Saturday, May 07, 2011

System Error; Reboot

Before moving this blog back to issues that drive my interest in Canadian Liberalism, here's my own analysis of what has gone wrong recently. Its pretty much the same as I wrote after the 2008 election.

This is grossly simplified but the intention is to highlight the structure of the party and how I suspect this affects the outcome. It goes like this. There are three mutually reinforcing elements in an electoral win: the campaign, the strength of the party base and luck. You need some of all three to win.

The Liberal campaign was good. It ran smoothly, the events were well-organized, and there were no major gaffes. IMO Ignatieff did a superior job on his first attempt. Much better than I was expecting. And I think he would have improved in a second election. I don't blame him. The people at the top ran a good show. But 1) they had bad luck when Quebec broke for the NDP which no one could have predicted. And 2) efforts to engage the base have not gone far enough.

If you have a small base, the likelihood that a good campaign will resonate is decreased. By base I mean people who reliably vote for the party and just can't bring themselves to vote strategically. These people vote, donate money, volunteer and, perhaps most importantly, move the opinions of their family and friends. You need to have a base to even begin to be taken seriously. The federal NDP have suffered from this problem for 50 years. The Conservatives have a formidable base that is the result of years of effort. And the Liberals have seen their base shrink.

A strong Liberal base would have also generated the money needed to respond to the massive Conservative media buy. The Conservatives created a negative image of Ignatieff that, like Dion, he was unable to overcome. Unsurprisingly, advertising works. If the Liberals hope to compete, they will have to raise an equivalent amount of money from their supporters.

Although Ignatieff's country-wide tour was a step in the right direction, I suspect the emphasis was more about preparing him for the campaign and building his leadership (top-down) than about a more radical change in the dynamic of the party (horizontal connections between individual members) that would I think reinvigorate the base. A leader can only shake so many hands. The historic strength of the Liberal base has permitted a culture in the head office that focuses on 'the campaign' rather than base-building. I don't doubt the intelligence and sincerity of the people leading the party. These are good Liberals. And I think there has been some effort to try new approaches at outreach. But it has not yet begun to address the problem adequately.

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