The Liberal Party of Canada hadn't processed a lesson the Coca-Cola corporation learned the hard way back in 1985, with the brief reshaping of the brand to New Coke, which bore more similarities to a rival (Pepsi) than its successful historical product. The result was an overwhelming public rejection, and the lesson was: it's generally not a good idea to mess with a winning formula.
The Liberals were the most successful political party in the free world during the 20th century for a simple reason - they played the centre.
It was never a secret that yesterday's Canadian election that resulted in a Conservative majority was a power-grab by Michael Ignatieff's Liberals, who hoped to form a government with the support of the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Quebecois. To do that, former (and soon-to-be again) professor Michael Ignatieff, who was generally viewed as being a right leaning Liberal, shifted his party so far to the left that there was little daylight between his platform and that of Jack Layton's socialist NDP.
Stephen Harper's success came from being not a party of the right, but that of the centre-right. He put a lid on the far-right in his party who want to ban abortion, oppose Gay rights and impose a social Conservative agenda. By being a fiscally Conservative party with centrist social policies, Harper was able to capture the middle which has always been the key to electoral success in Canada.
And he captured it from the Liberals, whose former supporters were placated by Harper's responsible leadership as Prime Minister since 2006, and fearful of the radical left (a.k.a. "progressive") shift Ignatieff was steering for the Liberals.
The Liberals lost in 43 ridings where their members were incumbents. They lost 27 of them, about 63 per cent, to the Conservatives. They didn't take a single riding away from the Tories. The only new riding they took was from an NDP incumbent. The NDP's success in raising their seat count to 102 and becoming Official Opposition for the first time shows that when offered the choice between "the real thing" and a copy of a competitor, like Coke drinkers, Canadians prefer the genuine article.
Former Ontario NDP leader Bob Rae, the most prominent Liberal to survive last night's election, is now hinting at an upcoming 'merger of the left'. That would be political suicide for the Liberals and eliminate their chance of a resurgence in the future. Rae evidently missed the message that the Liberals' loss wasn't because of a splitting of the left vote. The Liberals' catastrophic defeat was a rejection of their shift to the left.
Canadians have traditionally voted for a party of the centre. When the Liberals decided to cease to be that, Canada chose the centrist alternative, which Harper was more than willing to provide. Harper made that explicit in the final days of the election campaign in his appeal to Liberal voters concerned about the possibility of an NDP-led government.
There is always going to be room for a centrist party in Canada to rise. If the Liberals want to commit to being a party of the left, it will help the Conservatives in the short term, and create an opportunity for a new centrist party to emerge to fill the vacuum in the centre that the Liberals have abandoned.
But the Liberals do have an alternative. Layton's NDP now has more than half it's base in Quebec, the province that for most of Canada's history was the cornerstone of Liberal support and success. The NDP is a party of radical socialists, 9-11 conspiracy theorists, and buffoons. They have avoided serious scrutiny for a long time because, as the perennial 3rd or 4th party no one took them too seriously. All that will change with Layton's occupancy of Stornoway. Now the NDP will be subject to intense scrutiny and they will almost certainly collapse under the weight of their own incompetence.
The NDP has done the country a favor by demolishing the Bloc Quebecois, but their ineptitude will eventually lead Quebec to reject them. The next election will be the opportunity for the Liberals to retake a position of prominence in their former base. By rebuilding a centrist party that can appeal to voters in Quebec and outside that province, the Liberals can rebuild itself into a party that can represent Canada from coat to coast.
But the Liberals have to understand what the opportunity is and not squander it. Because if they do, others will emerge to take their place.