t was 10:09,
the morning after election night, the precise moment at which the immensity of the Liberal Party’s loss appeared on Michael Ignatieff’s haggard face. He stood before journalists at a Toronto hotel and called himself “a teacher born and bred.” He was done with politics, he said, and was going back to the classroom. (Indeed, within a few days he would announce that he had accepted a position at the University of Toronto.) And that was that. The Liberal Party of Canada was leaderless and reduced to the ignominy of third-party status in the House of Commons.
Ignatieff’s senior advisers, the ostensibly smart ones he had brought in to make him a winner, had invoked a backroomer’s cliché — that “campaigns matter” — to persuade the leader to defeat Stephen Harper’s Conservative government on a confidence motion at the end of March. Ignatieff’s team told him he could only do better on the campaign trail than his predecessor, Stéphane Dion, had. And, in fact, Ignatieff did. Throughout April, he proved to be a far better campaigner than Harper as well. The reporters who travelled with Ignatieff, and the Liberals who came out in the thousands to hear him, were surprised by his passion. Why, then, did he lose so badly? Didn’t the campaign matter?
Campaigns matter, sure. But for the once-great Liberal Party, the 2011 election was lost before it was even called. First of all, the Tories’ multimillion-dollar anti-Ignatieff advertising campaigns, however despicable, were highly effective. By the time Ignatieff and his palace guard decided to strike back, it was too late. And, ironically, the election campaign attack ads marshalled by both the Conservatives and the Liberals principally benefited the New Democrats; disgusted voters were propelled toward a third party.
The second reason for the Liberals’ failure was the terrible strategic error of voting to defeat the government when they did. The Tories had been outpolling the Grits for months and had an overwhelming fundraising and organizational advantage. Experienced senior Liberals, like campaign manager Gordon Ashworth, pleaded with Ignatieff to wait for the political environment to become more favourable. Despite all this, however, Ignatieff pushed for an election he could not win.
The third factor in the defeat is more contentious, but just as real. When Ignatieff had a chance to effectively eliminate NDP
leader Jack Layton as the only other progressive choice; when Ignatieff had an opportunity, long before the election, to craft a deal with the NDP
, for co-operation, or a coalition, or even a merger, he emphatically said no. In June 2010, with his former leadership rivals Bob Rae and Dominic LeBlanc standing behind him in a House of Commons hallway soberly nodding their heads, Ignatieff declared that he wanted nothing to do with the NDP
. Forming an alliance with the NDP
was “ridiculous,” he snorted.
That declaration gave Stephen Harper what he most desired. For good measure, he even invoked the spectre of the “Liberal-socialist-separatist coalition” on the very first day of the campaign. Once again, Ignatieff fell into line. The Liberal Party “will not enter a coalition with other federalist parties,” Ignatieff insisted. If it hadn’t had such brutal consequences, Ignatieff’s willingness to dance to Harper’s tune would have been comical.
In crass political terms, co-operation (or coalition, or merger) makes sense. The Conservatives’ grip on power is maintained, more than anything else, by the inability of progressives to get their act together. For the past three elections, Harper has remained in office with the support of no more than 40 percent of the electorate. If some, or all, of the other 60 percent were to come together in a single, formidable force, the Conservatives would be defeated.
A united Liberal–New Democratic option would benefit both parties. The two neatly offset each other’s weaknesses. Liberals have gravitas
and experience in governing, skills the federal New Democrats still lack. The NDP
has a robust fundraising capacity, as well as a strong relationship with its grassroots, both lingering Grit deficiencies. In policy terms, more unites the two parties than divides them. New Democrats are, as Jean Chrétien likes to say, mainly “Liberals in a hurry.” A united progressive party — a Liberal-Democratic Party, if you will — acknowledges the natural evolution, and the binary political universe. A united left is commonplace in most other Western democracies. What’s unusual is that it hasn’t yet happened in Canada.
back in October 2009, Ian Davey, chief of staff to Ignatieff, slumped in a chair in his modest Parliament Hill office. “I tried,” he said, looking grim. “He won’t do it.”
Davey and I and others had been attempting to convince Ignatieff that he desperately needed a winning ballot question. His late-summer promise to defeat the Harper government and force a general election had sent the party into a tailspin. Whatever popularity we had enjoyed was slipping away. Simultaneously, the government had been equivocating on ending Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan in 2011. Despite an all-party resolution favouring the conclusion of our combat role, it was clear that many among the hawkish Conservatives wanted us to stay.
Davey — the son of the legendary Grit rainmaker, Keith Davey, and a friend who had brought me to Ottawa to run the Liberal war room — thought an election fought on extending the war could end badly for the Conservatives. Even better, it would banish a few ghosts for the Liberals. Ignatieff had secured the leadership months earlier, and was still dogged by concerns from the party’s left wing. In his writing and media appearances, the former Harvard professor had been an enthusiastic proponent of the war in Iraq, unambiguously pro-American and, seemingly, an advocate of “coercive interrogation” with terror suspects. His position had put him at odds with others in the party. After nearly a decade in Afghanistan, some of us felt we had done our share, with too many Canadian lives lost. We thought it was time for other Western nations to step up. In the coming election, Liberals should be the ones favouring an end to the war. Let the Harper regime, with its bellicose military rhetoric and its willingness to give the generals whatever shiny new toy they desired, become the party that favoured war with no end.
“We can banish the pro-American, pro-torture, pro-Iraq war stuff in one move,” I had said to Davey and others in the Office of the Leader of the Opposition. “We’d pick up a ton of NDP
and Bloc support. And Harper will be caught in the quagmire like John McCain was. It’s perfect.”
But Ignatieff wouldn’t do it. Not only would he not even discuss the notion, Davey said; he was angry that we had suggested it in the first place. When I asked Davey what he’d said to Ignatieff, he replied, “I told him we just wanted him to, you know, win the fucking election. That’s all.”