What, If Anything, Could Labour Learn From Canada’s Liberals?


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.

This piece was originally published on Labour Uncut. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.


2nd Year Modern History and Politics student. Moans a lot about politics, unlikely to actually do anything about it. Direct complaints towards @FSGLoveman on Twitter.

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