Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

An open letter to the Liberals

A few weeks ago, on the Bloggers' Hotstove podcast, an audibly frustrated Jason Cherniak said that NDP voters should realize that even if we didn't like either the Liberals or the Conservatives, the Conservatives were still worse. This rhetoric is nothing new, of course--the Liberals have been making that same argument ever since there's been an NDP, and sometimes it's even worked. Unfortunately for you, though, those days are over. Poll after poll has shown that your best-case scenario is that nothing has changed since the election, and several other scenarios have been far grimmer. Perhaps more importantly, there's been nothing at all in the numbers to indicate any significant movement to the Liberals from the NDP, despite all your efforts to paint us as the source of all your problems. Bill Graham and company have failed to get through to the million and a half voters your party lost to the NDP because you've failed to take one important fact into account: when those voters look at the last two parties' records on the things they care most about, they find that both look equally bad.

It's true that the Liberals were marginally better on the environment: greenhouse gas emissions may have skyrocketed on your watch, but hey, at least you managed to come up with a couple of halfway decent programs like EnerGuide, while the Tories have produced a big fat nothing. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have been marginally better on ethics and accountability: while the Liberal government ended up embroiled in a scandal in which millions of taxpayer dollars were stolen, the Tories' own scandal "only" meant taxpayers footing the bill for a single convention, and on the other side of the coin they at least came up with a few decent provisions for the new Accountability Act. Neither party has a good record on willingness to cooperate in a minority government situation: the Conservatives were willing to make some of the suggested NDP amendments to the Accountability Act, but unwilling to compromise at all on child care or the environment, and the Liberals allowed the NDP to play a role in your budget, but only after first trying to govern as if you'd had a majority and getting your backs shoved up against a wall. On childcare, the Conservatives produced nothing but a glorified baby bonus, while the Liberals spent a dozen years promising to come up with a plan that you didn't get around to trying to implement until the final hour. The Liberals couldn't manage to do anything on the softwood lumber file, while the Conservatives could only come up with a lousy deal. Neither party has done anything significant to protect public healthcare, promote democratic and electoral reform, or reduce the cost of higher education. The list goes on.

Now, I realize that this sort of reasoning makes Liberals crazy. What you want is for NDP voters to accept at face value the assertion that Stephen Harper is going to destroy Canada as we know it, and that this should logically lead us to vote for the "only viable alternative" (which happens to be your party). But when we really look at the two parties' actual records, what we see are two governments that have been pretty equally out of synch with what we want to achieve. And here's the rub: no matter how much you disagree with us about that, if you want to win our votes, you need to use arguments that will actually appeal to us rather than recycling the same ones that work on Liberal stalwarts. We're a lot more practical than you think we are, and we actually do realize that we're not going to get our ideal government no matter what happens. Historically, those of us who live in ridings where the Liberal candidate needs our vote to defeat a Conservative have been willing to hold our nose and vote for you when you've made a case we could buy. So in the spirit of the sort of intraparty cooperation I've often preached about, here are five things you could do that might actually sway us.

1. Woo us, don't threaten us. Tell us why your guy would be so great; don't just concentrate on why the other guy is so awful. I realize that this is hard to do when you don't know yet who your guy is, but there are plenty of problems you're going to want to solve regardless of who wins the leadership race, right? Tell us what you stand for, because at this point, we honestly don't know. It may well be that you don't know, either, so work on that first, but then don't forget to come back and tell us about what you figure out. The Liberals aren't the default anymore, and you need to make a case for why your vision is a good one.

2. Distinguish yourselves not just from the current Conservative government, but from the past Liberal governments that did things we didn't like. The two biggies here are government ethics and broken promises. At this point you really can't minimize the lingering aftereffects of either your scandal-ridden past or the fact that you've continually promised things you haven't even tried to deliver, so your best bet is to convince us that the next Liberal government would be entirely different. This will be a tricky political play, since it means taking responsibility for your past while at the same time distancing yourselves from it, but choosing a new leader gives you an unprecedented opportunity to do just that. Don't squander that opportunity by trying to pretend none of it was all that important.

