When they’re done celebrating, the Liberals need to do some serious reflecting

OPINION: If the party wants to avoid a worse outcome next time around, it needs to convince voters it’s about more than a leader who wants to be prime minister
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Sep 22, 2021
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau waves following his victory speech in Montreal on September 21, 2021. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

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Justin Trudeau will be prime minister of Canada for at least a while longer, and whatever else happens in the next 18 to 24 months, it’s generally better to be the PM than the leader of any other party in the House of Commons. So congratulations to him and to the other Liberals who were elected or re-elected and will now get to enjoy the dubious pleasures of heading right back into a House of Commons where the opposition parties still control the committees, can demand the government produce documents, and can generally make the life of the government profoundly annoying.

After they’ve gotten a few days of sleep, though, the Liberals may want to reassess the results of the 2021 election and what they say about the party’s struggles with voters. And if this sounds as if I’m desperate to find a cloud around the silver lining here, I’m really not. To put it succinctly: the Liberals had a lot going for them in this election, and they performed no better on Monday than they did almost two years ago.

The Liberals got to choose the timing of the election, they had enormous success controlling the terms of debate throughout the campaign (repeatedly forcing Conservative leader Erin O’Toole on the defensive about his party’s commitments or its candidates or its associations with provincial premiers), they enjoyed a halo effect from their (very praiseworthy!) handling of vaccine procurement, and — perhaps most remarkable of all for those of us who remember the Paul Martin years — for the first time since the 1980s, there were effectively no fiscal constraints on what political parties can promise voters in this moment. The Liberals had a freer hand to design a platform than any governing political party has had in my lifetime.

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And, yet, despite all that, the Liberals did pretty much the same in this election as they did in the last one. In 2019, Trudeau spent much of the campaign defending himself against allegations in the SNC-Lavalin affair and trying to account for his regrettable and seemingly regretted hobby of being photographed in blackface. This time around, the Liberals struggled to articulate the answer to the most basic question of the election — “why was any of this necessary?” — and it’s fortunate for the Liberals that the opposition parties failed to convince enough voters they were a good alternative (with an assist, in some ridings, from People’s Party of Canada candidates siphoning away Conservative support).

The absolute numbers are even more stark. In 2015, more than 6.9 million Canadians voted for the Liberals. In 2019, it was 6 million. This week, it was 5.2 million (that number will likely grow a bit more as the last ballots are counted). Some 1.7 million voters — people we know are at least theoretically reachable for the Liberal party because they voted Liberal once before — have simply evaporated.

The Liberals have been saved by extraordinary vote efficiency: they tend to win lots of seats narrowly, while the Tories win fewer seats but with bigger margins. You can see this in the results from Ontario, where the Liberal party’s 38.9 per cent of the vote translated into 78 seats, and the Conservatives’ 35 per cent netted them only 37 seats. A margin of less than 4 per cent overall translated into twice as many seats in the province with the most seats up for grabs.

This isn’t cheating or anything; it’s just an extremely efficient allocation of resources. But Liberals congratulating themselves on having snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with a historically small share of the overall vote are doing a disservice to their party in the long-term. Every party should now  face an internal reckoning. The Conservatives have already started debating whether the answer is to stick with O’Toole’s vision of moderation and of trying not to alarm voters in the GTA and other big cities; the NDP and Greens will have painful debates about what their future is as smaller parties in an electoral system designed to marginalize them. The Liberals also need to conduct a serious, honest post-mortem about what went wrong this election; unlike the other parties, the fact of their victory is likely to keep them from asking any truly uncomfortable questions.

And that could be dangerous for the Liberals, because there’s no guarantee that voter efficiency will be a party’s ally forever. The Ontario Liberals won under Kathleen Wynne relatively efficiently in 2014 — Wynne won only about 1 per cent more than Dalton McGuinty did in 2011 but had 10 more seats to show for it — and, critically, converted a minority to a majority in the legislature. But, by that point, the consequences of a decade in power were starting to catch up with the Liberals, most especially on electricity policy, and Wynne made plenty of unforced errors of her own that can be at least partly attributed to the hubris of thinking the 2014 election was a blank cheque from voters. In 2018, Wynne led her party to a historic defeat: all those “efficient” wins across the province, and especially in the GTA, became either Tory or NDP seats.

Analogy isn’t prophecy, and I don’t see anything today that would lead me to think that the Liberals are headed for a 2018-style catastrophe. But unless they can convince voters that there’s something more to the Liberal party than just Trudeau’s desire to be prime minister for as long as possible, the next election could be a lot messier for Team Red.

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