Liberalism in Crisis: An International Perspective

By Jamil Dhanani, Vice-President, Thornhill Young Liberals

Liberalism worldwide is irrefutably becoming less and less popular as politics across the West becomes more and more polarized between the traditional Left and Right, and as voters flock to ideological camps in this time of profound crisis. I’m a Canadian, and we’re a very Liberal nation — even the Tories accept policy such as a $1,200 cap on donations per year, the right of prisoners to vote, and same-sex marriage. However, we in the Liberal Party of Canada suffered our worst electoral defeat in May of 2011, going from a majority with 172 seats (of 308) to an ignominious third place of 34 within the span of only seven years. In that election, we actually received 4 percentage points less than the Liberal Democrat share of the popular vote in 2010.

We have already suffered our defeat: you in the United Kingdom have not, and despite what the media says, it is preventable. From a Canadian perspective, I think we as Liberals, on both sides of the pond, need to ask a few questions in order to sort ourselves out in preparation for 2015.

Who are we?

Liberals have always had an identity crisis. It is not unique to the Liberal Democrats, although being in a coalition does nothing to mitigate the existing problem. On this side of the pond, in British Colombia, the Liberal Party has a good relationship with the Tories, and in Ontario, our Party is being supported by the Socialist NDP. We need to make it clear to the voters that there is no inherent contradiction in arrangements like these. Different circumstances call for different measures to be taken; static policy is ludicrous when we consider the undulations of all the factors that must be taken into account in an ever-changing world. Let’s not fall into the trap of labelling ourselves with names such as “fiscally conservative, socially liberal,” but rather lay down the central tenets of our ideology as per the Declaration of the Oxford Manifesto: I) political liberty, II) economic liberty, III) community responsibility, and IV) peace and respect among nations.

With regard to policy, we need to be idealistic, but also keep pragmatism in mind. Making promises which are not conducive to the economic situation will only result in hardship later, with minimal impact at the ballot box — I’m sure the Lib Dems learned that the hard way with tuition fees. In Canada the Liberals promised full-day kindergarden, tuition cuts of over $1000 per year, environmental tax credits, more pension payments, no income tax raises, and completely eliminating the deficit within five years – faster than the Tories would. Did Canadians believe us? Absolutely not. We acted like the third party and that’s how the voters treated us. Don’t offer what you cannot provide.

How can we reach out to voters?

The voters are always right. If we’re being punished in the polls, it’s not a sign the voters are wrong, it’s a sign that we’re doing something wrong. But errors do not always have to be on the policy side – messaging can be as big of a problem as policy itself, and it is the prerogative of the party to deliver our platform to the voters. We can complain that we’re being ‘misunderstood’ or that voters simply don’t get what we stand for, but it is not the failure of the electorate for misunderstanding or not knowing our policy. It’s our fault for not getting it out there. Going door-to-door, leafleting, canvassing, writing articles, tweeting, sharing — even the smallest effort helps get the message out; there aren’t many politically active citizens today, and the importance of just one person in spreading the message can be absolutely profound. Individual action, compounded, has a much greater impact than most  realize.

Liberalism is not dead, nor is it dying. However, we are in the middle of a crisis in which Liberals worldwide are being devastated at or in the polls, from the German FDP to the French MoDems to the Liberal Party of Canada. There is a difficult road ahead, but it is not an impasse. We need to take a step back, look at the big picture, avoid rushed decisions, and stay above party infighting and conflict. We need to deliver a message to the voters about who we are and why Liberals can provide the best solutions for the nation’s difficulties. We need to act like the Party of Government, not the third party, even though for both of us, winning an election, or even opposition, is a distant prospect.

And most of all, we ought not to lose hope. The next election is three years away – let’s take this time to define ourselves and present our platform to the voters; us Liberals are the voice of reason in an age of dogma – and truly, if we make the effort, we can be the Party of the people again.

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