No more ‘woke’ politics? What the Ontario Liberals can learn from Britain’s Labour Party

Labour was crushed in the last election. A new report lays out why — and it should give politicians in this province lots to think about
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Feb 14, 2020
A panellist quoted in a new report says they were exasperated when Jeremy Corbyn introduced himself and included his preferred pronouns. (Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA/CP)

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Maybe it’s that there’s been something of a lull at Queen’s Park — MPPs won’t be returning to the legislature until next week — but I’ve been fascinated and distracted by what’s going on in the United Kingdom recently. The election victory of the Conservatives, led by former London mayor Boris Johnson, sent shockwaves through the opposition parties — and his own. Just this week, Johnson shuffled his cabinet, losing his chancellor of the exchequer (in Canadianese, his finance minister) in the process.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party is in the midst of a campaign that will produce a replacement for Jeremy Corbyn, who led the party to one of its worst-ever showings. This is the part that should sound familiar to Ontarians: like this province’s Liberals, Labour is dealing with the questions of who its next leader will be and of what that leader should do next to rebuild support for a party that’s lost key constituencies, both regionally and demographically.

It would be a mistake to overstate the similarities, of course. Ontario isn’t the U.K., and we haven’t spent years trying to determine how to interpret the narrow results of a hotly contested referendum. But then, with Canadian conservatives happy to advertise their support for Brexit, it’s not as if there’s zero relevance, either.

So with that caveat, it’s worth reading the recent report from Lord Ashcroft on the bleak prospects facing Labour — and considering what Ontario Liberals might learn from it. Ashcroft polled more than 10,000 respondents and conducted 18 focus groups in ridings Labour lost in the 2019 election. His findings represent a pretty searing indictment of how Labour presented itself to the public under Corbyn, and they don’t offer a lot of good news for a party looking to rebound from defeat.

One obvious similarity between Labour and the Liberals: both have faced criticisms that the party leadership was too thoroughly cocooned in a metropolitan bubble (London for Labour, Toronto for the Liberals). But this is a vague, broad charge, and the details of what voters mean when they say that don’t offer easy answers for parties trying to rebuild.

For starters, one of the things that voters meant — particularly voters who switched from Labour to the Tories in 2019 — is that they’re irritated by the “woke” politics of contemporary young activists. One of the panellists quoted says they were exasperated when Corbyn introduced himself with “My name’s Jeremy Corbyn, and my pronouns are ‘him’ and ‘his.’”

Obviously, the context in Ontario is different. But it’s worth dwelling on some of these issues and what they might mean for provincial parties. What, for example, is the answer to voters who may think of themselves as reasonably progressive but feel bewildered by the rapid change in norms around LGBTQ rights? There’s a real-world example of how this tripped up the Liberals, after all: they got into an argument over the content of the sex-ed curriculum for public-school students, and the brouhaha lasted through the last four years of their term — until the Tories adopted a document that largely tinkered at the margins, moving some topics from Grade 6 to Grade 8.

There isn’t an obvious solution in such cases: progressive parties don’t want to compromise on principles of equality and human rights. But voters who feel left behind by rapid change always have the option of voting for the other guy — who won’t necessarily give marginalized people a more sympathetic hearing.

More broadly, political parties probably want to think harder about how they can harness the energy of their young activist members without alienating older voters, who still represent the biggest voter demographic. Getting that balance wrong can be fatal.

Another thing that turned Labour-Tory switchers off was Labour’s apparent willingness to expand public spending in ways that some voters found ridiculous — like a promise to deliver free broadband internet across the country. “We don’t need free Wi-Fi, for heaven’s sake. It costs £20 a month; I can afford it,” one voter said. Labour tried to sell voters on a major expansion of the state, in a country where such national agencies as the National Health Service and the BBC are cultural touchstones. And they didn’t bite.

I think about some of the more extravagant spending promises the Liberals made in the run-up to the last election (the high-speed rail line to London, Ontario, will always be high on that list) and how they didn’t save a single Liberal seat southwest of the Don Valley in Toronto. Which isn’t to say that voters don’t want government to play a positive role in their lives — the current government has been forced to promise that it won’t undo full-day kindergarten in its ongoing fight with teachers — but voters can smell a bribe, and they’re under no obligation to take one.

The Liberals don’t have to heed either of these lessons. Indeed, there’s a fair argument that the context of Ontario is so different that they’d be wise not to. But, in a few weeks, they’ll have finished the task of choosing a new leader for their party, and the uncomfortable question will still be there: What’s next?

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