What, if anything, could Labour learn from Canada’s Liberals?

by Frazer Loveman

The election results came in and the nation’s main left wing party, one that had held power for much of the 1990s and early 21st century was humiliated, defeated again by a Conservative party led by an excellent political manipulator. Sound familiar? This was the fate of the Canadian Liberal party at the 2011 Federal Elections, as they saw themselves left with only 34 seats, relegated to third party status following the New Democratic party’s huge boost in support. Yet, today, the Liberal Party have been restored, back in power winning 184 ridings, far more than many pollsters predicted (being a pollster these days must not be much fun). This has led many on the UK left to fully embrace ‘Trudeaumania’, as PM-designate Justin Trudeau has found himself to have become the doyenne of the left seemingly overnight (sorry, Bernie Sanders, but there’s a younger model now).

But could the Labour party realistically mirror the success of the Liberals in Canada? Well, if they intend to, then they’re not necessarily off to the best start. Trudeau wasn’t elected as leader until nearly two years after the 2011 election as the party re-grouped under interim leader Bob Rae, a stark contrast to the Labour party’s immediate and interminable leadership contest. In fairness, Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership election mirrored that of Trudeau in size (Trudeau steamrollered all competition, winning 78.86% of the vote) but that is about where the similarities end. Trudeau is as much an ‘establishment’ candidate as can possibly be imagined, the surname alone gives that away, and was shown during the Liberal leadership contest to be the candidate most likely to win support across the whole of Canada. He is young, good-looking and an exemplary public speaker- his speeches in the leadership contest would consist of 3 minute ‘blocks’ that he could link together as and when needed to suit situation and audience, almost ad-libbing whole speeches (contrast: “strong delivery here”).

It is the case that Trudeau moved the Liberals left, at least, but this was largely exacerbated by the NDP moving right to takel the centre ground in an attempt to convert their first spell as official opposition into a tilt at power in Ottawa. There is an interesting contrast to be made between the NDP and our own Liberal Democrats, as Tom Mulcair’s party joined the Conservatives in pledging to eliminate the national budget deficit immediately. The Liberals capitalised on this, successfully identifying the voters they lost in 2011 to the NDP and targeting winning them back, something the Labour party seems unwilling to bother with. They also did this while facing up to Conservative and NDP claims that they were being reckless by refusing to rule out running deficits if they won power. Again, sound familiar?

However, the way the Liberals addressed these accusations was far more professional than the new Labour leadership. When George Osborne presented his fiscal charter it appeared that Labour was going to make the safe decision and simply accept the terms. Their other option would have been to, as Trudeau did, make a reasoned, sensible, defence of running a deficit in order to grow the economy. As it happens Labour failed to do either of these and has managed to pave its own way, which was to say that they’d support the motion to only then change their mind and oppose the bill for no other reason, seemingly, than that it was proposed by George Osborne. Yes, the fiscal charter is a meaningless political ploy, but Labour’s inability to decide whether it supports deficit elimination or running structural deficits to better invest in the economy is just one of the myriad reasons why a Corbyn administration will likely not win power in 2020.

The economic situation is one of the main reasons that drawing direct comparisons between the rise of Trudeau’s Liberals and the future of the Labour party is problematic. Canada’s economy is heavily reliant on the oil and gas markets, and thus is at the mercy of the volatile global markets. Harper did, in spite of many flaws, oversee a period of economic success in Canada; mostly reliant on booming markets for raw materials which has led to them becoming the most stable economy in the G7. However, the drop in oil prices over the last 18 months saw the Canadian economy take a hit, and the already unpopular Harper had no defence, other than claiming that things would be worse under Trudeau or Mulcair. This economic situation obviously differs massively from the UK, where outlook is good provided there is no freak repeat of the 2008 banking crash, so whoever leads the Conservatives into the 2020 election will presumably be able to do so from a position of economic strength.

Of course, predicting what will happen in the next five years is an impossible task, but we know at least that the Conservatives face a challenge in navigating their party through the EU referendum without too many wounds being opened up. Also, by 2020, the Tories will have been in power for ten years and parties in power that long become vulnerable as they will inevitably make mistakes or have outside forces conspire against them. The Liberals were in a strong enough position that, when Harper’s personal brand became too toxic and the economy began to slow, they could present themselves as a reasonable alternative. As everyone on the left talks of how Trudeau’s politics of hope and ‘Real Change’ should inspire the British left, the main message coming out of Canada seems to me to be that if your party enters an election with a leader that people don’t like, you don’t win that election.

Therefore, unless the Labour party is willing to put all its chips on black and hope that some outside economic force intervenes and scuppers the Tory party between now and 2020, it seems they can learn more from Canada’s Conservatives. Jeremy Corbyn is not Labour’s Justin Trudeau, he’s their version of a scandal ridden, politically toxic, Stephen Harper- and he hasn’t even been in power in order to achieve this reputation. Should this still prove to be the case by 2017, or maybe earlier, Labour still has time to replace him with someone who can make the reasoned arguments in favour of socially progressive politics that have returned the Liberals to political relevance in just four years.

Frazer Loveman is a history and politics student at the University of Southampton

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10 Responses to “What, if anything, could Labour learn from Canada’s Liberals?”

  1. Their other option would have been to, as Trudeau did, make a reasoned, sensible, defence of running a deficit in order to grow the economy.

