Monday, October 27, 2008

Liberals Should Move...

One of the bigger questions moving forward, where should the Liberals position themselves on the political spectrum, to maximize their electoral chances. Do they move left, and attempt to appeal to soft NDP supporters and to some degree Greens, or should they move to the center and retake some lost ground to the Conservatives? It's a pretty complicated reality, especially when voters don't necessarily fit into neat segments on a spectrum, so any overt positioning is problematic.

There isn't much argument that the Dion reign represented a move left for the Liberals, relative to his predecessor. Given the lack of voter support, one could argue that Liberals are mistaken, if they think moving away from the center is politically shrewd. Further confusing, any verdict must also factor in Dion's low personal appeal, maybe the message was attractive, the messanger not so much. Another leader, with the same progressive agenda may very well have delivered a mandate, so the latest election results shouldn't translate to any statement on the political spectrum.

However, no matter the equation, you do hear many Liberals now arguing that the party needs to sit firmly in the center, if we are too form the next government. Forget about the NDP, and remember Greens voters have more of a tendency to cut across the political spectrum. One could argue the Bloc is left in orientation, and yet, the Conservatives were within a serious gaffe or two of drawing away considerable support, ideological considerations aside. Moving to the center, doesn't necessarily alienate progressive voters, but it would appeal to soft Conservative support, you could build a winning coalition.

You don't find much in the way of striking evidence, if you look at the past elections. You look at where Chretien and Martin positioned themselves, and review the other party shares, it's hard to find consistency that would show a political preference. The Conservative share was down, but it was divided, and the NDP share was down too, and yet those Liberal governments were viewed as centrist. In the final analysis, any decision ultimately comes to down to a "gut" feel for where the party needs to be.

Apart from our leadership problems, I don't think there is much debate, that Liberals lost the battle with voters on the economy. Although, the strategy allowed for pumping past fiscal management, the Liberals were never able to get much traction, relative to Harper. Moving forward, with the economy almost a certain central argument next election, any spectrum considerations must incorporate this reality. The middle class will simply not endorse the Liberals on the economy if they were to move left, or stay left, with another advocate. Most voters, rabid partisans aside, are simply terrified of a federal NDP approach to the economy, particularly when uncertainty reigns. If you want to appeal on the economy, the Liberals are wise to return to their centrist ways, a mix of free market endorsement, that understands the global economy, fiscal prudence and competitiveness. A modern Liberal approach on the economy that is innovative and balanced, a program which rejects the left arguments, which isn't at war with business, which understands, as most already do, you need healthy big fish for the ecosystem to sustain. On the economy, a move back to the center is a good idea.

On social issues, it depends on the topic, but in general, the Liberals are fine where they are under Dion, possibly some room to move farther left. Two exceptions on this score, one crime and two immigration. The modern Liberal party must respond to people's concerns about crime, so that the perception of favoring criminal over victim doesn't remain. I don't think the party has to move much, just make a more coherent case for why their approach on crime is proper and forward thinking. On immigration, it's time for the Liberal Party to re-examine it's kneejerk policies and quit treating this file as a sacred cow. There is great risk for potential alienation, but the Liberals can stand apart if they develop a modern interpretation of integration and cohesion.

In a perfect world, I would like to see the Liberals centrist on economic matters, social progressive on others, within that a hint of practicality and pragmatism. Center-left on the spectrum, but more complicated than that on further review. Afterall, most people aren't philosophical purists, the trick is viewing each issue as a subset and understanding the appeal overall. Maybe the best strategy, the Liberals should let other parties be left and right, while we draw on each where applicable, morphing into something of a moving target on the spectrum.

20 comments:

rabbit said...

It may be a mistake to think in purely one-dimensional terms. The Political Compass recommends a two-dimenional political spectrum. Such a view might open doors that otherwise would remain shut.

I think Liberals should get out their history books and read where liberalism came from. Reconciliating classical and progressive liberalism (and I admit there are serious conflicts to be worked out) might work well.

Certainly liberals should quit believing the conservative line that "liberal" is another name for "socialist".

The Mound of Sound said...

There was a time when we had leaders strong enough to push both left and right from the centre, taking advantage of the liberal ability to appeal to moderates of the left and right. Now we're being squeezed from both left and right, squeezed into safe havens like Toronto and Montreal. The votes we need to return to government aren't in our safe havens and we have to reach out to them by pushing back against both Harper and Layton. If we don't, be prepared for a long spell in the desert.

Jesse said...

Where, precisely, is this perception that Liberals are more in favour of criminals than victims found, other than conservative.ca?

