If the Liberal party is a 'movement,' what will Justin Trudeau do with it?

The Liberal party is one of the oldest and most hallowed political institutions in Canada, an entity storied not only for its leaders and legislative achievements, but for its machinations and shadowy movers. But now, its leaders would have you understand, it is no longer a party. It is, rather, a "movement."

Liberals do away with memberships as Trudeau tries to recast the Liberal party

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to delegates at the Liberal convention in Winnipeg. (CBC)

​"Young people in particular don't want to be part of a club," Scott Brison, the 49-year-old president of the Treasury Board, posited on the first day of the Liberal convention in Winnipeg, "they want to shape a political movement that reflects their progressive values."

Perhaps that means the Liberal party will someday conduct official business via emojis and Snapchat, but for now it means it has decided to do away with formalities of party membership, including the $10 annual fee.

"The NDP and the Conservative party are traditional old-style political clubs," Brison explained of the changes to the party constitution passed Saturday. "The Liberal party is becoming a modern political movement focused on the future and I'm very excited about that."

The Liberal party is one of the oldest and most hallowed political institutions in Canada, an entity storied not only for its leaders and legislative achievements, but for its machinations and shadowy movers.

But now, its leaders would have you understand, it is no longer a party. It is, rather, a "movement."

The political party as movement

The leader of this movement, Justin Trudeau, used the word "movement" seven times in addressing adherents on Saturday afternoon. And then party members voted overwhelmingly to do away with the very notion of membership. 

Being part of the Liberal party is now a state of mind. Or at least a matter of filling in your information.

Social movements might be defined as the popular rallying around specific causes or ideas for the sake of promoting change, and distinguished from political parties, which are the formal organization of various interests for the sake of gaining power. And the notion of a party being a movement might seem particularly incongruous when the party is generally associated with moderation and centrism. 

("Let us not get carried away!" is not a particularly inspiring thing to shout in the streets.)

But being part of a party is the rather dull stuff of riding association meetings and conventions. Being part of a movement, on the other hand, sounds like fun.

The decline of the party

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau presents his case for a new party constitution at the 2016 Liberal Biennial Convention in Winnipeg on Saturday. (John Woods/Canadian Press)
Belonging to a party is also, quite literally, not cool. 

Nine per cent of Canadians reported being the member of a political party in a 2014 survey, though other estimates have put that figure much lower. In Britain, a 2015 study found just one per cent of the electorate belonged to one of the three biggest parties, representing a long-term erosion that has also been noted in most European countries.

And insofar as most democratic systems have come to depend on the existence of political parties, the decline of participation in such institutions could be thought to matter.

Participating in the Liberal party will now merely involve that you "register" with the party — perhaps as simple as providing your name and contact information — similar to how American voters can register as a Democrat or Republican. (And an extension of the "supporter" class that was introduced during the last Liberal leadership race.)

Mind you, the Democratic party does not describe itself as a movement. But Organizing for America, the permanent organization that was formed after Barack Obama's first presidential campaign, does. To wit: "Organizing for Action is a movement of millions of Americans, coming together to fight for real, lasting change."

Possibly that sounds familiar.

What will Trudeau's movement amount to?

The vast majority of Liberal delegates — 1,988 — voted in favour of the new constitution, while only 66 voted against it. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

"The Liberals have evolved from the caucus-dominated party of Laurier's day, through the regional minister period under King, to a widespread-membership model," says John Duffy, the long-time Liberal, former adviser to Paul Martin and political historian. "That's now given way to a mass-engagement model more along American lines, and better suited to contemporary, capital-and-technology-intensive politics."

The political party now exists in your inbox and Facebook feed. And, at least in the case of the Liberal party, it describes itself as a movement, a word that has appeared in numerous Liberal emails, going back to at least 2013.

It is, of course, still a party. With all of the formal structure (and authority figures) that entails. And it remains to be seen what happens when a party is suddenly easier to access. Perhaps this will only amount to the Liberals having a larger database of email addresses.

Unless the concept descends into chaos, the other parties will presumably be compelled to follow suit. 

But however Justin Trudeau is reshaping the Liberal party, whatever the size or extent of the movement he leads, it is to wonder what he might do with it.

A few provinces to the west this weekend, Stephen Harper was marking the end of his time as leader of what has been called the conservative "movement" — a movement he shaped when he brought conservatives together again under a single party. He departs with a disputed legacy, but having seemingly established distinctly conservative ideas about taxation, the role of government and the country's international disposition, and leaving behind a Conservative party that his successors can build on.

So what now will this Liberal movement amount to?


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.