A Liberal Tent Without Walls Or Roof

When the Conservative party gathered at the Ottawa Convention Centre in June, the turnout was impressive. When the Liberal party gathered at the Ottawa Convention Centre last weekend, the turnout was impressive. The Conservatives had energy. The Liberals had energy. The Conservatives had precocious young people who dream of chairing committees and shouting “point of order!” into a microphone. The Liberals had plenty of those, too.

But the Conservatives had something the Liberals did not. It is a core identity. And if the Liberals don’t get one of those, they can forget about ever returning to power.

As all good brands are, the Conservatives’ is simple. “Small government and individual liberty.” That’s it. The phrasing varies, and there are lesser components that can be added to the formula, but that’s the core.

At the Conservative convention, that identity was expressed over and over. From the prime minister and top politicians. From riding executives. From ordinary people talking on the floor. “Small government and individual liberty,” they all said. That’s what their party stands for. That’s what it is.

Now, one could reasonably object that many of the Conservative government’s policies have little to do with that self-definition, or that they flatly contradict it. (It is curious, for example, that “the party of small government and individual responsibility” is further expanding an already bloated state apparatus for detecting and punishing citizens who prefer smoking pot to sipping rye.) But that only matters to intellectuals and policy wonks.

A party’s identity is the story the tribe tells itself and the brand the party offers to voters. It’s about psychology and marketing. It’s about perception. Fact and logic are but leaves in the wind of a strong perception. Hence, Jaguar is a finely crafted luxury vehicle no matter how many times your Jaguar breaks down. (Only an illustration. I do not own a Jaguar, have no idea how often Jaguars break down, and do not wish to be sued by Jaguar Cars Ltd.)

The Liberals had a core identity once: “The party that governs.”

There was no fixed ideological content. There didn’t need to be. Political beliefs came and went but the Liberals were always in the centre, espousing the conventional wisdom of the day, and governing the country. “The Liberal party should be understood not as a centre-left party,” Tom Flanagan and a certain Stephen Harper wrote in 1996. “Rather, it is a true centre party. … It avoids definite ideological commitments and brings together people simply interested in exercising power and dispensing patronage.” That last bit is too harsh. But generally, Flanagan and Harper were right.

So what happens when “the party that governs” no longer governs? It no longer has an identity.

Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae frankly acknowledges that he hears this all the time. But he insists there is a Liberal identity.

“We are who we are,” he declared in a speech to the Liberal caucus last week. Rae was passionate. The speech was masterful. But “we are who we are” comes uncomfortably close to Popeye’s “I yam what I yam,” and is about as meaningful.

Of course Popeye went on to say, “I’m Popeye the sailor man,” so he really did know who he yam. But Rae? He followed “we are who we are” with: “We are what we have been. We are the things we have fought for in the past and we are the things we are fighting for today and we will fight for in the future.”

We are the sound of one hand clapping.

Still, give Rae credit. He recognizes that identity is the fundamental problem the Liberals face. So do lots of Liberals.

That’s why “the resilient Liberal ideal” was a running theme in the convention and the party held open-mic sessions where anyone could step up and explain why they are Liberal. These were free-form gatherings. And they were truly free of form. Some people cited support for disabled people. Others waxed lyrical about the Charter of Rights. Laurier’s free trade policy. National parks. Anecdotes about meeting Lester Pearson as a child.

This Liberal tent was so big it had no walls or roof.

But similar sessions involved a moderator – Alberta Liberal Harvey Locke – whose job was to distil the commentary. Here, meaningful themes emerged. Locke has been doing similar work with Liberals for months now and he confirmed that he gets the same results every time he talks with party members.

There are many facets but two points are, I think, the most basic. One is: “socially liberal.” The other: “fiscally conservative.” At least that’s how I’d formulate it. But Liberals tend to avoid the word “conservative” so they prefer the phrase “fiscally responsible.”

Whatever the precise wording, “socially liberal and fiscally conservative” is sufficiently simple and concrete to serve as both a tribal identity and a brand for political marketing. It clearly differentiates the party from both the Coservatives and the New Democrats. And it just happens to be the self-description of a very large portion of the Canadian electorate.

But it takes more than grassroots gab sessions to cultivate an identity and craft it into a brand. It takes calculated leadership of the sort that Stephen Harper deployed to make “small government and individual liberty” the Conservative standard.

Whether the Liberals have that remains to be seen. Interim-and-likely-permanent leader Bob Rae talks a lot about identity but “I yam what I yam” isn’t taking the Liberals anywhere and neither is Rae’s take on identity in the speech he gave at the end of the convention.

Liberals are “pragmatic, reasonable people,” Rae said. For Liberals, freedom is a fundamental value. So is fairness. And equality of opportunity. Intergenerational equity. Diversity. Innovation and productivity. The environment. Human rights.

Also sunshine, lollipops, and the delighted laughter of children at play.

And losing elections. That, too, is a fundamental Liberal value. Or it will be if the Liberal leadership can’t do better than that.

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