Like many of those involved in the British liberal movement who felt that globally, our ideology could probably do with a win, I have been over the moon with the stunning election victory of Canadian Liberal mega-hunk Justin Trudeau, who swept to power on Monday night at the expense of both the Conservatives and the social democratic NDP.
The reason why Trudeau is so exciting to me, and to so many others no doubt, is that he is quite possibly the first (near-enough) millennial leader of a major western country. Born in the 1970s, Trudeau comes, very definitively, from a different political generation to his contemporaries across Europe, North America and the rest of the Anglosphere. In his platform, we see the beginnings of a politics which has broad support amongst much of my generation, but which our political elites are generally united in opposition to. This includes policy areas such as drug reform, electoral reform and non-interventionist foreign policy.
But Trudeau has not just got the cut of a modern, 21st century reformer. He is also, fiscally speaking, pretty sound. His party supports tax cuts for the middle class and balanced budgets with a small allowance for infrastructure spending. This sounds eerily familiar, because it’s more or less the economic policy of my own party leader in the UK, Tim Farron, who will likely try to emulate his Canadian counterpart’s remarkable success.
Now, Farron’s Liberal Democrats obviously have a far longer road back than Trudeau’s Liberals, but it’s not just the similarities in policy between the two men which are important here. It’s also about how they should, or in Trudeau’s case did, respond to their opponents for the position of official opposition.
Most political wonks will find little in common between Tom Mulcair and Jeremy Corbyn, other than their trademark facial hair and the fact that they both lead major, left-of-centre political party’s in an English speaking country. Mulcair is sometimes called the “Canadian Blair”, whilst Corbyn spent a large part of the last two decades fighting against the real Blair from the Labour backbenches.
But in Mulcair’s disastrous defeat can we perhaps see Corbyn’s future? The NDP leader oversaw the loss of half the party’s seats, once again relegating it to a distant third place in parliament. The NDP are unlike Labour in that not only were they new to official opposition, but they were essentially Labour in reverse, with a leader who was far to the right of his party at large. My suspicion is that the NDP still proved just a smidgen too left wing for the Canadian people, who reverted to type when choosing a replacement to their unpopular Conservative Prime Minister. Essentially, the NDP simply reached an electoral ceiling that they could not pass.
This should not detract, however, from Trudeau’s well deserved credit for managing to get NDP voters to switch to his party in droves. Coming from third place is difficult, any kind of meaningful recovery depends on people viewing you as the real opposition to the party of government, and when the electoral situation simply does not reflect that, it’s more art than science to convince the voters otherwise. Nay, it’s practically sorcery. Trudeau managed it, and Farron needs to try and manage it too.
For the Lib Dems, this means going after Labour, and going after them hard. Labour, in moving left, have provided a huge space on the centre and centre-left where Farron’s party can “park their tanks”, as Nick Tyrone said of Trudeau’s Liberals in a recent blog post. Never has there been a better opportunity to make the case that Labour have abandoned the position of credible opposition to the Conservatives.
Over the course of the new few years, the Liberal Democrats should be aiming for an unending onslaught on Jeremy Corbyn and his party. The Lib Dems are not in the same position Trudeau was. His positive politics are a million miles from the tough slog through the mud that Farron’s party will have to undertake to get back to even double digits in parliament. Tim Farron, despite an impressive amount of press coverage, has the lowest approval ratings of any major party leader, and the highest number of don’t knows. But he does have one major advantage. An eccentric, morose, extremely left wing Labour leader. Farron is witty, charismatic and increasingly centrist, and in that regard, able to reach electoral demographics Corbyn likely cannot.
If the Lib Dems ever want to matter again, and I mean really matter, they need to be the new progressive opposition to the Tories. It’s what the party has always wanted. Under FPTP, there is only room for two major political forces, and there is no indication that’s going to change any time soon. With that in mind, the party needs to wholeheartedly acknowledge the implicit truth of what its members often say, that “the Tories are the opposition, and Labour are the competition”. If that is truly the case, then it is Labour, and not the Conservatives, who must first be defeated if the Liberal Democrats ever dream of holding the keys to Downing Street.