Thursday, May 05, 2011

I said campaigns matter, but Jesus!

I've already written about my experience in #elxn41 on the ground in Vancouver Island North, where I got the campaign office closed Wednesday and the last of the signs taken down. I'd like now to offer some thoughts on the national campaign and the way ahead, although I'll try to save thoughts on the way ahead for the Liberal Party for the next post.

To be honest, it was hard for be to follow much of the national campaign, certainly for the first two weeks. I was too busy trying to get a local organization built and running to watch/read the news or keep up with my Twitter stream. The daily Nanos crack and its release timing did cause an unfortunate habit though: waking just after 4am, checking my BlackBerry for the numbers, and then then trying to go back to sleep ... usually in a less than positive mood.

Going into the debates, my superficial sense was that the Liberals had run a pretty solid campaign. A few candidate hiccups -- these are inevitable for all parties -- but it was relatively error-free ball after the initial bungling of the obvious coalition question. Michael Ignatieff matured into a solid campaigner and packed in big crowds. I liked some of the policy we rolled-out. We'd already heard about the family care program, and I liked the tuition funding and particularly the funding for veterans education.

Still, in retrospect the warning signs were there early. Despite a few Conservative miscues, like their failed one-on-one debate challenge, we were unable to gain any traction. We were able to push the NDP down a little before the debates -- running the same "only we can stop the Conservatives" strategy we've run for years -- but not enough.

There was one thing that began to strike me as the campaign went on: we were still running as a party that expected to govern, and perhaps felt it its due. Now, there is something to be said for pragmatism. But it does make it difficult to capture the imagination, and to think big. Our policy proposals were too measured, our language too careful. Despite all our anti-Harper/change rhetoric, we ran more like a government than an opposition.

One incident crystallized this for me. We have a lot of veterans in my riding, and a major issue is the claw-back of their pensions. NDP MP Peter Stoffer sponsored a private member's bill to change that in the last parliament; it passed with the support of all the opposition parties with the Conservatives in opposition, but as the speaker deemed it a bill needing royal assent as it involved money, it died. Incumbent Conservative John Duncan voted against the bill and was vulnerable on it locally.

My candidate and I wanted to promise to fight to end the clawback, and as the party voted for Stoffer's bill I felt I was on fairly safe ground. But just to be sure, I checked-in with the LPC policy shop to confirm the official position. And I was floored by the response. "There is a lawsuit involving this matter before the courts," I was told, "and we're not commenting as we wait for it to be resolved. Please don't go beyond that language." I think my language was more muted, but my response was that that was a chicken-shit answer of the sort governing ministers give in question period to dodge a question. We're an opposition party running in an election, this is an issue where what's right is clear as well as politically advantageous, but we're too afraid to take a position because of burecrateese. It was hugely symbolic. I ignored the directive and we were careful to say our candidate, not the party, would fight the clawback.

Watching the debates, I thought Ignatieff did fine but no knock-out punch. Jack Layton didn't wow me, but I've never been a big fan and consider myself a little too biased to judge his performance. My take was Harper won by not losing, and the Liberals had lost their last chance to win this thing, barring some 2nd/3rd place coalition scenario. I confess I didn't see the NDP wave coming, and for awhile it seemed to me as more of a media-created phenomenon. It quickly began to feed on itself though in a self-propelling circle, as media coverage encouraged people to move, and people moving encouraged more media coverage. Whether the chicken or the egg came first I don't know, but it certainly did lay a golden egg for Layton.

As well-managed and planned as the Liberal campaign was, one thing quickly became clear: it was unable at worst, and slow at best, to move off the plan that the campaign team had crafted many months ago. I'd urged a focus on health care years ago; a sudden shift during the campaign without laying a foundation just softened up the ground for the NDP. And the campaign was very slow to respond to the shifting dynamics caused by the NDP rise. For nearly a week the strategy seemed to be to ignore it. When they did respond, while the ads were nice pieces of negative advertising they didn't speak to why vote was moving to the NDP, and so weren't effective in stopping them. I remember when we attacked Layton's misguided mumblings on monetary policy: sure, we were right on policy, but the vote switchers could care less about monetary policy.

