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Political

6 lessons, and more, the Lib Dems can learn from the Canadian Liberals

The success of the Canadian Liberal Party in coming back from disaster has made it a popular current reference point for discussions about how the Liberal Democrats in the UK can recover.

Long-time readers will, of course, be familiar with much of the Canadian story as I’ve been writing about those lessons for two and a half years now, since before it became fashionable. (An excellent reason of course for you to sign up to Lib Dem Newswire to keep ahead of what’s happening in the party, just as LDN readers were the first to hear substantive information about plans to create a registered supporters scheme.)

It’s worth recapping what those six key lessons looked to be when I first broached the subject:

The sweeping victory from third place for Canada’s Liberal Party has raised spirits in the Liberal Democrats. As with the tale of Dutch sister party D66’s recovery from coalition disaster, the Canadian Liberals offer hope for the future of liberalism in the UK.

Here are six of the lessons Liberal Democrats should learn:

  1. Recovery isn’t inevitable. Yes, this time the Liberals recovered. But it wasn’t inevitable – as their previous failed attempts at recovery have shown.
  2. Small issues can be potent symbols. The question of what people wear at citizenship ceremonies is in many ways a minor point of detail, but it also became a hugely important political symbol – with the Canadian Conservative hard-line approach to the wearing of a niqab at citizenship ceremonies taking the Conservatives back to the hard right, opening up political space for liberals. As with Paddy Ashdown’s success in carving out a reputation for the Liberal Democrats when he was leader courtesy of the issue of UK passports for Hong Kong residents, such issues can be politically potent for what they say about your values.
  3. Economic credibility matters – and is a long-term project. The attempts by the other opposition party, the NDP, to acquire economic credibility by abhorring deficits late in the electoral cycle back-fired. As with Labour’s late moves in the UK before the 2015 general election, not only was it too little, too late but it also damaged the party more widely as it was left with the worst of both worlds, looking both weak on economics and unsure of its values. The Liberals, however, benefited from economic credibility that reflects their underlying values – a cautious move towards borrowing to invest in the face of slow economic growth but a federal budget which had just moved into surplus.
  4. Appeal to the mainstream. The Liberal policies of legalise marijuana, electoral reform and accepting more refugees are all policies to put a smile on the face of Liberal Democrats. But not the centrepiece message and tax reform – tax the very wealthiest more, but only the very wealthiest – and use the revenue to cut taxes for the middle class, not the poorest. Different politics and different social needs mean the Lib Dems shouldn’t be bound to copy the details precisely but the broad message is an important one – appealing to the mainstream voter as well as the niche voter, and doing so in a way that is presented as being the best for all of Canada, not as being a matter of class (or wealth) envy.
  5. Innovative approaches to membership are central to rebuilding. Part of the previous Conservative recovery from electoral disaster in Canada came from a leadership contest where the candidates had access to lists of ex-members, fuelling the organisational rebirth of their party. This time for the Liberals it was the creation of a new class of ‘supporter’, giving them the right to vote for party leader and communicating heavily with them digitally. For the British political context, the lesson is one about creating a ‘Friends of the Lib Dems’ scheme.
  6. Grassroots campaign tactics and techniques matter – but only so far. Both the Canadian Liberals and the British Liberal Democrats use the same election database (called Connect in the UK). The Liberals, however, are in majority government whilst the Liberal Democrats need 318 gains in May 2020 to be in the same place. Grassroots campaigning is only part of the story, as US politics also teaches us.

By the way, if anyone tells you the Liberals won by being positive, suggest they take a look at the negative campaign the Liberals ran very successfully against the NDP, as with this advert. To displace the NDP as the anti-Conservative Party in this election, the Liberals attacked the NDP.

That last paragraph really makes my list of six a list of seven. But there’s more too which can be added to the six, in the form of a piece by Pascal Zamprelli run in the Montreal Gazette in 2012 on those Canadian Liberal Party reforms.

I don’t agree with every sentence in the piece, but I do think this part is crucial – and relevant to the registered supporters debate in the Lib Dems:

Others claim that at $10, [Canadian Liberal] party membership doesn’t cost that much anyway. To say this is to ignore that it is a psychological barrier, not a financial one, that keeps many intelligent, active citizens from formally joining a political party. They care about politics and about good governance, and they have crucial outside-the-bubble insights to contribute. But they shy away from formal membership for a host of justifiable reasons.