Steve V said...

jesse

It's not necessarily an accurate read, but I do think Liberals have been successfully painted as soft on crime. The party should do something to confront the myths, but there is no question some are turned off by what they perceive as liberal courts. Something to address.

rabbit

I agree, you can't think in one-dimensional terms, because most people don't fit into neat characterizations.

Demosthenes said...

Even the "political compass" isn't actually that useful for nailing down political positions; it's been notorious since its creation as a Libertarian recruitment tool; having an axis named "libertarian" vs. "authoritarian" is laughably biased, and "left" vs. "right" is as meaningless when added to that axis as it is otherwise.

There IS something to be said for a dual axis system, of course. I've read a number of strong advocates for a dual-axis "organic vs. individual" and "egalitarian vs. hierarchical" setup. But this still obscures more than it reveals, and won't really help the Liberals much.

(As for "classical liberalism", it's not really relevant post-Rawls. The modern concept of rights has evolved beyond that of the 19th century.)

But the central problem of a "move to the center" is simple: who do you screw? You can't just talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. And it can't just be social issues, either. So when you're cutting taxes and cutting expenditures, who ends up paying the price? The sick? The poor? Women? Minorities?

Who gets "tossed under the bus"?

Demosthenes said...

By the way, people aren't necessarily "philosophical purists", but that doesn't mean they don't recognize and appreciate a consistent philosophy when they see one. Everybody makes assumptions and generalizations, and everybody has opinions; a philosophy just lets you put that together into an organized whole.

Certainly a political party should have a political philosophy, if only to avoid being painted as shiftless, poll-driven opportunists. For better or worse, Liberals are going to be called "liberals"; they might as well figure out what that means.

Steve V said...

"So when you're cutting taxes and cutting expenditures, who ends up paying the price?"

That's more classical conservatism isn't it?

What about a shift(no not that one), wherein Liberals propose a reintroduction of higher consumption taxes, offset by income tax reductions. That provides a contrast, and the only people you throw under the bus, are the heavy consumers, a demographic which isn't necessarily fertile ground.

On the expenditure side, I don't see anything wrong with adopting a "cut the pork" regime, that would have resonance, because many in the private sector look with disdain on the waste of the public sector. I'm not necessarily against reviewing obsolete programs, going after some sacred cows, denoting priorities and acting accordingly. The problem with the Liberal Party, they don't seem to want to step on anybody's toes, trying to be all things to all people, which in the end makes most policy mush.

Here's an example, which is a provincial matter, but should be viewed in the abstract. Most parents I talk too are irked by teachers, while they admire the work and commend the dedication, there is a general sense that they have it easy, relative to life in the private sector. My son is in senior kindergarden, which means he is supposed to attend every other Friday. There are only 41 Fridays in a calendar year, because of the obscene summer break, but of that he will only attend 16 Fridays. Every other Friday means 20-21, but it doesn't work out this way because of all the PD days, March Break, etc. If you actually add up the work year, teachers get about 14 weeks off, it's simply astounding. That's the type of thing people talk about, there is latent support for someone bold enough to address the issue. In a global economy, can we really afford so much time, wherein kids aren't learning, wherein parents have to foot more of the bill for childcare? Again, a provincial matter, but it represents the kind of issue that ordinary people think about, and might find appeal for a party that sees a dual policy, recognizing the commitment, but also understanding that the system needs adjustment. On the federal side, I would put immigration into this same category, nobody wants to touch it, but everyone knows it's flawed.

Disenfranchised said...

A view from the outside:
Say what you will against the Cons and the NDP, at least they have long-term visions for the country, visions that set lines that won't be crossed. Contrast that against a Liberal Party which exists only to get elected, one that will shift values according to how many votes can be harvested. If the Liberals could use this opportunity to nail themselves to the center, or some complex multi-dimensional position around the center, they could finally provide some thing beyond short-term, headline-grabbing pragmatism and attract lifelong, grassroots voters.
Now, you'll tell me that the Libs aren't just floating careerists, that they exist to reject extremes on the right and left... If only it were so. This "moderate" stance has led to a Party that is simultaneously dominated by corporate funding, special interest groups, and now unions. Meanwhile, Stevie H and his goons have effectively raised funds from smaller but more plentiful sources: small business, farmers, and regular joes who buy the shit they sell. And now they're effectively stealing the immigrant vote from you, one at a time. The NDP, now I'm not sure who joins their ranks beyond students and the ultra-gullible, but they're proof that people still buy into dreams, socialist or otherwise.
The Liberals have a distinct advantage: smart people. They have the deepest caucus and the most educated membership (probably.) The problem is that all you smart folk act like the elitists you are.
The solution: Obama. Obama is a centrist. He is pragmatic. He wants the same balance between fiscal prudence and social progresion as advocated here by your very own Steve V. But he also offers a grand vision, one that has an ideological base, one that appeals to the dreamers and the romantics who actually hold some old-fashioned belief that we (humans) have potential. So go find yourself a leader who has a utopian vision, a real nice voice and rolled-up sleeves. Then, stick to it for a few years to prove your loyalty to an idea that is FOR something, not against. Finally, show off your smarts by taking the high-road in the House, never allowing Stevie Blunder to bait you into personal attacks and desperate scandal-seeking. The appetite for scandal is low. The hunger for honesty, bipartisanship and intelligence is high. Take advantage...there has never been a better time. Heck, do all that and maybe I'll vote Liberal one day.

