The Liberals' big defeat a long time coming

DECISION 2011: Party poorly organized, thin on the ground, eaten up by factions, apathy among followers, says SFU prof.

Jean Chrétien and Michael Ignatieff photo from Wikimedia Commons

Last night’s defeat of the Liberal Party of Canada was a decade in the making.

David Laycock, professor and chair of the political science department of Simon Fraser University, believes the crushing defeat of Canada's historic ruling party did not happen overnight.

“The Liberal Party was allowed to become both poorly organized and thin on the ground, and poorly-financed during a period where (former prime minister) Jean Chrétien had no credible opposition,” said Laycock in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon.

Laycock explained that this trend continued throughout the time Paul Martin was prime minister, with very little effort being made to rebuild the party due to perceived support that Martin had within the party. He said the long, bitter and sometimes very public battle between the factions of Martin and Chrétien drove many Liberals away from the party.

“When Martin lost in 2006, they were actually much weaker than they appeared," he said. "The irony is that as low as the Liberals had gone with Stéphane Dion as their leader, if they didn’t know the internal state of the party, no-one could have dreamed that the Liberals could go lower."

The NDP grasped the Liberals' weakness, as well as the Conservatives', Laycock said. With Conservative immigration minister Jason Kenney's strategy of recruiting support from ethnic communities, he said, the Conservatives understood that it "didn’t take that much additional chipping-away at the Liberal support base to really hammer them hard.” 

Laycock cites low Liberal voter turn out as a key reason for their dismal numbers in the 2011 election. In Metro Toronto, where the Liberal Party used to hold 21 of 23 seats, the party lost 17 of their seats to the NDP and the Conservatives.

In the 2008 federal election, the Liberal Party lost out on an estimated 800,000 votes due to low turn out of their support base at the polls, presumably due to lacklustre leadership by Stéphane Dion. In 2011, however, the popular vote only inched up two per cent from the unprecedented low voter turn-out of the last election. Laycock cites this poor turnout as proof that Michael Ignatieff was not able to motivate the absent Liberal voters.

Another major roadblock for the Liberal Party was the youth vote.

“All of the polls were showing that if there was a group that was going to show up that did not show up in the last election, it was people under 35," he said. Still, polls showed that youth were far more likely to vote for the NDP as against the Liberals. "A bigger turnout wouldn’t necessarily have helped the Liberals anyways,” said Laycock.

So where will the Liberals go from here?

Referring to a possible merger with the NDP, Laycock said, “(The Liberals) are used to being somewhere near power. The idea that they would be in the wilderness for a very long time is not going to be terribly appealing to a lot of them. I think there will be a substantial opinion within the senior ranks and the activist ranks of the Liberal Party that is inclined to explore the merger option.”

This merger, however, is not without risk for the Liberals. With their substantial defeat and their now much-smaller number of seats within the House of Commons, the Liberal Party will have very little bargaining power to insist the terms of that merger.

Also, with their newly acquired status as the official Opposition party to the Conservatives, the NDP won’t be in any rush to make deals with the Liberals. Instead, the NDP are likely to bide their time, exploring the reactions to the possibility of a merger with their base and party notables.

“If there is a merger, I think there will be a chunk of the Liberal base that wanders permanently to the conservatives,” said Laycock. “What the NDP has to figure out is whether the portion of the Liberal base that could be counted on to support a merged party is big enough to make it worthwhile.”

As to whom the leader of such a merged NDP-Liberal party might be, Jack Layton is the most-likely candidate. Several polls show Layton possesses better numbers in categories like "trust" and "leadership." These, Laycock states, will cause the NDP to insist on his being named the new hybrid’s leader. 

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