3. Stop painting the NDP as the reason why you guys lost the last election. We're not stupid; we know perfectly well why you guys lost the last election. Trying to pass the buck just makes you look like you're not willing to take responsibility for your own mistakes, which is exactly the image you don't want to be projecting. For that matter, when you talk about how awful the NDP is, then we--the very people whose votes you want to lure away--are the folks that you're painting as the enemy. Don't call the woman you're trying to seduce a bitch to her face. We're sick to death of Liberal vinegar, but we might respond much better to a little bit of honey.

4. Ban anything that smacks of entitlement from your collective vocabulary. It might have been the sponsorship scandal that started your slow decline, but it was your "natural governing party" strutting that slammed the final nail into your coffin. To win the next election, you do need to act confident and united behind your new leader, but at the same time, you can't appear even the slightest bit arrogant. You have to paint your new leader as a regular guy with some uncharacteristic humility, not somebody who thinks the only rational choice is the Liberal Party.

5. This one will be hard, but it might just make or break you: during the next election, send a sign that you'd be willing to work with the NDP in the case of a Liberal minority win. Yes, Jack Layton will be charging at you with all his might, but do it anyway. This may sound counter-intuitive, but think about it: it would look pretty appealing to the voters in those Conservative-Liberal swing ridings who really want to trust the All-New-Liberals, but can't quite bring themselves to do it. You might even want to throw the term 'coalition' around--you know, the word that means "both the Liberals and the NDP get to sit on the government side of the House." Yes, it's an unappealing scenario to a party that used to be able to take a majority government for granted, but times have changed. And believe me, if NDP voters had the impression that casting a vote for a Liberal could produce a cabinet that consisted of members of our team as well as yours, that'd go a long way toward making that option more attractive.

The Liberal assumption has always been that NDP voters would inevitably prefer a Liberal government to a Conservative one. It's a logical one to make, but only if you're looking at nothing but the location on a left-right spectrum of the various parties' proposed policies. The problem for you guys is that we've gotten wiser, and have started taking a lot more into consideration than election promises when casting our votes. In the last election, I actually wanted you to lose, and I certainly wasn't alone in that. But while I won't be voting Liberal myself next time (there's no convincing anybody these days that voting Liberal is the best way to oust the Tory in Edmonton-Strathcona), I genuinely hope that I can go back to hoping that you guys win. Whether or not I do, though--and more importantly for the outcome of the next election, whether or not a million and a half other NDP voters do--depends entirely on you.


Matt said...

Excellent post. I particularly think that #1 is good advice, even apart from the issue of wooing NDP voters. Having a concrete set of policy goals (and a detailed plan of how they would be accomplished) would go a long way towards giving voters a reason to even think about voting Liberal. I always end up caught between the Liberals and NDP, and in recent years, a lack of policy vision has steered me away from the Grits.

I'm not sure if anything short of a Conservative majority win will force a real shake-up in the Liberal party though. It took the Diefenbaker win to force the Liberals to regroup (and steal the CCF ideas on social welfare) and the back-to-back Mulroney wins to come up with the (largely unimplemented) Red Book.

Joshua Kubinec said...

I was under the impression that he was more interested in wooing NDP voters into accepting some sort of alliance with the Liberals.

Either way, another good one from the Idealistic Pragmatist!

Toronto Tory said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Toronto Tory said...

"the Tories' own scandal "only" meant taxpayers footing the bill for a single convention,"

This isn't true.

The Tory "scandal" that the Liberals tried to invent claimed that the Tories did NOT count their convention fees as donations. Therefore, by definition, the taxpayers didn't pay for it.

First they claimed that, then they claimed that we used cheque-swapping to claim it as a donation.

These are mutually exclusive. So which is it? If, as the Liberals/NDP claim, we should have claimed the original fee as a donation, why would we have to "cheque swap"?

