Letter from … Montreal

Montreal in its early fall seems an almost impossibly perfect place to bring progressives from Europe and Australasia together with Canadian and American counterparts. Quebec’s largest city is the very embodiment of different traditions living side by side. For the first-time visitor, ordering a doughnut in (bad British schoolboy) French in the quintessentially north American surroundings of the Tim Horton’s chain takes a bit of getting used to.

And, sad to say, for many of us European social democrats who made the trip over the pond for Global Progress 2016 in Montreal there is something that takes a bit of getting used to. That is the sheer scale of prime minister Justin Trudeau’s success in building electoral support for a progressive platform. Reading the Globe and Mail on the bus in from the airport, the lead political story was about a small dip in the Liberal party’s fortunes in the polls. Oh, to have to worry about falling two points to 48 per cent, in what most regard as just a summer blip. Trudeau’s own approval rating also dipped but remains well over 50 per cent. You do not need me to make the depressing contrast with the situation we face at home.

Up close, during the ubiquitous ‘grip and grin’ photo moment you can see why Trudeau’s charm and piercing eyes have made him such a political pin-up for the party leaders lining up for a snap – all of whom want to echo his electoral success.

Naturally, for no amount of charisma would hoodwink the wily Canadian electorate, there is more to Trudeau than good looks and the good fortune to be the son of legendary 1970s premier Pierre Trudeau – still regarded as the father of modern liberal (with a small l) Canada.

What marked out his astonishing general election victory this time last year was the relentless simplicity of his overall message. And what marks the 12 months since is his team’s relentless approach to delivering the detail. That victorious ‘narrative’ was one of optimism and reality: he was clear his nation’s best days could be ahead of it, but only if it had a government that was in tune with the reality of modern Canada.

Two things stand out. First, the determination to celebrate diversity and make it an economic positive to be leveraged and not a social problem to be ‘dealt with’. The highlight of Global Progress – where Policy Network partnered with the Center for American Progress and which was hosted by Canada 2020 – was the prime minister in conversation with our own Sadiq Khan. As Khan pithily put it, ‘toothache is tolerated, diversity should be embraced’.

Trudeau’s second, successfully sold, reality check was to level with Canadians that you cannot have the country you want if you are not prepared to pay for it. He told the Canadian people that he would need to borrow to finance the infrastructure investment the economy needs.

This brand of honest, clear politics had a spectacular result. He led his party from its worst-ever election defeat, where it scored 18 per cent, to 39 per cent. Yes, that is not a typo – he doubled its vote and the seat gain was even more spectacular, from 36 to 148. All this in a system which is pretty much exactly the same as Britain’s.

So, even in our seemingly darkest moments we, in Labour, must not lose heart. But the message from Montreal is: recovery is going to take leadership and honesty.

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Matthew Laza is director of Policy Network. If you want to read more, Sunny Ways: Learning from Success and Failure in Canada, by Jon Ashworth MP, is available to download for free at policy-network.net

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