Rahim Mohamed: Canada's anomalous Liberals may be running out of luck
It’s hardly surprising to see provincial Liberal parties fall by the wayside. In fact, the bigger puzzle may be why it's taken so long for this to happen.
Earlier this month, the British Columbia Liberal Party officially changed its name to B.C. United; capping off a 10-month renaming process initiated at the party’s annual convention last June. In formally adopting this rather nondescript moniker, the party turned the page (at least nominally) on a 120-year history and one of the most impressive electoral track records of any Canadian political party this century. (The B.C. Liberals had won at least a plurality of seats in all but one provincial election since 2001.)
Of course, the B.C. Liberals have long been something of an anomaly. Since welcoming exiles from the cratering B.C. Social Credit party in the early 1990s, British Columbia’s “Liberal” party has, in truth, been a makeshift centre-right coalition, uniting federal Liberals, Conservatives and independents. Winning helped sandpaper over differences between the party’s ideological factions for decades — as did the absence of a Trudeau in Ottawa. (Trudeau the elder famously flipped off protestors in the interior B.C. resort town Salmon Arm back in the summer of 1982; a gesture that came to symbolize the former prime minister’s disconnect with Western Canada.)
The B.C. Liberal Party’s renaming nevertheless reflects a larger pattern in provincial politics. Just last month, members of the Saskatchewan Liberal Party voted overwhelmingly in favour of a name change at the party’s annual general meeting. Last summer, Alberta’s slumping Liberal party called off its scheduled leadership race after no candidates came forward. Interim leader John Roggeveen has since stepped up and will lead just a handful of candidates into next month’s provincial election.
And this trend isn’t isolated to Western Canada. Provincial Liberal parties are also faltering in parts of the country where the federal Liberal brand remains relatively strong. Quebec’s once mighty Liberal party — the party of Lesage, Bourassa, and Charest — finished with the fourth-lowest vote tally out of five major parties in last October’s provincial election, leading embattled leader Dominique Anglade to quit one month later. The result left the Liberals isolated on the Island of Montreal and alienated from the province’s francophone majority.
Even the Ontario Liberal Party — which laid the groundwork for the federal party’s comeback under Justin Trudeau — has fallen into a debilitating identity crisis. The clumsy (and, frankly, embarrassing) effort of Liberal insiders to “draft” Ontario Green Party leader Mike Schreiner earlier this year betrayed just how starved of oxygen the party has become. The Ontario Liberals face a long and uncertain road back to relevance after two consecutive third-place finishes; a stunning reversal of fortunes for a party that held a stranglehold on power for 15 years between 2003 and 2018.
Things admittedly aren’t quite so dire for the red brand in Atlantic Canada, where the major parties have historically been closer together ideologically. Newfoundland Labrador’s Andrew Furey, Canada’s sole Liberal premier outside of the territories, enjoys an impressive 62 per cent job approval rating — higher than any of his peers. The Liberal party also appears to be well-positioned in New Brunswick, where Progressive Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs has exasperated voters with his dithering on proposed changes to the province’s bilingualism code.
But Canada’s erstwhile natural governing party can’t be thrilled to have its provincial footprint reduced to a small outpost on the country’s Atlantic coast. Even if the provincial Liberal brand isn’t totally extinct just yet, it’s undeniably in crisis.
Theoretically speaking, it’s hardly surprising to see provincial Liberal parties fall by the wayside. In fact, the bigger puzzle may be why it's taken so long for this to happen. Electorally competitive centrist parties are something of an anomaly in most Westminster countries, especially ones that use first-past-the-post voting.
Westminster systems are, empirically, more favourable terrain for centre-left and centre-right parties with strong, ideologically-rooted activist bases. Take, for instance, the United Kingdom, where the Liberal Party collapsed over a century ago. The U.K. has since consolidated a stable, class-based two-party system dominated by Labour and Tories. The centrist Liberal Democrats, lacking a fixed base of supporters (e.g.: workers, aristocrats), have accordingly been unable to mount much of a challenge to the primacy of either major party.
While strong centrist parties are commonplace in Canada, they are something of a rarity in other countries that use the Westminster system. With the Liberal brand facing an existential crisis at the provincial level, we may finally be witnessing a long-predicted realignment of party politics in Canada.
It is, admittedly, too soon to declare provincial Liberalism dead and buried. After all, voters will eventually tire of the centre-right governments that currently dominate the provincial scene (British Columbia and Newfoundland excepting). When they do, who’s to say that resurgent Liberal parties won’t be waiting in the wings?
But provincial Liberal parties will also find themselves swimming against a generational tide as millennial and Gen Z voters (currently in their 20s and 30s) comprise a larger and larger share of provincial electorates. Younger Canadians, who’ve come of age in the era of the global financial crisis and COVID pandemic, are an understandably jaded bunch who have little faith in the political establishment. They’ll likely favour the open socialism of the NDP to the squishy centrism of the Liberals. This dynamic is already playing out in the United States, where younger voters are gravitating toward democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, who’s spent much of 2023 pestering Loblaws head “Greedy” Galen Weston, seems to get this change in mood — even if his execution leaves something to be desired.)
The NDP is also a better natural ally to organized labour, which has enjoyed a resurgence in popular support in recent years. Provincial NDP parties are, accordingly, likely to be the biggest beneficiaries of the landmark Ontario Court of Appeal decision Working Families Coalition (Canada) Inc. v. Ontario (Attorney General); which gives constitutional protection (extending beyond the notwithstanding clause) to union-funded third-party advertising campaigns. The federal workers’ strike — the largest such strike in decades — could be indicative of future skirmishes between ambivalent Liberal parties and emboldened public sector unions.
The Liberal brand has, of course, been down before, but there’s something about the current situation that feels different. With populism gripping both the left and the right, Liberal parties aren’t just losing ground: they’re losing relevance. It’s hard to see where a milquetoast centrist brand that, historically, has embodied Canada’s comfortable political establishment, even fits in an increasingly angry and polarized political climate. Barring a major realignment, provincial Liberal parties will find themselves stuck in an electoral “no man’s land” at the shrinking middle of the spectrum.
While it may have been unthinkable just a few years ago, the provinces now look to be at the precipice of a post-Liberal future. With polarization gripping our once moderate political climate, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the centre (or, more precisely, the centrists) cannot hold. Whether the Liberal Party of Canada will survive the loss of its provincial surrogates is less clear, but the history of other Westminster party systems does not give cause for optimism.
The electoral success of Canada’s Liberal parties has long been one of the more vexing features of our partisan politics. It may soon be a thing of the past.
Rahim Mohamed is a master’s student at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. His writing has appeared in The Hub, and the National Post, and CBC News Calgary.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: email@example.com