Review: Tenting Only Looks Easy

If Liberals stumble October 19 it would be the party’s longest losing streak since the death of John A. Macdonald. The fact underscores impressive success and unalterable failure. No party replaces the Liberal machine, with apologies to the Globe & Mail and certain pollsters. It’s a stretch to claim a new era of Conservative dominance when Conservatives lose Alberta and have difficulty scraping up 38% of the national vote.

It speaks instead to the impact of tinkering with political machinery, and changes in the country itself. Big Tent Politics is a subtle and revealing analysis of what went right, and wrong.

Political scientist R. Kenneth Carty, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, first dispels the mythology of Liberal dominance. Lots of democracies have long-winning parties, he notes: the Congress Party of India; Social Democrats of Sweden; Christian Democrats of Italy and Germany; and Ireland’s Fianna Fáil, which dominated Dublin politics from 1932 to 2011. All were winners that practiced “brokerage politics”, Carty explains.

“Rather than articulating different ideas and representing specific interests so that citizens can make electoral choices among them, a brokerage party actively aims to obscure differences and to muffle conflicting claims, generally in the name of social accommodation and always in the interest of its own internal unity,” Carty writes. “Brokerage parties are therefore a kind of unnatural anti-party, seeking to deny, or at least to suppress, the reality of competition among the community’s distinctive political parts. As one might expect, a brokerage party instinctively eschews ideological agendas and programmatic politics in the pursuit of large, volatile and heterogeneous support bases.”

In other words, build a big tent with room enough for everyone to get out of the rain. If Liberals have not won 50 percent of the popular vote since 1953, they won enough votes in enough provinces to score win after win.

So, what went wrong? Big Tent conducts the post-mortem with a scalpel. Brokerage parties by definition are “unprincipled and opaque”, Carty writes. It is their virtue and vulnerability: “Able to incorporate and to represent all also meant that the party was inherently shapeless”; “The lack of any single definition of what the Liberal Party represented was reflected in the real ambiguity regarding who constituted it.”

Big Tent examines the disastrous fiddling by Liberal HQ that weakened the machinery. The fact it took so long for Liberals to sputter is a credit to how skillfully the machine was forged in the first place: the Party, like Eaton’s, was so well-built it took hapless managers years to drive it into the ground.

The Liberal caucus lost direct control of the Party’s leadership; then managers failed to absorb new parties, with the result of splitting the ballot. Then riding associations were weakened to the point they no longer select candidates.

In 2008 then-leader Stephane Dion personally blocked the nomination of David Orchard in a Saskatchewan byelection, Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River. Orchard was a genuine and popular figure who’d endorsed Dion and signed up hundreds of new members. Dion Plays To Win, read the headline in the National Post. Well, not exactly: Liberals lost the byelection by 1,700 votes.

“Changes to the election law in the 1970s gave the leader the power to veto locally chosen candidates; then in the 1990s, the party altered its constitution to allow the leader to actively intervene to designate a specific local candidate,” writes Carty. “Both threatened the party’s long-standing internal dynamics.” Local organizers were alienated, and one-issue lobbyists were motivated to push managers into planting candidates.

Oddly, all major parties have made the same mistakes, ensuring Canada no longer sees any Big Tent politics. The ballot is fractured; voters are cynical and indifferent; parties bicker pointlessly over contrived and divisive issues like whether Muslim women should wear niqabs; and organizers are reduced to Twitter blitzes to reach electors who left the tent some time ago.

By Holly Doan

Big Tent Politics by R. Kenneth Carty; University of British Columbia Press; 176 pages; ISBN 9780-7748-29991; $29.95

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