Justin Trudeau’s victory in last month’s Canadian election was an extraordinary accomplishment. In the previous federal election, in 2011, his Liberal Party suffered its worst ever defeat – taking a mere 34 seats and coming third place, behind the Conservatives and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). Not only that, Trudeau’s Liberals started the 2015 campaign at third place in the polls, and even in light of their late rise to the top, many sympathetic observers still questioned whether Trudeau could unseat the long-serving Conservative Harper administration; epitomising this thought, two days before the election, the Guardian published an article with the sub-heading: “Polling suggests Stephen Harper could lose to Justin Trudeau, but as Canadians prepare to vote on 19 October, recent election upsets in the UK and Israel have taught observers to take polls with a grain of salt.” As those elections this year – not to mention the classic example, the 1992 UK general election – evince, incumbent conservative governments have a proven track record at snatching victory from the jaws of opinion polls suggesting their defeat. As Richard Nicholl pithily put it in a piece before Trudeau’s surprise victory chronicling the failures of the Anglosphere centre-left, “recent Canadian politics looks like recent British politics on fast-forward – or on steroids.” Indeed, when contextualised in the broader current climate for traditional centre-left parties – faring poorly throughout both Europe and the former Commonwealth Dominions alike, as recounted by Neil Gandhi and Richard Nicholl respectively – Trudeau’s victory looks all the more remarkable. So what did he and the Liberals do right? And what in the circumstances went right for them?
‘It’s the economy, stupid’ – as Bill Clinton famously kept telling his staff in his victorious 1992 campaign against George H.W. Bush, who was presiding over a downturn. He knew that the biggest key to victory was to keep lambasting Bush about the state of the economy. Since then, Clinton’s phrase has become one of political campaigning’s biggest clichés. But it’s a cliché because it’s true. The overriding factor in Harper’s favour had always been his reputation for economic competence. This reputation was solid half a decade ago, when the Economist was prompted to rhapsodise about how “Canada avoided the plagues […] afflicting everyone else” during the financial crisis – it quickly bounced back from a merely moderate recession. Harper’s economic policy emphasised the huge mining industry dominating Western Canada, and as developing countries (China especially) powered through the Great Recession with buoyant demand for mined commodities, this worked well to shield Canada from the economic storms ravaging America and Europe as it exported its way through. Consequently, in the 2011 elections he claimed the mantle of economic competence, making this the foremost issue in the election. The Tory slogan – ‘Here for Canada’ – was the classic message of an incumbent centre-right government presiding over a growing economy. And Harper hammered home this message by asserting that only his party could provide economic security, while suggesting his opponents threatened to take Canada back to “the days of higher spending, higher taxes, double-digit unemployment [and] double-digit mortgage rates”. In light of this powerful message on the economy – not to mention the fact that Harper’s Liberal opponent Michael Ignatieff was “too aloof and awkward”, as Cambridge academic David Runciman puts it – it was unsurprising that the Conservatives won a landslide in 2011.
However, the precipitous fall in oil prices last year and the concurrent slump in commodity values caused by the Chinese slowdown led to a recession in the first half of 2015. Having staked so much on the importance of natural resources to the Canadian economy, Harper was put in a poor position: after the country’s descent into recession, and with oil prices at the floor, his promise to make Canada an “energy superpower” was revealed to have made the economy unbalanced and overexposed. As comprehensively reported by the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, the natural resources slump reverberated way beyond that sector’s heartland in Western Canada, severely striking manufacturing jobs in the more heavily populated East (overall this sector contracted by 1.6% in just one month, in May 2015). Needless to say, this aroused considerable insecurity amongst middle-income voters –making Harper’s empty claim that “we will grow, nevertheless” look arrogant and unfeeling.