What of the rise of the NDP? They didn't offer much new on the policy front; their platform was mainly recycled promises from last campaigns. The narrative they offered a positive campaign rings hollow: they launched the campaign with very effective negative pieces in health care, went pre-emptively negative in the Liberals, and in B.C. ran very negative (but well produced) negative radio ads warning Harper will fire BC doctors and nurses by demanding the HST equalization funding back if BCers vote to scrap the HST. I think Layton benefited by being an established, likeable known quantity not scarred by years of Conservative negative advertising. This made him a safe place for people to turn that wanted a change. And while he did run very negative advertising, his stump message was a positive one that tapped into a public desire for a more positive and hopeful message. It was also very clear what the NDP was about and what they stood for.

In contrast, Ignatieff was very negative on the Conservatives and, well I certainly didn't disagree with his critique, I think we forgot that not everyone dislikes Harper as much as we do. He is a known quantity who, while not warm and fuzzy, is viewed as competent and reasonably effective by a large swath of mainstream Canada. It also wasn't enough to be upset with Harper over respect for democracy: we failed to offer meaningful reforms to address it.

The Conservatives ran a fairly safe bubble campaign. The media made much of how many questions he took or didn't take but let's be honest: we wish it were different, but most people could care less if Harper is mean to the media. I agree it's anti-democratic and I agree it's wrong, but that doesn't change the reality. Harper offered stability and a steady course with a familiar face, and that was appealing to many. And as galling as his request for a majority was (essentially, it was hiring the arsonist to put out the fire) people were tired of the perpetual minorities and when it came to giving someone a majority, better the known quantity even if he does have his rough edges.

Lastly, the Green Party. I confess I was betting against Elizabeth May in SGI. Not because I didn't want to see her win, but because I didn't think she could pull it off. If Briony Penn coudn't pull it off it off in 2008 with no NDP candidate, I didn't like her chances. I didn't get too worked-up over her exclusion from the debates because she'd made clear she wasn't running a national campaign. Clearly, though, SGI residents decided to make history, and I think her election is a great thing. The question, now, is what will she do with it? They have their seat, but the singular focus on getting May elected cost the party support in the rest of the country. Their challenge will be broadening beyond the Liz May show to become a true broad party. I wish them luck.

I think we're in for a very interesting four years. We'll see what the Harper Conservatives do with a majority: will they unleash the hidden conservative within in a rightward shift, or carefully hug the centre-right with meaningful but less polarizing change with an eye to building a stable, long-term governing majority -- a new natural governing party.

How will the NDP adjust to the scrutiny and spotlight of being the official opposition, particularly with a caucus of inexperienced, accidental MPs? While they ironically have less power now as official opposition to a Harper majority than they did as a third-party in a minority, they have excelled in the past in a role that requires righteous opposition with no hope of meaningful change. They're going to face a whole new level of scrutiny they haven't before though. They're now the government in waiting. The days of not needing to ground your proposals in fiscal reality are over. We'll watch to see if they can make the transition, and become a permanent major player and not an ADQ-like flash in the pan.

The BQ seems down and out, and if that's so the NDP's orange surge (it's troubling pandering to nationalistic elements notwithstanding) is a good thing. But I wouldn't be too quick to write off the BQ; their death has been prematurely declared many times before. They've lost a key asset in Gilles Duceppe, but I'm not writing them off yet.

As for my Liberals, that is a story for another post, and I suspect many posts to come. Suffice to say the road is long and the challenges hard, but I'm ready and eager to fight for work for change.

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1 comment:

Mark Richard Francis said...

Aside from the occasional glimmer of hope, I'm been unsatisfied with the LPC as Official Opposition, and am glad to see the NDP have a shot at it. The polarization could help. And with Harper with a majority, well, minority parliament games will no longer apply, and opposing should be easier.

The biggest problem was that the ground for the campaign was laid out by Harper quit well (often with our friggin money) but not by the Liberals. Harper is terribly vulnerable, but the repetitious message people need to hear just has not been there.

I'm not an NDP supporter, but for now I'm in their corner. Given what's going on in this world with the environment damage totalling and corporatism creeping further and further towards trumping sovereignty, I think the centre can't hold.

And that spells the end of usefulness for the LPC for now.