Saturday, May 07, 2011

Reforming the Liberal Party: At the top, part one

In my last reform post I touched on reforming the Liberal Party from a leadership perspective. Today, I'd like to touch on reforms from a party structure, procedure and philosophy perspective.

Merger madness

But first, let me touch on the elephant in the room: the suggestion of merging the Liberal Party and the NDP. I think open and frank discussion on the idea is perfectly fine and healthy, but I'm strongly opposed.

I thought it was a bad idea when it was floated a year ago when we'd be the senior partner, and I still think it's a bad idea now, when we'd be the junior partner and I'm unclear why an NDP that views themselves as ascendant and ourselves as, well, the opposite, would even consider it.
I'm opposed for a number of reasons. I think it's being pushed by some as a quick-fix to a return to relevancy. Why reform and rebuild when we can hitch our wagon to their's? Others honestly see "uniting the left" as a logical step to stopping Harper, but I strongly disagree. We're two very different parties with different traditions. Liberal members are centre-left and centre-right, and many wouldn't be at home in this new party. You'd lose people on the right to the Conservatives and the Greens, and people on the left unhappy with the new members pulling it toward the centre. The end result would be polarized choices and a strengthened Conservative Party.

I can't accept any backroom machinations trying to foist a merger on the membership. No one has a mandate from the membership to negotiate anything, and without a mandate any process would lack legitimacy. If we're going to debate this, it must be open and in public with all members and all views being shared. As for me, I'll be arguing no and getting on with the business of trying to rebuild the Liberal Party of Canada.

What reform do we need?

In short, we're too top-heavy and our mentality is too top-down. (This development is an example of mentality). We're weighed-down by a bloated infrastructure that the party requires the ridings to support. It should be the opposite: a lean top-level infrastructure geared to supporting riding-level organization.

The examples of resources being sucked-up are endless. While any vote gains on the ground can be largely traced to riding-level organizational effort, none of the (soon to be eliminated) per-vote subsidy comes back to the riding. Candidates are required to sign half their expense refund over to the party before they're approved as a candidate. And every campaign is required to spend $2000 on a "riding services package" of minimal value. While most of the work to sign-up new members is done by the riding, in B.C. every dollar of that membership fee goes to the party (in Ontario, I believe the riding does get a cut). In essence, there are many, many ways in which the central party drains resources from the ridings.

What do the ridings get in exchange? Not too much although, frankly, it depends on which riding you are. Liberalist has been a great initiative in recent years, although I was amused to see this as a stated benefit for our $2000 riding services package given that we've had it for two years. We also got some national brochures, a few posters, and some lit templates. Most of the resources sucked-up though go to support a bloated infrastructure and to provide support for target ridings deemed more "winnable" or worthy of support.

And that's a big part of the problem. To LPC, some ridings are created far more equal than others. My riding saw Stephen Harper once and Jack Layton twice; we weren't winnable so Michael Ignatieff didn't come within hours. We actually were successful in getting some secondary tour visits, but we had to fight to keep Bob Rae because, despite the fact he wanted to come, some of the powers that be felt he would be wasted in such an unwinnable riding.

It speaks to a philosophical problem within the Liberal Party: instead of working to build and grow in every riding, we pre-emptively write-off large swaths of the country as unwinnable and leave them to fend for themselves. Well, if you starve them of resources and offer them no support then of course they're going to be unwinnable. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I'm not saying you send the national tour to every riding during the campaign. But you support them all, and between elections the leader needs to visit every riding multiple times to support the local organization. In Vancouver Island North we pulled in every favour we had and leveraged personal connections to get Paul Martin pre-election in 2004; it was the first visit by a Liberal leader since Pierre Trudeau. That's ridiculous.

The biggest reform we need within the Liberal Party is to adopt the philosophy that all 308 ridings are equal, and we must commit resources and effort to developing local organizations in each riding. We need to re-orient the infrastructure of the party to supporting the local organizations, and we must make the local organizational effort the reason d'etre of the party.

How do we specifically start to do that? I'll share some ideas in part two.

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Dan F said...

Agree that between campaigns we should be working to build an infrastructure in all 308 riding. During the writ, however, the way to win is to focus on the 160-170 ridings where you have a chance, and even pool party resources from everywhere to improve your chances of winning those ridings.

Jeff said...

Dan, I'm not saying you don't target the leader's tour during the writ, for example. But as long as we only choose to focus on so-called target ridings, then those other ridings will never be competitive.

What has been missing is how do you build more ridings to the point where they'd fit the "target riding" criteria. You do it by supporting and building local organizations and recognizing it needs a multi-election plan with continuity of team, continuity of candidate, and continual support from the party.

And given that at the moment we hold just 34 seats, there may be no better time to adopt a strategy with 308 target ridings. Our rebuilding is a long-term, multi-election process, and it must include every riding.

Brian G. Rice said...

I agree with you Jeff, but as riding President and Chair of the BC FLC (basically the BC riding president council), I do have to say that this isn't a totally one sided issues. Don't get me wrong, there are effective ridings that are ignored and treated badly. But there are alos a number of ridings that eithe r have no riding executive, or inneffective ones.

Any reform that is going to happen in this party is going to have to put ridings fron and centre. We need more training and more help. But in return, we need to have people who are committed and effective in all 308 ridings as well.