MilitantLiberal said...

Steve I respect your opinion and I think you usually make a pretty reasoned arqument even if I often disagree. I'm one of those trying my best to pull the party left. I must say however, your wrong about teachers. My wife is a teacher and it is true that she has a lot of time off. What many people don't realise however is that teachers spend hours everyday after school making lesson plans and marking work. They also spend lots of time agonizing over how to help some of the weaker kids catch up and how to challenge the stronger kids. I see this with my own eyes and I often wonder why she cares so much. Your right that changes should be proposed and implemented when it comes to schools. Maybe there should be less inservice days,(Teachers still have to work on those days) but the work ethic of teachers is not the problem. As for moving the Liberals more to the centre I think you may lose as many voters as you gain, but I would think that....

Gayle said...

Your talking points are showing:

Liberals do not just exist to get elected. They actually believe they can run the country better than the conservatives, and given their record, I think they have a reason to believe that.

Liberals are not elitist just because they have MP's who are educated and smart. You can actually be smart and not be elitist.

It takes courage and strength of character to do what is right rather than pander. Take the crime issue for example. Harper's little plan is nothing more than pandering. He has no reason to believe his plan will work to decrease crime, but it gives him a nice soundbite, and something catchy to run on. Is it elitist to reject the notion that crime can be fought by increasing sentences? Is it elitist to reject a platform because it is wrong?

Steve:

"I do think Liberals have been successfully painted as soft on crime. The party should do something to confront the myths..."

Indeed. In the 13 years they governed under Chretien and Martin they passed minimum sentences for gun crimes, they created the DNA database and the sex offenders registry, they passed legislation allowing the authorities to place restrictions on convicted sex offenders even after their sentences were over. They created the offence of criminal harassment. The YCJA, while decreasing the availability of custody for non-violent crimes, increases the available sentences for youths convicted of multiple violent offences.

In other words, they have done a lot. I am not sure why they do not tout these steps.

rabbit said...

(As for "classical liberalism", it's not really relevant post-Rawls. The modern concept of rights has evolved beyond that of the 19th century.)

That reminds of the student politician who defended university speech codes by claiming that they had "gone beyond free speech".

Classic liberalism ain't dead. Not by a long shot. It's just not popular with the academic elite these days, who consider it terribly 19th century, but I think it's needed more than ever in a modern society.

In any case, there is a substantial portion of the population who believe strongly in individual and economic freedom, and Liberals ignore them at their peril.

But many of these same people support and want to expand government health insurance and other safety nets. In other words, they wish to both limit and increase the role of government.

Steve V said...

mil

Like I said, no one questions the work ethic, but the system is clearly flawed. There's just something wrong with kids spending 1/3 of the year out of class. Also, I know firsthand that many enter the profession now, not because they are drawn to teaching, but the fringe benefits.

gayle

I'd like to meet some of these elitist Liberals, all I've seen are ordinary people. You could just as easily, and by my experience, make that case better with other parties ;)

Möbius said...

For what it's worth, as a fiscal conservative, Chretien signed me up when he ran a stay-the-course, fiscally conservative government in the mid-'90's. Where he lost me was through the huge surpluses (over-taxation), spent at the last minute, and, of course, Adscam.

Corruption moved me away from the PC's, and eventually put me right back with them, in their more recent form as CPC.

Despite all my complaints against the current CPC, and I have many, the LPC has offered me a more leftist party.

The Green's were once a pseudo-conservative party, and they have also abandoned fiscal conservatives, to head left.

gina said...

Spending on infrastructure, income tax cuts, green economy investments. Sound familiar? The U.S. is about to implement this agenda.

liberazzi said...

A good topic, but hard to squeeze all my thoughts onto a comment page. I think the Liberals need to avoid the left or right tag. As has been expressed already the party wins when it presents a clear vision with a pragmatic approach. Also, it must portray confidence and competence, with a leader that communicate the party's platform effectively. The party will not win with a highly ideological stance left or right. The Libs are a party of compromise and bringing various viewpoints together. Keep in mind that there are still those in caucus that are not what we would call socially progressive.

