Are the Liberals losing the Progressive Primary?

Are the Liberals in trouble? Recent developments—including not only the recent NDP win in Alberta, but also the continuing opposition to Bill C51—suggest it’s a question worth asking, as does a new poll putting the NDP in first place.

In Canada’s present federal political configuration, dating from the emergence of a united Conservative alternative, it is convenient (if oversimplistic) to think of Canadian politics as consisting of two simultaneous competitions: the progressive primary and the main event. That dual campaign gives contemporary Canadian federal party politics much of its character.

With the Conservatives apparently able to capture a sturdy but limited 30-40% share of the vote, a big win in the progressive primary is a necessary prerequisite for either the Liberals or the NDP to have a shot at winning an election. That is, one or the other must convince progressives who dislike the incumbent that they stand the better chance of unseating them. If neither does so decisively, then the Conservatives stand a good chance of winning re-election in the main event.

In previous eras, the Liberals won this in a walk, but the NDP’s rise to Official Opposition during the 2011 federal election demonstrated that strategic votes could flow in the other direction as well.

Despite this, there are signs that Justin Trudeau and the Liberals have gotten well ahead of themselves in 2015, taking the progressive primary for granted. With a comfortable lead over the NDP in the polls at the start of the year, they saw themselves as the clear early winners, the natural choice of anti-incumbent Canadians to face off against a tough but vulnerable Conservative Party. Accordingly, the Liberals pivoted rightward. Careful calibrations ensued to shift the party in preparation for the coming main event.

Among other initiatives, the pivot included a vote in favour of the government’s Bill C51 overhauling the country’s intelligence apparatus in the face of the a near consensus of expert opposition, and in the face of reports of growing unpopularity among voters. An April poll found a majority of Canadians opposed.

Had they truly won the progressive primary outright, that might have been a sound strategy, a way to target winnable votes currently leaning conservative. That new poll with the NDP out in front suggests strategic progressives are still very much undecided however; in consequence, that Liberal yea vote on C51 leaves the party vulnerable. Indeed, some progressive Canadians—more than the Liberals anticipated, I think—seem to be in the process of deciding whether that vote is a deal breaker for them.

To understand why, it helps to take a step back for a moment. Politics combines considerations of rationally calculated interest with deeply felt issues of identity, squeezed through a coordination game. Political scientists and public policy experts often like to think it’s mostly about issues: party platforms, specific positions, and so on. To some extent that is true, but a huge part of politics is about identity. It’s less about what parties do, and more about what they seem to “be.” Whether it’s on a conscious or subconscious level, many voters ask themselves, “Does this party or that one seem more like ‘me’?”

The Liberals in the last generation have been about a variety of things, but above all, in times of success they’ve portrayed themselves as protectors of Canada’s most prized institutions, guardians of this unlikely political experiment. They were the party of federalism, bulwark against separatism, the defender of publicly funded medicare, and of course, the party of the constitution and charter.

The C51 vote thus goes right to the heart of that part of the Liberal identity. If they will not stand in opposition to a bill that clearly undermines civil liberties in important respects, progressives may begin to question the party’s identity, its particular brand of “progressive bonafides.”

Serious as such an identity crisis is, it’s not the only problem the Liberals face. There is also fallout from the election in Alberta. The standard political science response regarding potential implications of the Alberta victory for the coming federal election is to say the effect will be quite limited. After all, provincial and federal politics are different systems, with different issues, even different parties. There is no Wildrose equivalent to split the federal conservative vote, and federal Liberal Party shows no sign of imploding like their Albertan counterpart.

And yet such caveats aside, what that election showed quite clearly is that when they needed to throw out the Progressive Conservatives, a plurality of Albertans trusted the province’s version NDP to win and govern.

Suddenly, we have a push and a pull factor that together may be upending the progressive primary. Principled opponents of C51 won’t vote for the Liberals even as strategic progressives take another look at the federal NDP, and decide if it’s a destination for strategic votes, and not just a source of them.

Time will tell whether either factor, or both, constitutes a minor hiccough or an emergent pattern. If both do however, C51 becomes hugely problematic for the Liberals: it hands the NDP a big club with which to bludgeon the Liberals as the progressive primary unfolds. Liberal promises to they’ll change the law if elected pale in comparison with the clear signal sent out by the NDP’s unambiguous “No” vote.

Moreover, there are signs the NDP is aware of this advantage, and looking to press it. Just this weekend, Mulcair announced at a rally in Surrey that an NDP government would repeal the bill outright.

If that’s true, and if there turn out to be a lot of anti-C51 voters, the Liberals are going to have to work hard to get back into the progressive primary in the coming weeks. A precise and comprehensive list of changes they’d make to the Antiterrorism Act would be a good start. Otherwise, they’ll find themselves left watching as the main event unfolds, the victim of fate, and a commitment to politics over principle.

photo credit: Falling with grace via photopin (license)

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