a year after its big comeback under Justin Trudeau, writes Lydia Miljan, Liberal hegemony looks as strong and durable as ever, and it's back to the drawing board for the Conservative and New Democrat opposition parties.
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Prior to the 2004 federal election campaign, internal polling by the Conservatives found that the Liberal brand was so strong it didn’t matter who the Liberal leader was because they were starting from a 15-20 point advantage over their rivals. The Conservative party spent the next seven years developing a marketing strategy to create a brand that would resonate with Canadians, culminating in their 2011 election victory. They succeeded by using market research, crafting simple messages that emphasized Conservative strengths such as economic policy, and a strict adherence to message discipline. They also succeeded by engaging in a “de-branding” strategy of attacking the Liberal party and its leaders.

Nearly one year after the 2015 election, it appears those gains have evaporated. The “sunny ways” of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has resulted in approval ratings for the Liberals at levels not seen since the 1990s. Once again, national polls place the Liberals nearly 20 percentage points ahead of the Conservatives. Poll aggregators such as have pegged Liberal support as high as 52 percent over the last year and it currently sits at 48 percent. In contrast, even at their height of support after the 2011 election, the Conservatives were never able to move above the low 40s, and often times dipped into the high 30s. The only time in the last 40 years that the Conservatives were able to reach the 50 percent mark was just before and just after the 1984 election in Mulroney’s first majority government.

It’s a cliché to call the Liberals the natural governing party of Canada, but that doesn’t make it any less true. They’ve held power for 68 of the last 100 years.  Given the results of the last election it might be more accurate to say that we have a one-party state that is periodically subverted by short-lived Conservative insurgencies. Although the Conservatives have made short term gains in popular support after long periods of Liberal majorities, they have not been able to sustain those gains in the long term, or make inroads into capturing the Canadian identity. In fact, notwithstanding last election, when Conservatives lose, they tend to lose big. This suggests that prolonged electoral success requires more than simplistic messaging.

There is a growing scholarship on how political parties use marketing to attract the public’s attention. The Conservatives excelled at these techniques, especially with respect to de-branding Liberal leaders Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. But by the 2015 election, Canadians became tone deaf to the attacks on Justin Trudeau. There are many reasons, some of which were self-inflicted, such as hyper control of the message, and others that were out of their control, such as the Liberals rebuilding their own brand with the popularity of Trudeau. Conservative over-reliance on the techniques of the previous campaign was also a problem. They did not adjust their strategy to deal with the re-branding that the Liberals put together.

Why Tory attacks on Trudeau failed

What the Liberals did was turn the Conservatives’ techniques and tactics against them. In the past, the Conservatives were able to re-brand the Liberals as untrustworthy insiders who benefitted from government largesse – “the culture of corruption and entitlement.” They were also able to paint Liberal leaders as lacking in leadership qualities: Dion was “not a leader”; Ignatieff was “just visiting”.

But when they used the same technique against Trudeau in the “in way over his head” and “just not ready” campaigns, the Liberals turned the attacks to their advantage. Last year’s powerful Liberal end-of-campaign ads, which aired in heavy rotation, ended with one word – “Ready” – on the screen. These messages were a direct response to the Conservative attacks, and a much more effective counter argument than either Dion or Ignatieff were able to launch. The campaign was personified by Justin Trudeau which emphasized youth, hipness, and creating a positive attachment to the Liberal Party – all attributes that attract young voters and the Liberal base. And, all attributes that Canadians associate with the Liberal Party.

Miljan - Inset 1
A lineup of Conservative attack ads over the last decade (Image: Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

We often say that Canadians do not vote governments in, they vote them out. The 2015 election runs counter to that aphorism. The decline in the Conservative vote between 2011 and 2015 was small, from 5.82 million to 5.6 million. What really happened in last year’s election was that the Liberals were able to pull a million votes away from the NDP, and attract two million voters who hadn’t voted at all in 2011. Moreover, they increased their votes by 1.6 million over the last time they won a majority government in 2000. This suggests not only that disenchanted voters came back to the party, but the Liberals also attracted a whole set of new voters.

Those voters rejected the Conservative attacks and embraced the new direction the Liberals promised. They were also heavily influenced by a de-branding exercise that painted the Conservatives as anti-intellectual, anti-science, and having authoritarian tendencies. Over the last decade, every criticism of Conservative policy was not simply about a disagreement over a means to an end, it was an attack on the Conservatives being on the wrong side of history. From the long-form census to arts funding, from science policy to climate change, the Conservatives were branded as being completely out of touch with Canadian values. To be fair, the NDP had done the heavy lifting in this de-branding exercise in their role of official opposition.