Yet this factor alone does not suffice in explaining the Liberal win. John Major in Britain in 1992, for example, led an already tired and divided Tory administration to an unexpected victory over Neil Kinnock’s Labour – despite a deepening recession ever since he succeeded Mrs Thatcher two years before, and despite him failing to set out any substantial new ideas to revive growth. Kinnock delivered a similar message to Trudeau on the economy, offering a measure of extra taxes for the rich to funnel into wider society. But Trudeau prevented a result analogous to the 1992 and 2015 UK elections because, unlike Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband, he had the inimitable aura of both competence and charisma. In light of this, Conservative attacks on him seriously backfired. In the opening shot of the campaign, the most remembered advert was launched. It was called ‘The Interview’, and consisted of two men and two women convening around a boardroom table before concluding that Trudeau was “just not ready”; one woman says that she is “not saying ‘no’ forever, just not now”, and one of the men ends his piece with the comment “nice hair, though”. This was an attempt to create an impression of the Liberal leader that would stick – “just not ready” as the successor to the Tories’ “not a leader” line on Stéphane Dion in 2008 and “just visiting” about Michael Ignatieff in their even more successful 2011 campaign.
The problem was that, in setting the tone for the campaign, the ad admitted just how attractive a candidate Trudeau really was. “Just not ready” implies Trudeau’s potential to make an excellent Prime Minister would certainly be realised at some point in the future – and this acknowledgement was made explicit with the woman’s “not saying ‘no’ forever”. And, especially at this early point in the campaign, there was another factor hovering in the background. This was Trudeau’s aura as the inheritor of his father’s great charisma – Pierre Trudeau was the hugely successful and influential Prime Minister for two stretches, from 1968 to 1979 and from 1980 to 1984, and is regarded by many as the father of the modern Canadian nation. All this furthered the impression of Trudeau fils as fitting into the paradigm of the young, good looking, inexperienced but intelligent and capable insurgent who emerges victorious by offering an alternative to establishment candidates attached to notions of ‘old’ politics. He is very much part of this type epitomised by John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama.
After the Conservatives’ first big advert framed the campaign by effectively conceding that Trudeau was good on style, he could afford to concentrate on substance. The question of whether or not his policies will be of great benefit to Canadians is a moot point in explaining his election success; the crucial factor is that Trudeau was charismatically presenting ideas for economic renewal when Harper had nothing new to offer. His plan to create a small deficit to fund infrastructure spending appealed to working-class voters, allowing him to outflank NDP – aligned with the Tories in promising a balanced budget – on the left (a necessary move to shore up the Liberals’ core vote at the expense of the more explicitly social democratic leftist NDP, seeing as they managed to push the Liberals into third place). But, crucially, Trudeau’s plan appealed to the middle class as well: he set out a strategy to rejuvenate the economy for all voters, at a time when any plan that looked vaguely forward-thinking constituted an appealing alternative to Harper’s complacent “we will grow, nevertheless”.
This article takes its title from the celebrated study The Strange Death of Liberal England. Written by George Dangerfield, and published in 1935, it argues that the Liberal Party’s collapse after the Great War was caused by factors before that conflict, in the years 1910-14. This precipitous decline was indeed extraordinary – the Liberals had been a titanic force in British politics for a long while, winning a famous landslide in 1906, but just twenty-five years later they were irrelevant and nearing extinction. Yet the factors behind this shocking event were not complex. Dangerfield successfully argues that increasing industrial strife and the soaring rise of trade unions in the time period he covers made the explicitly socialist Labour Party a much more attractive alternative to the Liberals for millions of voters – a big and simple reason why Labour supplanted them.
A plethora of books have been published in recent years playing on Dangerfield’s title. Most notable were Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s The Strange Death of Tory Britain and Sidney Blumenthal’s The Strange Death of Republican America. The constant with all these books, including Dangerfield’s, is that the strange death they analyse has a simple provenance. In the cases of both the UK Tories in their 1997-2005 wilderness years and the US Republican Party in recent times, the simple problem can easily be diagnosed: of being too right-wing, with their opponents lapping up the voluminous votes the centre ground has to offer. Trudeau’s victory – with its phoenix-like quality for his Liberal Party – was a similarly precipitous turnaround, with similarly uncomplicated causes. He charismatically communicated a set of policies for economic renewal at a time of economic malaise. He could get away with proposing a Keynesian stimulus and a measure of tax increases for high income voters – appealing to the middle-classes who had kept the Tories in power as well as working-class voters inclined to back the NDP – because Harper’s tired administration was offering no alternative to their policies that had resulted in recession.
The centre-left, progressive liberal tradition is not my own. But at a time of its malaise throughout most of the Western world, I would strongly advise its adherents to look to Trudeau to ease any pessimism.