Not conclusively, but there’s a good chance 2015 will not go well for them.
The Liberals enjoyed a brief revival in the polls under their new leader, Justin Trudeau, the handsome scion of one of Canada’s most consequential prime ministers. But tactical errors, Trudeau’s perceived lack of gravitas and an NDP surge have left Canadians asking whether the Liberals will long survive the upcoming federal election, scheduled for this October.
As a scholar of the liberal party family, I undertook a cross-national study of how liberal parties fare in competition with their rivals, especially conservative and social-democratic rivals. The purpose of this article is to apply these findings to the case of the Liberals, and try to answer two questions: 1) Will the Liberals do badly in October?, and; 2) Will they eventually go extinct? My research suggests that the answer to the first question is quite possibly yes, and the second is more likely no.
My analysis of the first question relies directly on my own research. My PhD focused on how liberal parties fare when their rivals move towards or away from them on the left-right issue scale. Liberal parties are often near the centre of this scale, and sensitive to such movements. My work drew on an article by Jack Nagel and Christopher Wlezien, which found that, in the postwar United Kingdom, the Liberals/Liberal Democrats were almost always between Labour and the Conservatives. The Liberals gained votes when the Conservatives moved away from them to the right, and when Labour moved away from them to the left. My work found that this was true for liberal parties cross-nationally, across 26 advanced democracies – including Canada.
Historically, Canada’s party system has not precisely tracked those of European democracies. In Europe, liberal parties suffered a long decline throughout the 20th century. Prior to this, they often formed the political left in an arena dominated by middle- and upper-class voters that excluded non-taxpayers or working-class voters. As the working classes gained the vote, they flocked mainly to labour or social-democratic parties. These mass parties usually came to dominate the political left, and the liberals, seen as less effective, bled middle-class voters either to the right (on class grounds) or to the left (on ideological grounds). To quote Ralph Miliband, one of the greatest historians of the British Labour Party, by 1924, “for those who did not want to vote Conservative, there was now no serious alternative to the Labour Party, just as there was no longer any serious alternative to the Conservative Party for those who would not vote Labour.”
The Canadian Liberals, however, did not experience this secular decline. Why? Brian Tanguay, writing in the 1990s, pointed out that Canada, unlike Europe (but like its southern neighbor), never witnessed “the dawn of class politics.” Patronage politics and Canada’s deep linguistic divide were always more important, so the Liberals remained the chief centre-left party, and the labour-allied NDP was relegated to the third place. So the dynamic was similar – a liberal party between a conservative and a social democratic party – but the relationship between the Liberals and the NDP was the reverse of the dynamic found elsewhere.
But that is no longer true. In 2011, the NDP won a landslide victory in Quebec, while the Liberals suffered a historic collapse. As such, the Liberals are now the third party between much larger conservative and social democratic rivals, more closely resembling the dynamic found in the United Kingdom (which Nagel and Wlezien studied) and other European countries.
Of course, this is only bad for the Liberals if its rivals move to the centre. But the NDP is in fact doing that. Its leader since 2012, Thomas Mulcair, is frequently defined as a centrist, and a major Canadian magazine even reported that he was courted by the Conservatives themselves. In terms of policy, though the NDP has proposed increases in the minimum wage and corporation tax, it has ruled out increases in personal income tax rates, and promised tax relief for small-business owners, “some of the hardest-working job creators in our economy.” My data predict this will hurt the Liberals – not necessarily catastrophically, but measurably. And in a first-past-the-post system, this may have the effect of encouraging left-wing voters to abandon the Liberals for the NDP.
So, suppose the Liberals are in trouble this year. Does that mean that they are in danger of disappearing or entering a terminal decline? Not necessarily. Even the rise of the working classes failed to kill off middle-class liberal parties entirely. The last several decades have seen liberal parties encounter widely varying fates. On the one hand, some liberal parties have suffered spectacular collapses. The British Liberal Democrats, having slowly recovered since the 1970s, peaked in the early 21st century, winning more than 20 percent of the vote in 2005 and 2010 and entering government after the 2010 election. The experience was disastrous; in the 2015 election they scored less than 8 percent of the vote and eight seats. The German Free Democrats suffered a similarly precipitous collapse after a stint in government between 2009 and 2013. The Irish Progressive Democrats did so badly in the 2007 general elections that they dissolved themselves two years later.
But these cases of collapse more reflect badly managed stints in coalition governments than they do a secular decline of liberal parties. In fact, many European states are seeing entirely new liberal parties emerge, as I detail here. Ciudadanos in Spain is an excellent example of a new and highly successful liberal party, as is Neos in Austria. Unlike social democratic parties, tied to specific institutions and class structures that are in decline, liberal parties have no such legacy commitments, and may be better placed to adapt to a more individualistic and fragmented social structure.
The Liberal Party of Canada does not look well placed to win the October 19th elections. However, whether that means it will never win another election after that is probably as much up to the party’s leaders and activists as it is to long-term trends in political science. The one lesson they can take from their liberal fellows is probably to avoid a coalition government.
Dr. William Benjamin Margulies received his PhD from University of Essex, and is currently at the University of Warwick. He writes about political parties and elections in Europe and elsewhere.