All that NDP work and nothing to show for it

The fact that the NDP didn’t benefit from their efforts demonstrates the peculiar advantage the Liberals hold over the Canadian psyche. Once elected, the Liberals mostly relied on empty talking points like “Canada is back” or “science based policy” and “climate-change” to demonstrate how they differed from the previous government. While some Conservative policies have been rolled back, and a lot of rhetoric has been devoted to climate change and supporting indigenous people, so far there has been little substantive policy change.

Successful conservative movements in Western democracies tend to be a mixture of fiscal responsibility and a rejection of progressive social ideals. Campaigns in Europe such as the Brexit referendum and the draw of Donald Trump in the U.S. are rooted in these issues. They also have sometimes veiled, and sometimes overt, anti-immigrant sentiments. The common sense attraction of limited government is paramount, but it’s often undermined by the creation of a folk devil in immigrant or marginalized groups, which paints conservatives as intolerant and anti-liberty. This is not new to the modern conservative movement. In the foreword to the 1956 American paperback edition of The Road to Serfdom, F.A. Hayek argued,

Conservatism, though a necessary element in any stable society, is not a social program; in its paternalistic, nationalistic and power adoring tendencies it is often closer to socialism than true liberalism; and with its traditionalistic, anti-intellectual, and often mystical propensities it will never, except in short periods of disillusionment, appeal to the young and all those others who believe that some changes are desirable if this world is to become a better place.

The short-term success of modern conservative parties does not promote long-term attachment to the party or the leader. The electorate may see the value of a Conservative government as a periodic corrective to years of Liberal waste, but most won’t commit to conservatism as an ideal. This is because, as Hayek observed, conservative parties often are the “defender of established privilege.” This is not to say that Hayek would view the Canadian Liberal party as true liberals, as he thought the real classical liberal position is “a thorough sweeping away of the obstacles to free growth.” For Hayek, and I suspect, a lot of small c conservatives, it is better to be in a party of liberty than of progressive socialism.

Scientists and academics gather on Parliament Hill on July 10, 2012 to protest Conservative budget cuts they say undermine evidence-based policymaking. (Toronto Star / Bruce Campion-Smith)
Protesters gather on Parliament Hill on July 10, 2012 to rally against Conservative budget cuts they say undermine evidence-based policy making. (Image: Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Both the Conservatives and the NDP face serious questions on how they will position themselves in the coming years to challenge the dominance of the Liberals. For the NDP, they will have to choose between the desire of their core supporters to move back to the left, or the success they had with Jack Layton moving towards the centre. For the Conservatives, the challenge is to focus on economic and personal liberty and avoid divisive identity politics, while retaining its base of supporters who are wary of social change.

Both opposition parties undoubtedly yearn for a populist, media-friendly leader to compete with Trudeau. They should resist that impulse. Stephen Harper did not earn a decade in power by performing with famed cellist Yo Yo Ma at a National Arts Centre Gala in Ottawa in 2009, even though it won him a standing ovation and even praise from some opposition members. By the time the 2015 came around, Harper’s performances with his band the Van Cats were widely panned and even ridiculed on mock news shows such as Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

The lesson here is that it is foolish to challenge a popular leader on their area of natural advantage. The current prime minister is a celebrity in his own right. To try to find a leader who has that level of celebrity, charm, or hair would be futile. Instead, both opposition parties need to find their own areas of strength and find leaders who can build the party and the brand. It would also be an error to assume Canadians will not eventually tire of the selfie prime minister. His bare torso that was so much on display this summer will inevitably grow unattractive through over-exposure

Apart from a popular leader the historical success of the Liberals is that they are able to present themselves as progressive in their promotion of civil and social rights. And, despite their routine bouts of profligacy, they have occasionally been able to demonstrate that they are reasonable stewards of the public purse. For the NDP to challenge them, they have to demonstrate that for all the rhetoric of embracing women, indigenous people, and immigrants, it is the NDP that is the true guardian of group rights. For the Conservatives to be successful, they need to focus on their strengths as guardians of markets and liberty. Only then can the two parties build their own electoral success while de-branding the Liberals.

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