The Future of the Leaders

The news has been dominated in the past day and a bit with the succession taking place within the Liberal Party. The question of succession, however, applies to more than the Liberals. Are there other successions likely? How many of the leaders who fought the election of 2008 are going to do so the next time around?

The Green Party

Frankly, I do not see Elizabeth May surviving to fight again. The Greens brought forward a number of dynamic, plausible candidates across the country, a significant number of which were either not beholden to Ms. May for their nominations (and thus owe her nothing) or who campaigned contrary to Ms. May’s own campaign as party leader (for instance, not looking for votes to be transferred to the Liberals, or in part on previous party policy).

Such candidates — and their riding associations — have a potential interest in a change at the top of the Green Party, especially given Ms. May’s liaison with and support for Stéphane Dion. So, too, those who believed Green Party policy shifts which occurred under Ms. May away from the policy set under her predecessor, Jim Harris, made of the party a more left-wing alternative (as opposed to the Harris years’ economic policies designed to appeal to homeless Progressive Conservatives in the wake of the creation of the Conservative Party), and thus a potential vote loser in their ridings.

The purpose of a political party is not (in our current Canadian system) to support another party during an election campaign, but to campaign on its own. We do not use European-style coalitions, where supporters of a minor party go into an election knowing with which major party or parties their choice is likely to allied post-election; to muse on these matters in mid-campaign is to potentially divert support from the party. It is, in other words, a cause around which those who wish a leadership change in the Green Party to rally.

This is especially important given the results the Green Party obtained on election night: how much higher might these have been without Ms. May’s manoeuvres?

Do I think Ms. May will resign? Not willingly — but I do expect her party to force her to go. Whether this occurs quietly and appears as a resignation, or whether it is noisy and public, remains to be seen.

The Bloc Québécois

On the surface, Gilles Duceppe would seem to be the most secure of all the leaders (and I include the Prime Minister in this). The BQ maintained its share of the vote and its share of seats; Québec voters have demonstrated yet again that their votes for the Bloc are part of a vote for an agent of their interests in brokering outcomes at the Federal level, and have nothing in particular to do with the sovereignty movement. By share of vote, by change in result, and by popular attitudes Duceppe’s leadership is unlikely to be challenged.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to think that this may well have been Duceppe’s last electoral tilt. During the last term, Duceppe did temporarily step to move to provincial politics: although he reversed his decision quickly, and remained active Federally, this signalled a potential for change.

Why not? He is long past the requirement for full pension consideration under the MP pension scheme. He gains nothing more by remaining — and runs the continuing risk of any politician that (in the words of former British Prime Minister Macmillan) “events, dear boy, events” take over and leave a stain on an otherwise satisfactory career record. Given the BQ’s limiting their candidates to Québec-based seats only, the most Duceppe can play for is “Leader of the Opposition” — hardly, in other words, worth the candle.

I believe Duceppe will use the next few months to figure out likely successors, and to prepare the way for his resignation as leader of the BQ. Within a year, I expect him to be gone (to give his successor the time needed to establish his or her own control over the party and prepare for the next campaign).

The New Democratic Party

It’s interesting how one’s perceptions differ depending on the perceiver’s background. I well recall Jack Layton in his years in Toronto municipal politics, and in the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. I have, therefore, seen him lead (as opposed to leading in the House and through a campaign) and have positive views toward what he is contributing to the NDP in his current role. On the other hand, a friend of mine, who is a New Canadian (and for whom this month’s election was his first opportunity to vote), found Layton to be bombastic, excitable, cut from a “Latin American mould” or Southern European mould — and therefore a loser based on his results.

A similar set of dissimilar positions is starting to come to the fore in the NDP as well, I think. Not only has Jack! been leader now through multiple campaigns, NDP popular votes and seat counts are moving only slowly, making a mockery of the recent campaign and Layton’s claim to be “running to be Prime Minister”. When a politician becomes the subject of laughter, the end is often near, and the laughing is rising around Jack!. His days are probably numbered.

Much as with May, I do not expect Layton to step down on his own. A delegation of grandees may well persuade him privately; more likely is a test vote on the floor at the next NDP gathering. Remember that a leader is weakened significantly by having to face such a vote, and even more so by not carrying the day “resoundingly”: a good 80% is needed to quell the storm. Continued leadership, in other words, is a super-majority test: even a third willing to support a change is a strong signal for change and thus an almost fatal blow to the incumbent. Ask Joe Clark about being thrown into a no-win vote.

Then, too, the NDP has serious policy and positioning issues to sort out. (Many people I know, even those who would be happy to vote NDP, are turned off by the incessant references to “kitchen tables” and “ordinary Canadians”, believing that this rhetoric demeans them.) The role of the NDP differs in Western and Eastern Canada as well: this also leads to policy tensions.

Providing a suitable direction and set of policies for the NDP is done at a party meeting. These discussions, however, are likely to fuel the notion of the change at the top. I do not expect Jack! to survive this — and his longevity in the role is merely another point of entry to bring change about. Goodbye, Jack.

The Liberal Party

Little needs to be said about this now, other than to note that the caucus and/or the meeting that must, by party constitution, be called to confirm or deny Dion as interim leader could yet overturn Dion’s plans for the next few months.

As for the prospects of leadership candidates, I shall hold my fire until I can discuss it more fully.

The Conservative Party

If there is a survivor going forward, it is Stephen Harper, although we should be aware that there are two under-currents that may drag him down.

The first is his own longevity in his role. For much of his caucus, Harper has been “in power” for most of the decade (going back to his becoming leader of the Canadian Alliance). As the cliché goes, “familiarity breeds contempt”. Add to this the obvious lacunae in the recent Conservative campaign — the meme of “a majority in our hands and lost” — and the pressure to find someone else to lead the party into majority territory can easily build in the riding associations. Winnipeg next month may be too soon for some of this to surface, but surface these rumblings will. (Too, Bill Casey’s return with a 68% plurality is a repudiation of Harper’s expulsion of the Nova Scotia MP from the Conservative caucus — and proof that “bucking Harper” is not a losing game.)

The second is the “poor fit” with some passions of Mr. Harper in contra-distinction to some ridings — in the West and in Ontario — where “pandering to Québec” is seen as a loser’s game. There is little question but that Mr. Harper has a strategy to restore Conservative fortunes in Québec, one which may not have paid dividends this year, but which is still in early days. A new “Reform outburst” is as possible for Harper as it was in 1987 for the Mulroney Government: this time, however, it is likely to take place within the party rather than by splitting it. There are very, very few Conservatives who want to make it possible for another Jean Chrétien to emerge and benefit from ten years of a divided Conservative Party.

Unlike May and Layton (and, of course, Dion), Harper may well be able to stare down any challenger. I do expect him to be the returning candidate the next time around. But I recognise that it’s not necessarily so. Certainly, it is time for Harper to start creating individuals the public would welcome for the day he does depart the leadership: it would strengthen not only the party, but the electoral prospects of the Conservatives. A strong team, in other words, outclasses a strong individual in politics.

The reality of Canadian politics is that, despite the institutional framework of selecting the best person to represent a riding and serve the citizens of that riding, most people vote for party — and increasingly, for leader. Who leads, therefore, directly adds or subtracts to the election night result. October 14th showed the sheer number of leaders lacking in the ability to grow their party’s result. Expect, therefore, new faces galore when next we rerun the campaign.

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