Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Renewal: More coalition building

Maybe it's time to do a Liberal renewal post what with all the musings about the death of the party, debates over retaining centrism or not, etc. I prefer to put all that stuff aside to begin with though. This post is not about cross party coalition building as the blog post title might suggest. It's about something different. It's on a more basic electoral question of how we get members elected and I think the Ontario election is an instructive lead in to the discussion. 

If you followed the Ontario election you saw that there was clearly a big difference in terms of the political landscape for Liberals as compared to the federal campaign. In Ontario, there were groups who aligned themselves with the Ontario Liberals either overtly or implicitly because they saw the Liberals as the best governmental option that would enact policies that were to their constituency's benefit. Among those groups, there were these ones, for example:

The Ontario Sustainable Energy Association. They ran ads in support of a green energy economy. The Liberals, with the Green Energy Act, were the party they saw as their best ally. ("The Ontario Sustainable Energy Association is a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring and enabling the people of Ontario to improve the environment, the economy and their health by producing clean, sustainable energy in their homes, business and communities. www.ontario-sea.org")

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association who ran the Speak for Children campaign : "This campaign is dedicated to ensuring a factual, positive discussion on the state of our publicly funded education system today and the progress that has been made over the past eight years." Here's a video that gives a sense of what they did:

See also Ken Lewenza and the CAW influence he brought to bear on the campaign as he attended numerous events with Dalton McGuinty. ("Lewenza told reporters the CAW would endorse New Democrats in the 10 NDP-held seats in the 107-member Legislature and Liberals in ridings where the Progressive Conservatives have a chance of winning.")

Just a few examples but prominent ones. Now think back to the federal election. Who was with federal Liberals? We might have been endorsed by groups on policies here and there. But who brought muscle to the campaign for us? Who brought money to the effort? What the question really boils down to is this: Who was in our electoral coalition? The contrast between the provincial party and the federal one is clear.

It's easier for a government, particularly a majority government with an eight year track record to produce results that they can point to and develop relationships with stakeholders and constituencies who will provide support, no question. But at the federal level, there didn't seem to be much of an emphasis on such relationship building. At least, you didn't get that sense publicly. And really, this is the type of thing that needs to be done over years, not just the months surrounding a campaign. Relationship building with formal interest groups but also undertaken with broader constituencies as well.

As we lead up to the Biennial Convention in January, what I'm saying here, if you agree with it at all, might have some relevance to that event. Policies are on the agenda. But they are really only part of the puzzle. They're one part that needs to be connected to something bigger, i.e., an overarching electoral strategy. That strategy involves knowing the big things we stand for and making sure the public knows that too. It involves having a sense of who is with us or who can possibly be with us. It involves what policies we enact in conjunction with knowing those things.

It's not to say you only choose policies that are driven by coalition politics. But that it should be more of a consideration. Further, you certainly should be aware of how your policy choices could hurt you with some constituencies. And of course, for many issues, you have to take positions irrespective of possible constituencies because it's the right thing to do.

Someone suggested to me the following visual that might help clarify what the point is here. Picture a wheel with a hub and spokes leading out to a rim that turns. The hub is the core of what the party stands for. (I may have a few blog posts on that to come and I'm sure many others out there have been turning their mind to that question as well. Some think we know it already, no problem. Irrespective of what Liberals may believe, it's not clear that the public knows or that it connects with them anymore.) The spokes are the policies that flow from the hub. Out on the rim as the policies and values come to life and the wheel starts to turn, there's a symbiotic relationship that develops between the party and those compelled to support the goals. Just a visual, but I think it's helpful in drawing the picture out a bit more. 

If you look at the Conservatives in particular, you can fill out the visual of their wheel pretty handily. Indeed, if you read the government announcements on any given day, you can see the elements of their coalition being stoked (from this past weekend for e.g., see this and this from among the many items that belong to the political strategy that unfolds right in front of you). With the NDP, there are a few things in place but their wheel is not as complete as the Conservative wheel.

This is just one way of looking at the complexity of rebuilding. A new leader, building the membership, strong riding associations, fundraising...it's all part of the process. But if you look at electoral politics in more of a coalition sense, those tasks all take on a slightly new look as well. A new electoral coalition for Liberals may be something that needs to figure more prominently in our thinking.

[Related reading: "Is there a viable progressive politics that doesn’t hinge on a strong labor movement?"]