Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The "dividedness" of the Liberal Party

Much hay has been made of how divided the Liberal Party is these days--or to put it in a somewhat more neutral way, how prominent party members and leadership candidates have taken opposing sides on various issues. These issues have ranged from the Canadian military presence in Afghanistan to the Conservative Accountability Act. The conclusion seems to be that this is yet another piece of evidence that the Liberals are in complete disarray, because they can't even come up with a common position on important issues. And Stephen Harper is some sort of political genius for exposing this Achilles heel.

Exactly why is this a problem again?

I'm aware that this is one of those Ignorant American questions that I work so hard to avoid having to ask, but I've thought and read about this for more than a month now, and I'm quite honestly flummoxed. I mean, I know this isn't the U.S., where divided votes are an everyday occurrence. I realize that it's common to toe the party line on most issues in a parliamentary democracy, and I also realize that there are actually good reasons for this. But if you're not allowed to take differing positions on various issues during a leadership race, when are you allowed to do that? They'll eventually have to prove they can unite behind their new leader, whoever that ends up being, but
at a time when leadership candidates are supposed to be distinguishing themselves from each other, whipping the party into some false unity would seem unnecessarily harsh and restrictive. And wait a minute, didn't the old Reformatories--of which our new prime minister was once a proud member--think free votes/divided votes were a positive thing?

I'm also finding myself scratching my head that none of the party's PR people doing damage control on this image problem have simply said: "issue x has two sides to it, and our party is large enough that we have members who stand on either side of the line. This is a good thing!" Even in the blogosphere, where you can generally find every opinion under the sun, only Far and Wide comes close to that position. There's got to be some piece of cultural context I'm missing, some bit of tradition or some slice of history. Anybody want to take a shot at explaining it to the Silly Immigrant?


Greg said...

Canadians are uncomfortable with dissent within groups.

Anonymous said...

IP, I find it confusing as well, and I'm third generation Canadian (well, 7th, on my mom's side).

I don't think it's cultural at all; more that everyone has bought the "Dissent is bad" spin that both the Conservatives and the NDP have been pumping out. (Which is less about the leadership race, and more on the liberals on the opposition benches not having a consistent message.)

Anonymous said...

Thats an intersting post. Where to start. The Liberal party is in no more dissarray than the NDP if I use the reasoning you have laid out. NDP MP Pat Martin is acting as a conservative with the same cold callous mean spirited attitude exhibit by the CPC. Bloggers here at Blogging Dippers such as Robert McClelland can be found at garth Turners Blog speaking about how much in common tories and NDP have.

So if you want to speak about dissarry then I would say that the NDP are moreso having problems than the Liberals. They are having identity problems as to whether they are Neo-Cons or socialists. Apparently they are the same (?). The liberal party has always been a party of differing ideas which is what makes it such a successful one. People are not Left or Right, they are shades of gray. Otherwise you are labelled fascist or communist. Seems both of these labels suit your members these days.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I haven't found that to be true in other groups I've been a part of here (my department at the university, or even my local NDP riding association). If it's not cultural, then I think there must be something specific going on here that I don't quite understand.

I'm also intrigued that the only people actually attempting to answer the question are NDPers. People are so funny.


Glad it's not just me who's confused! I do think there's more to it than just current spin, though, because everybody's buying it hook, line, and sinker, including the Liberals. It's kind of fascinating, really.


If that was supposed to be an attempt at answering the question I asked, then you didn't understand the post. Let me know what you didn't get if you feel like having another go, and I'll do my best to explain.

Phugebrins said...

The Tory Party in the UK has been having leadership battles every few years since 1989 - and they were in power until 1997; unlike the Canadian Liberals, they're not fighting a battle on two fronts. And virtually the only policy to be a real issue in any of it was how much the Tories disliked Europe. The upshot is that Cameron, who has emerged as the victor, has so far got five minor policies, of which five have been cancelled, postponed, or decried by his own ministers and backbenchers, and their main attraction is "We're not Labour". If the Liberals are having a policy debate, good for them!

KevinG said...

That's a deceptively hard question.

My off the cuff impression was, it's just normal politics to try and expose dissent.

While I don't have a problem with dissent in a party -- and particularly have no problem with differing opinion during a leadership contest -- why would it be normal politics if it wasn't effective?

At a guess, I'd have to say that people have become so familiar with MP's towing the line and their public flogging when they don't that open and frequent dissent is a bit of a spectacle.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


All right, but why is it normal politics to expose dissent, and why does it have this result? What are the assumptions underlying that, and where do they come from?

I mean, just as a comparison, if a House Republican started making lots of noise about the fact that the Democrats tend to disagree with each other a lot and pointed to that as a reason that they can never possibly have any hope of retaking the House in 2006, the reaction from Republicans, Democrats, and media alike would be something like: "Er, right. Are you sure he's sane?"

Anonymous said...