    Who apart from Corbyn among the leadership contenders put in any effort to make this argument? Hindsight is a remarkable attribute, Frazer. Maybe you give some lessons to Kendall, Cooper and Burnham.

  2. Trudeau was also an anti-austerity candidate. Whatever our position in the Labour Party spectrum we need to take a look at how we get off the treadmill of tax rises and spending cuts which never seem to shrink the deficit but does obviously shrink the economy.

    The conventional wisdom is that the Government needs to sell gilts to finance its deficit. But what if the conventional wisdom is wrong and it’s really the other way around? What if we really really needed to run a deficit because we’re being financed by those gilts and pushing the pound up too high?

    So how do we sell fewer gilts? The first thing is to do whatever it takes to close the trade gap. That means making our own steel rather than buying it in. It means making our own cars rather than buying them in from Germany. That all means more jobs and more contented Labour supporters.

    So we close the trade gap and we don’t have to sell gilts to overseas buyers. We might have to sell a few to domestic buyers but our deficit would be a tiny fraction of what it was if I’m right, which of course I am 🙂 , about the cause and effect being not what everyone takes it to be!

  3. Mike Stallard says:

    “if your party enters an election with a leader that people don’t like, you don’t win that election.”
    True… Who elected our Jeremy then? AND who will choose our next PM? Are they the same people?

    Here are a few challenges which Labour never even mentions:

    1. Global Warming is pushing up our electricity prices and causing the Redcar tragedy, the immanent Tata closures and the loss of the aluminium industry. Chinese electricity costs 7 cents a thinggy. Ours is over twenty – nearly three times as much. And on top of all that there are all the nasty little hurdles to get over for carbon production.

    2. The EU is congealing into the United European Democratic Republic. But nobody seems to have noticed. Mr Cameron treats Europe like the Bullers. He is not going to leave. Does anyone – anyone – in the Labour Party (apart from Kate Hoey) want to free us up so we can once again be a prosperous nation and members of the world community?

  4. Rational Plan says:

    One key fact to consider is in the current fiscal year the Canadian government was just in surplus (revenue exceeding debt, for those that have forgotten). Thats an entirely different position for an economy to be in, compared to us where we still have a deficit at 4.5%.

    @ PeterMartin. While closing the trade gap is a good idea, it won’t help much in cutting spending or raising taxes.

    The Trade deficit is not the Fiscal Deficit.

    While it’s a shame about the Steel Industry, the number one thing we could do is cut carbon taxes on heavy industry. It’s why cement and brick plants have been closing all over the UK and oil refineries are struggling for investment. Green taxes are just transferring production to other countries.

    As for the Uk car industry it is in very rude health, production is at an all time high.

  5. Mike Homfray says:

    Wish you lot would get it through your thick skulls. Jeremy is staying as leader.And the membership not the unrepresentative PLP will choose the next leader and it won’t be a Blairite

  6. paul barker says:

    The reason The Liberals were able to outflank The NDP on spending was that the voters already trusted them on the Economy, trust The NDP has yet to gain. The NDP had to sound more conservative just to get a hearing.
    The idea that Corbyn is going to be replaced by a Centrist in 2017 is pure wishful thinking – the next Leader is likely to be from even further Left.

  7. @Rational Plan

    The Trade deficit is not the Fiscal Deficit.

    You’re right. But it is very closely related. You might want to look up the principle of sectoral financial balances which says that:

    Government Deficit = Savings of Private Sector + Trade Deficit

    Therefore, if the Government, as now, is running a 5% of GDP trade deficit and a 4% Government deficit there is 1% more money leaving the economy to pay our net import bill than is replenished by the Govt deficit. That money has to come out of everyone’s savings.

    So if the trade deficit was zero the Government deficit would certainly be reduced substantially and may even be eliminated completely. Another way to look at it would be to say that money paid out for imports can’t be taxed but if they are paid out for local products it can be. Money generated from export sales, or import replacements can be taxed too. Redcar steelworkers pay UK tax. Chinese Steelworkers don’t.

    That just means selling 2.5% more. Importing 2.5% less. We need a new concerted effort to reduce the trade deficit. That may require a little bit of local discomfort but it will be nowhere near as bad as continually chasing our tails with tax rises and spending cuts.

  8. Robert says:

    This article is just bizarre. Trudeau, a Liberal, won through moving his party to the left, which is similar to the liberal approach that got Obama elected twice. In short, both won because they did NOT follow what we call a Blairite approach.

  9. Harry says:

    Note to Frazer Loveman, watch out for confirmation bias. 😉

  10. John Woods says:

    “Their other option would have been to, as Trudeau did, make a reasoned, sensible, defense of running a deficit in order to grow the economy. As it happens Labour failed to do either of these and has managed to pave its own way, which was to say that they’d support the motion to only then change their mind and oppose the bill for no other reason, seemingly, than that it was proposed by George Osborne.”
    This comment reflects the problem Miliband and Balls had as well as Corbyn and McDonnell. It is difficult to understand why, in an era where Keynesian economics has dominated politics since 1945 and has been more successful that any alternative, shadow Labour chancellors have been unable to get across an alternative to austerity, which affects their voters more than Tory voters? They have had enough advice so perhaps a change in 2017 is the only alternative.

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