Here is the piece in full:

A new political culture is knocking at the door, and on the eve of its convention, the Liberal Party of Canada would be foolish not to notice. It is a culture of openness, reason, trust and collaboration. The party must seize the opportunity to embrace this new culture, open its doors and let people in by adopting an open voting system that will allow every Canadian to help choose its leader and candidates.

If the party is to survive in any worthwhile sense it must think outside the bubble. That is, outside the “party ecosystem” (as Canadian political scientist Taylor Owen termed it recently) that is increasingly disconnected from the populace it purports to represent. The growing chasm between the bubble and reality is at the root of the widespread and worsening political disengagement we’ve witnessed among Canadians.

If the Liberal Party does not stop seeing itself as a private club, complete with membership dues, Byzantine governance structures and little plastic cards, it will probably further slip into political irrelevance. It must instead see itself as a network, a hub of ideas and activity that brings people together to collaborate in pursuit of shared objectives. Clubs thrive in bubbles; networks tear them down.

Too many are still comfortable living in the Liberal bubble, unable or unwilling to recognize its very existence and the existential threat it represents. They don’t open doors so much as guard them, and their “turf,” jealously. Worse, as the general public shies away from politics because of the bubble, their space and influence in it only grows. Open voting can stem and reverse this tide.

In an open-voting system, citizens who are not members of a party can nonetheless vote in the party’s leadership race and in nomination races for local candidates.

As with any groundbreaking idea, there are knee-jerk objections. The most common – that open voting invites sabotage from political competitors or special interests – collapses under the weight of one of liberalism’s oldest and dearest friends: evidence. Open voting has been tried countless times in many countries. Successful sabotage attempts: zero.

When the Alberta Liberal Party recently embraced open voting, a religious conservative lobby group attempted to infiltrate the process. Its candidate scored a resounding seven per cent.

There was no sabotage when France’s Socialist Party moved to an open-voting leadership system last year in a bid to revitalize itself. What did happen? A process in which 180,000 people participated in 2006 drew 2.9 million people in 2011. That’s more than 15 times more people engaged early and likely to be more motivated come election time.

Open-voting primaries regularly occur in the U.S., and David Cameron’s Conservatives used open voting at the riding level to spark its resurgence in Britain.

In sum, open voting will not lead to Don Cherry being elected Liberal leader. If evidence doesn’t trump fear in the Liberal Party, it is unworthy of its name.

Others claim that at $10, party membership doesn’t cost that much anyway. To say this is to ignore that it is a psychological barrier, not a financial one, that keeps many intelligent, active citizens from formally joining a political party. They care about politics and about good governance, and they have crucial outside-the-bubble insights to contribute. But they shy away from formal membership for a host of justifiable reasons.

As someone who went through the surreal and often dispiriting experience of running for a nomination and hocking memberships, I can conclude definitively that if we want more people to consider joining as members, the party must first open the door by other means. It doesn’t work the other way around. If you want someone to trust you, you have to trust that person first.

Finally there’s the aversion to “devaluing” party membership, which may really be an aversion to diluting power. In the crowdsourcing era of the wiki that’s upon us, this is a potentially fatal flaw.

In 1906, British scientist and author Sir Francis Galton realized that hundreds of carnival-goers guessing the weight of an ox produced an average guess more accurate than any individual did. He was perhaps the first to stumble upon the awesome promise of crowdsourcing: that broad collaboration leads to better results.

Crowdsourcing diminishes the relative “value” of each individual’s opinion, but it leads to smarter decisions through the efficient use of all available resources. The Liberal Party, like Wikipedia or Google Translate, could enter a state of perpetual improvement if it found the humility and will to embrace participation in any form. Besides, broader consultation will make for more members in the long run – not to mention more donors.

Open and transparent processes, with the technological tools now at our disposal, can lead to information-sharing, collaboration and collective action of a scale and efficiency that will revolutionize politics. Many youth-driven non-partisan groups understand this, and are ready to network with parties that understand it as well.

This is liberalism at its core: recognizing the worth inherent in every individual and the ability of free individuals to arrive, rationally and collectively, at better decisions, and thus govern themselves well. Indeed, the new political culture will be a liberal culture. But will it be a Liberal culture?

Networks and movements will succeed; clubs and tribes will fail. Citizens will remain outside the partisan bubble as long as it is there. The party has an opportunity to prove it understands what’s happening, blow the doors wide open and let the people in. Or it can enjoy these last 34 seats before they disappear, too.

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