I think it's less the parliamentary system, and more about the way people vote. (Flashbacks to doing this subject in college, back in the day, heh.) Voting in America is an individual thing, in that it wouldn't be that weird to vote for a Democrat one time and a Republican another time, just randomly if they happened to agree with you on your pet issue. People do that with issues like abortion fairly regularly, I gather.

In Britain at least, and from my experience this is another similarity with Canada, not so much. Your vote goes to a party; the arguments are more strictly delineated into definite 'party positions' on issues (which is also a factor of having more viable political parties). You've got manifestos, for instance, definite party platforms. Therefore, having a party position on something becomes a much bigger deal, and being in disarray is a bigger problem, because the opposition can go "how do the people know what they're voting for if your party can't agree?", and it'll be true, because most of the electorate have the party as the main way they understand the issues.

It's still exaggerated - obviously, this is still a play against the Liberals for various reasons, and as you said, it's a leadership contest where people have to try to get themselves noticed. But the basis for the argument isn't entirely out there.

Greg said...

My first response was way to off the cuff. My experience (and I admit I may be too close to this because I have always lived here) is Canadians don't mind dissent internally expressed and during a debate. However, once a decision has been reached, public dissent is considered embarassing. And a Canadian would rather die than be embarassed in public.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Yeah, that was what I was trying to get at when I said that there were good reasons to unify behind one's party. There are good reasons beyond the cultural to show a unified front when you're forming the government, or when you're in the middle of an election campaign. (Culturally, though, Canada is even more like this than the UK, by the way. One thing I read recently said that Canada has among the most whipped caucuses in the world. Just as a point of trivia.)

My point, though, was that they're not forming the government, and we're not in the middle of an election. Well, actually, they are in the middle of an election; it's just a party-internal one. And how on earth are you supposed to have a party-internal election if the candidates are not allowed to differentiate themselves on issues? Are Liberals supposed to choose their favourites based on which people's faces they like best, or on which of them can crack the best jokes? The party doesn't have a particular direction yet because the party's membership hasn't chosen one yet. The Liberals may well be in disarray, but pointing to something perfectly ordinary as evidence for that strikes me as extremely silly. And the most surprising of all is that the Liberal spin doctors aren't busy pointing out exactly how silly that is.


Hmm, you may be on to something.

Anonymous said...

My apologies.
Would you believe it took me 4 times to read this post before i actually relized what it was you were saying. Amazing how two minds can work so opposite on same text. Anyways, I concur with your analysis.

I'm liberal and my feeling is that the divisions actually are what spark some of the innovation in the party. If a party with this division can come up with a single unified policy, that policy will be palatable to both left and right since concessions would have been built in with both views. I think the other parties which take one end or the other on the spectrum tend to come up with policy that is more polarizing to the populace. That being said, with the SSM issue the liberal party took a strictly "left" stance because some things can't be negotiated but if it had taken both views there would possibly had been Civil Unions.

I'm quite happy with the parety I am part of. I had voted NDP in the past from time to time but I just bought a liberal membership and will vote that way from now on in. It's not a perfect party (non are) but I feel there is a lot more room for discussion within this party than in any of the others where you are or are not.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Would you believe it took me 4 times to read this post before i actually relized what it was you were saying. Amazing how two minds can work so opposite on same text.

Perhaps because I'm a partisan of a different stripe, and so you were automatically hostile? Just a gentle chide, there. :-)

My post wasn't an "analysis" so much as a question--one that I think is just beginning to be answered in the discussion. It's a hard question, I think, because it's about Canadian political culture and sometimes it's hard to stand outside that and look at it objectively if it's the only thing you've known. (It's one of the things immigrants are good for sometimes; asking the questions that might not occur to native-born Canadians.)

It's interesting that you say you find the divisions to be a positive thing. Does it bother you that none of the Liberal spin doctors are presenting it that way? If I were in your shoes, I'd be awfully frustrated that what I saw as a positive was being so successfully spun as a negative by partisans of other stripes. Do you think there is a way of spinning dividedness positively within the Canadian political culture, or do you think that's a lost cause?

with the SSM issue the liberal party took a strictly "left" stance because some things can't be negotiated

Actually, while the government was for SSM (i.e., whipped), the Liberals allowed their backbenchers a free vote, just as the Conservatives did. And many voted against.

Anonymous said...

Most recently, the situation has to do with a rebuilding as an opposition party. They need to present a united front because of the votes in the house of commons. Granted that it is on summer recess, and therefore I think things might loosen up a little.

But with the media the way they are are a renegade parliamentarian gets an inordinate amount of press and not necessarily positive!

Another aspect to it is that the leadership candidates are trying to garnish the most votes. Realistically this means trying to be all things to everybody(homogenize).

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


They need to present a united front because of the votes in the house of commons.

Hmm. Okay, unpack that for the silly immigrant. *Why* is it important to present a united front because of the votes in the House of Commons? Pretend I'm stupid, and explain it to me in small words. :-)

kurichina said...

This article seemingly responds to similar concerns south of the border.