A handful of issues that I think they should address:

Poverty - bring back the 30-50 plan. Why was it basically abandoned during the campaign?

Environment - radical legislation is not required. Tougher enforcement and more resourses are required to enforce existing legislation. Subsidies and investment in alternative energy sources is also required. However, a radical approach would be to steal Ecuador's idea to enshire the right of nature in the constitution. Stregthen the Species at Risk Act.

Taxation - the CPC has basically put the federal govt in a box. Raising taxes is the kiss of death, but how much can you lower taxes before you limit the power of government to intervene in times of crisis or invest in health care etc?

Foreign Policy - a return to diplomacy, peace keeping, reconstruction and humanitarian efforts. Less trying to play with the big boys militarily. A novel idea would be Green force to help out in environmental sensitive areas of the world.

Aboriginals - make the various indigenous languages official languages, once again like what Ecuador has done. Invest more in education, health care a self policing, as well as speeding up land claims.

In any event, a clear vision, clear policies but steering clear of ideology. However, doing more than giving gift certificates to hockey moms. i.e. Harper.

liberazzi said...

Disregard my bad grammar, I have a bad habit of leaving out words and me plurals.

Steve V said...

Interesting, this is what LeBlanc mentioned, when he announced his intention to run today:

"I think Liberals want to see the party reposition itself as very much the voice of middle-class Canadians and occupy a pragmatic and centrist position,” he said. “Perhaps, in recent campaigns we have drifted from that pragmatic centre of Canadian politics and we haven't given some of the traditional Liberal voting blocks an enthusiastic reason to support us."

liberazzi said...

I think, I hope that three disappointing election results in a row have finally focused the party on doing some internal examination. I think, I hope that the contenders like Leblanc will make their campaign not only about themselves but a renewal of the party.

Koby said...

When it comes to taxes and crime the Liberal party has decided to play follow the leader. It is hard to imagine a worse strategy. Not only are the Liberals no more likely to catch up to the Conservatives than a greyhound a mechanical rabbit, it legitimizes blatant Conservative stupidity on both these fronts.

That said, the Liberals have to find a way of counteracting the Conservative advantages on both these fronts. Now, just as the best way to avoid being swept up in a wave is to dive into it well before it breaks, the Liberals need to go against the flow and not with it. On the crime front the Liberals need to change the subject from getting “tough on crime” to let us end the war on drugs. The only way they are going to be able to do this to promise to legalize marijuana.

Such a move would have several advantages. It is hugely popular with Liberal, NDP and Green supporters. If memory serves, 69 Liberals were in favor and a mere 27% opposed and the numbers were even better with respect to the other two parties. It would allow the Liberals to play the nationalism card. How we define ourselves as a people is wrapped up how we do not see ourselves as being, viz., not Americans particularly conservative Americans. Such as position would divide the right and garner the Liberals some much needed positive press. The National Post as been supportive of such an issue for years. It would go along ways to solving some of the Liberals branding problems and give the Liberals a ton a press. The Conservatives successfully branded Dion as a wimp and general public think of Liberals as being about as interesting as a room full of accountants. They party is not “cool”. It is not sexy. It is not fun. It is not edgy. It is boring.

Finally such a policy would be popular in Quebec. The more the Liberals can keep the focus on social issues during the next election the more they will benefit in Quebec and the more the Conservatives will bleed votes. Needless to say, it would also be popular in BC.

Miles Lunn said...

I generally agree here on that we should be fairly centrist on economic issues. While big government policies may appeal to some, the problem is the swing ridings generally support some government intervention, but not excessive levels like the NDP advocates. That maybe popular in Downtown Toronto, but not the 905 belt. Also most like a mix of government intervening when necessary, but staying out when appropriate. Also the types who are generally left leaning on economic issues tend to have lower voter turnout levels as well and we can hope for better turnout levels next time around, but we shouldn't assume they will improve.

On foreign policy, the environment, and social policy, I think Canadians are generally centre-left, so we are fine there, we just need to do a better job of explaining them.

On crime, I think Canadians are fairly conservative, but if explained properly we can be centrist here. On immigration, I agree we should be more centrist. We shouldn't support a restrictive immigration policy, but neither should we support an open door one either. Our immigration is already the highest per capita in the Western world. Now I am fine with maintaining that, but we don't necessarily need to increase it. I also think we should maybe consider giving more points to those who choose to settle in places other than Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal as it seems our distribution is too unequal so labour shortages in many areas aren't resolved while in other areas more in coming in than jobs are available.

I did read somewhere that Canadians unlike Americans and most Europeans are not very ideological. In fact Canadians are some of the least ideological people in the democratic world and often tend to straddle the spectrum, otherwise are right wing on some issues and left wing on others.