Monday, September 20, 2010

Liberal Express: A summer vacation well spent?

When the summer began and the Liberal Party announced plans for the Liberal Express, a summer-long bus tour by leader Michael Ignatieff, I was somewhat ambivalent. It wasn’t that it was a bad idea – it was definitely the right thing to do – it was just that we’ve been down this road so many times I was past getting too worked-up about it. Either it would go well and we’d do what we had to do, or we wouldn't.

With the summer over, the tour having wrapped-up in Gatineau on the weekend and the parliamentary circus returning today, I think it’s fairly clear the tour has been a success, and has achieved what I had hoped it would.

It’s important to consider what Ignatieff and Co. sought to accomplish this summer in context. This wasn’t about big overnight boosts in polling numbers, either party support or leadership numbers. That will take time. And it wasn’t about laying-out a detailed policy platform either. That will come in due course.

The summer was about a number of things.

First was helping Ignatieff find something resembling mojo. Competing with some very experienced politicians in Harper, Duceppe and Layton, he needed to learn the retail side of politics. Giving stump speeches, wading into crowds, making small talk, eating endless boxes of timbits. All while looking and acting like something resembling an actual person. By all reports, that mission was accomplished. The reports from the trail, even from usually un-friendly media sources, have been largely favourable. While he was the beneficiary of the lowered expectations thanks to the Conservative caricature campaign, we have been seeing a much more comfortable, real Ignatieff this summer.

Second was to bring the Liberal Party together, energize the grassroots, and convince both the membership and the caucus that we’re working toward something and Ignatieff could conceivably get us there. I think I reflect the feeling of many members when I say I’m willing to think long-term and work for the long-haul, ignoring the inevitable bumps along the way, if I feel we have a plan to get somewhere and are executing, and not just flailing around. Too often in recent years I’ve felt like we’ve been doing the latter, and not the former. Even preceding the summer though, that has slowly been changing. Jumping all-in on the random issue of the day is becoming less common. Instead, what’s beginning to emerge are defining narratives, both of what we want to do as a party, and of how we view the government of the day. Combine that with a leader finding his feet and able to articulate that and it’s something members can begin to rally and work behind.

Third was changing the media narrative. If the Liberals and Ignatieff are ever going to have a chance, they had to get out from under the emerging media narrative of the aloof, stiff professor with nothing to say leading a listless party. With the Conservatives largely taking the summer off, the Liberals had the playing-field to themselves much of the time, and they took advantage of it. In contrast to the restricted access to Harper they’re used to, the national media were invited on the bus, given open access, and lengthily interviews with Ignatieff. Combined with his improving performance, the result is a second chance for Ignatieff, as the media seem one again willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, and the sense he has the momentum going into the fall session. Also important was meeting with every local media organization possible. The tour generated a great deal of favourable local coverage, which can be much more valuable than national press.

As I said at the start, the polls aren’t going to shift massively overnight. It’s going to take time. We have seen some positive movement and some tightening over the summer. I’d attribute much of that to Conservative self-inflicted wounds, rather than Liberal gains.

What’s key though is putting the conditions in place to make gains, over time. In the past, we’ve seen the Conservatives drop support over a number of issues, only to steadily return. That’s because, when people were ready to drop the Conservatives, they looked around and, finding the alternatives lacking, slowly drifted back.

We had failed to put the pieces in place so that, when the Conservatives do stumble, the Liberals are seen as a viable, compelling alternative. This summer has seen a good start on rectifying that, and the process will continue into the fall.

It will be up to Ignatieff and the Liberals now to continue that summer momentum into the fall, and transition from the bus to the parliamentary bench. We need a new approach in the House that mirrors what we saw on the bus: comfortable but engaged, confident but not shrill. Articulating a larger vision, rising above the day-to-day battle. Measured opposition that puts individual events in a larger context, instead of grabbing for headlines. And slowly continuing to put more policy fruit on the tree.

What this summer has done is earn Liberals and Ignatieff a second look from Canadians. Now they just need to seize that opportunity and run with it. It’s an all-new battle, and it begins now.

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