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May 25, 2011

Liberals need to rethink leadership situation

Geoffrey Stevens

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If the federal Liberals don't get their act together, and do it quickly, they risk disappearing into the black hole of Canadian political history. It's a black hole reserved for the likes of the United Farmers, Progressive Conservatives, Social Credit, Union Nationale and, as seems likely, the Bloc Québécois - parties that struggled on after their time had come.

Like a hockey player suffering a concussion, the Liberal party was so disoriented by the May 2 election that it doesn’t know what hit it, doesn’t know which way to turn, and doesn’t know what it needs to do next.

It knows it lost 900,000 votes from the 2008 election (and 1.7 million from the 2006 election); it also lost its leader and wound up with just 18.9 per cent of the popular vote, good for only 34 seats and third place in the Commons (nearly 70 seats behind the NDP). It is barely clinging to life in Quebec (7 seats) and Ontario (11) and is effectively dead west of there. This once proud national party can now “boast” of as many seats in Newfoundland (four) as it has in all four provinces from Manitoba to British Columbia.

Was May 2 an aberration? Or a wake-up call? Or a death knell?

Despite considerable evidence to the contrary — the party was in decline long before it fell from grace in 2004-2006 — some Liberals cling to the hope that May 2 was an aberration. They believe voters will come to their senses, be appalled by what they have done, and will return faithfully to the Liberal fold.

Those who see the election as a wake-up call think that once the party rebuilds, with a new leader, new policies and a new campaign strategy, it will be able to reclaim its rightful place, perhaps as soon as the next election, to be held in 2015.

Most Liberals cannot accept that the election was a death knell. There is too much history in the Liberal party, too many years in office, too many victories celebrated. But if May 2 was a transformative election, the political landscape has changed. We have gone from a group of barely distinguishable parties jostling in the murky middle to a classic two-party system — one set up on the right (Conservatives) and one on the left (NDP) with scant room between them for a centrist party like the Liberals. The Liberals could be squeezed into extinction.

Instead of confronting their issues, the Liberals are wallowing in confusion. The party constitution requires that when the leader resigns a leadership convention be held within six months. But the party can’t get its head around that, which is why there is a move to conduct an internet vote to amend the constitution so as to delay the selection of a new leader until 2012 or 2013.

In the meantime, the caucus must choose an interim leader. But not just any interim leader. In a move clearly designed to thwart the only credible caucus candidate, Bob Rae, the party’s national board adopted a set of bizarre rules.

Candidates for interim leader must undertake in writing not to seek the permanent leadership. They must promise not to engage in “discussions or negotiations” that would involve fundamental changes to the “nature or structure of the party” — this being a party that desperately needs to change in order to survive. And they must agree not to talk about merging the Liberals with the NDP.

Bob Rae has talked about the idea of a merger — and why not?

By going without a real leader for a year or even two years, and by tying the hands of its interim leader, the Liberals give Jack Layton carte blanche to establish the NDP as the only alternative to the Harper government. Chances are blue Grits will move to the Conservatives while the pink ones will take up with the NDP, leaving the Liberal party a hollow shell.

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