A short essay for the Ottawa Citizen a few weeks ago:
Before becoming leader of the Labour Party, Tony Blair wrote a pamphlet for the august thinktank of the British left, The Fabian Society, in which he questioned the socialist pillar of his party’s constitution. Adopted in 1918, Clause IV tied the Labour Party to a goal of nationalizing the means of production, distribution and exchange. At the time, this clause reflected a modern vision for the industrialization of 20th-century Britain. Eighty-five years later, it was a millstone around the neck of a party seeking to reinvent itself for a post-industrial world.
In his leadership acceptance speech a year later, Blair challenged the party to abolish Clause IV and to build with him a New Labour, one that embraced markets, technology and globalization. In one act, he redefined both the vision and structure of his party, took on the once intransigent party establishment, and made it clear that the Labour Party was to become a 21st-century institution, rather than a 20th-century one.
It is hard to look at the Liberal Party of Canada and not think that they too need a Clause IV moment. At the base of most of their problems, and there are many, lies a similar core challenge that once faced Labour: the Liberal party is an institution that has failed to modernize. In structure, operation, policy and vision, it is a 20th-century party in a 21st-century Canada.
While there has been much premature prognosticating of the Liberals’ demise, it is certainly worth keeping the party’s very real challenges front of mind.
First, the structure of the party remains laden with bureaucracy, committees, and entrenched interests. Over time (and despite much success) it has simply become bloated. More critically, lines of authority have been blurred. On any issue, it is unclear whether the leader, their staff and advisers, the party executive, regional leadership, MPs, riding associations, committees or party members have legitimate agency or control. This leads to endless internal tension. This may have been acceptable in an era where the party was in power, with lots of jobs to fill and flush funds. It is profoundly illsuited for a lean period of rebuilding and innovation.
Second, operationally, the party remains out of date. Voter identification has only recently been digitized, fundraising is built around a low volume/big donor model that no longer exists, the membership system is easily corruptible, the volunteer structure draws only on the most strident party faithful, and there is no network of like-minded organizations and think-tanks. How can this party expect to compete with a conservative political machine that has rebuilt itself from the bottom up?
Third, on the policy front, the party is stalled. It is stuck in a vision of Canada successfully implemented in the late 20th century, but which hasn’t kept up with the rapidly changing world. Simply put, the party has prioritized the defence of the progressive institutions and programs that it built, over the outcomes they were intended to enable.
Canadians know – as health care threatens to eat up 50 per cent of provincial budgets and service levels remain mixed – that their healthcare system is broken.
Young Canadians don’t trust that a pension system will exist for them. Anyone can see that traditional peacekeeping cannot solve today’s international conflicts. Where are the bold progressive policy ideas on health care, drug policy, inequality, climate change and education? All are ripe for a rethinking that prioritizes progressive outcomes rather than dated 20th-century progressive processes.
Finally, the party does not have an overarching vision that resonates in a 21st-century Canada. Liberals are not alone. At the heart of the challenge facing the emergence of a new Liberal vision is a paradox plaguing centre-left parties around the world. Voters see a system of government built for a different age, one far less effective at delivering services than any other institution in their lives. Conservatives have an easy answer to this inefficiency – get rid of government. The Liberal challenge is far more difficult; they must present a convincing argument for reforming rather than dismantling government.
It is through the lens of these challenges that next week’s party convention should be viewed. While non-leadership party conventions hold limited expectations, this is no ordinary time for the Liberal party. It is fair to ask: do the proceedings of this event lay the groundwork for revolutionary rather than evolutionary change?
There are three areas in which we can look for indicators: the proposed policy resolutions, the proposed constitutional amendments, and the candidates running for the party presidency.
First, while true that party platforms are rarely made on the tangled convention floor, anyone looking for a new vision of Canada in the list of policy resolutions is sure to be disappointed. There are the usual general calls for national programs and strategies (post-secondary education, child care, anti-poverty, a national energy grid, national pharmacare, increased research funding, universal broadband). There is a proposal for (yet another) Renewal Commission, a suggestion to ban the penny, a call to oppose Bill C-11 (the government’s copyright legislation) and another to reinstate the long-form census. None of the health-care resolutions address the underlying structural challenges, and only one of the foreign policy proposals, a resolution on corporate international responsibility, offers more than platitudes to “be better.”
There are two exceptions to this rather bland list, both proposed by the Young Liberals: the requisite call to legalize marijuana and a resolution to cut ties with the monarchy. The time has surely come for national conversations on each, and both have a cross partisan constituency. Irrespective of their individual merit, these are the type of policy explorations than will need to come out of a party in renewal. A hundred more bold ideas and we’d have a real policy conversation.
Second, while most of the proposed procedural constitutional amendments represent minor adjustments, two are significant, and while flawed, will signal the party members’ appetite for real structural change.
The first proposal is to create a new category of party member, called a supporter, who can register to vote in the party leadership. This is what is being called the “primary model” and the intention is to bring more Canadians into the leadership selection process. As many have pointed out, this is a big idea, and one with lasting consequence, but it may not pass due to a failure to spell out the specifics in the resolution.
The second, related resolution will allow these supporters to participate in riding candidate nominations. This idea is modelled on the “open nomination” trials that David Cameron successfully conducted in the lead-up to the last British election, and are meant to break away from entrenched party member control of candidate selection.
While imperfect (true open nominations freed from incumbency and party membership would go significantly further than either resolution), and perhaps unlikely to pass in their current form, the intent of both of these proposed reforms gets at one of the core challenges facing the party, namely, how to attract and entice both riding and leadership candidates from outside of the party ecosystem. Together, they reflect a recognition that the party needs new blood if it’s going to survive.
Finally, the election of the new party president has turned into a symbolic initial marker of the party’s reform. Rightly or wrongly, Mike Crawley has emerged as the reform candidate and Sheila Copps as the leader from the past. Copps has strong links to the old left of the party, and is even proposing a national tour of former Liberal MPs to reinvigorate the party. Crawley on the other hand has successfully captured the support, if not yet imagination, of the next generation of the party. For this reason, his likely victory will be at the least a symbolic win for advocates of substantive reform.
Liberal renewal has been largely empty rhetoric ever since Paul Martin’s 2006 election loss. Up until now, entrenched party interests and actors have won out over real reform. Attempts to shake up policy, to bring in new big ideas, have been vigorously fought off by the party establishment. There hasn’t been a Clause IV moment; no one has even tried.
But the reality is that there is opportunity in the current electoral landscape. On the right is a Conservative party that, at its core, doesn’t believe in the federal government. Its appeal is the offer to dismantle the parts of the system that are broken, but in so doing it will leave behind many of those who are protected and enabled by the government.
On the left is a party whose vision is to return Canada to the 1960s. It’s a world of a strong national government, of an even bigger health-care system, social safety net and welfare state. The conservatism of the left means protecting what is unsustainable.
There is room in between for a re-imagined progressive federal vision. One that is built around the political axes of the 21st century: open vs. closed systems; evidence-based policy vs. ideology; meritocratic governance vs. patronage; open and fair markets vs. isolationism; sustainability vs. disposability, and emergent networks vs. hierarchies.
The question now is whether the threat of extinction is sufficient to spur the innovation of ideas, people and structures needed to turn the broken-down 20thcentury jalopy that is the current Liberal party into a state-of-the-art vehicle purpose-built for a 21st-century progressive vision.