Good spin, but it just doesn't have any traction.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Toronto Tory,

Interesting choice of assertions to speak out against. Producing a big fat nothing on the environment, coming up with a lousy softwood lumber deal, failing to cooperate in a minority government situation, and instituting a glorified baby bonus--all that you'll let stand, but when it comes to being accused of cheque-swapping, you choose to leave not one but two comments on the subject...

wilson61 said...

Had you mentioned the environment or a baby bonus in you thread Idealistic Pragmatist, perhaps T.T would have commented on that too.

Good thread ! I like how you illustrated that PMSH has achieved as much in 5 months as the Libs did in 13 years.
And you are right, there isn't that much difference between a neo-lib and neo-con policy/MPs, except for the extremities.

And there in lies Jack's problem.

Keeping the Cons. in government actually serves the NDP better than proping up the Libs.
Why? Cons/Dippers are after different votes. Jack can firm up the votes he 'borrowed' from the Libs and get some center and left votes, Cons can prove not all that scarey and get some center & right Lib votes too. Yip, the NDP could replace the Liberals.

wilson61 said...

hmm looks like I didn't read back far enough in your thread, you did mention enviro & baby chq....ooops.

Alison said...

Excellent post.
Not sure who was behind it, but did you ever see this from the last election?
It's still true.

CuriosityKilledTheCat said...

The alternative to the craven New Tory party's capitulation to Bush on the softwood issue is very simple.

The NDP, Bloc and Liberals have the majority votes in Parliament. They could agree to pass legislation which would direct the government to table the following revised proposal with the Bush government:

1. Term - The term should be ten years, with no early termination possible unless both sides agree, and the Canadian government is to agree only if a majority of MPs through a free vote (on a non-party basis) in Parliament for an earlier renewal.

2. Automatic renewals - Renewal period should be for automatic five year periods, unless notice of termination is given by either side 12 months before the end of a term (and the Government of Canada would need a majority vote of MPs to give such notice, through a free non-party vote).

3. Payment - Full payment of the $5 billion (yes, that is right, the amount owed under the applicable laws), plus interest on overdue amounts at 5% p.a..

4. No litigation - American lumber companies to agree not to litigate the settlement.

5. Reaffirmation of NAFTA - American government to reaffirm its commitment to the NAFTA treaty.

6. Failure of US to agree -

a. Should the US government not agree to this proposal, then Canada to continue with litigation.

b. Canadian government to fund such litigation by Canadian companies.

c. If the USA takes steps to penalize lumber imports from Canada due to failure to reach agreement as above, the Canadian government is to appoint a Royal Commission with a mandate to review what steps should be taken by the Canadian government to uphold the NAFTA, including whether to terminate the NAFTA (what is the point of an agreement with a government which does not honour its commitments?).

d. Royal Commission to report by February 28 2007.

e. Canadian government to review the findings of the Royal Commission and take such steps as the majority of MPs agree to through a free non-party vote.

f. Canadian government would use taxpayers money to assist Canadian companies who needed assistance due to the non-payment by the Americans of the debt they are refusing to pay.

So, you see: the answer is really simple. All you need is a bit of backbone as the Prime Minister of a country which entered into a treaty with another government in full expectation that the other government would honour its obligations, and not welsh when it suited it.

Our MPs would be in a position where they could reflect the views of their various constituents, as the later votes would be a non-party vote on the issues set out above.

Who will take the lead to stand up for Canada?

Anonymous said...

'It's true that the Liberals were marginally better on the environment: greenhouse gas emissions may have skyrocketed on your watch, but hey, at least you managed to come up with a couple of halfway decent programs like EnerGuide, while the Tories have produced a big fat nothing.'

good for you. just admitting this is a big step in the right direction. you can make a good argument we did not do enough for the environment, or that you would have made more childcare spaces, etc. if you want to vote liberal, or NDP, fine. but at least acknowledge that we were marginally better than what they have done. this acknowledgement gives you credibility to readers of any persuasion.