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Conservative Challenges – Part 1, Bad Campaigns and Bad Manners

If you have been an active member of the Conservative Party, you are likely wondering what to make of the last nine years of power, the failed campaign and the challenges ahead.

The outward challenge is obvious.

The Liberals are back on top with representation across Canada including a significant beachhead in the West.  On both the fundraising and organizational fronts they have mostly caught up. Their people know how to run a good campaign.  At least on paper their new cabinet brings far more cumulative experience to government than anything the Harper Government was able to muster. They will move as right or left as necessary to cover as much of the middle as they can.   Conservatives have to rebuild in a highly competitive environment.  The Liberals will not make it easy.

There is also a significant list of internal challenges.

That the campaign itself was a train wreck and towards the end appalling is apparent from the results. A bad campaign was just part of the problem. The preceding years in power motivated voters to kick the Conservatives to the curb. The poor campaign provided confirmation that it was still a good idea. The spread of the ABC campaigns and the upsurge in voter turnout demonstrated how well Conservatives energized the opposition.

A lot of attention has been focused on the civility issue or the lack of it. More voters agreed with Tory policies than were willing to vote for the party. The lack of civility itself was a byproduct of the PMO control freakery, shrill partisanship; negative advertising first and always, the bullying and bulldozing of Parliament and critics; open hostility to the press; exclusion and deafness to voices and facts that contradicted party positions, picking unnecessary fights, and relentless bending of government advertising to a partisan purpose. 

The Harper Government was not the first to do any of these things. They just did them more consistently and relentlessly than other governments had in the past.  These tactics became part of the methodology of governing on the erroneous assumption it would help the party hold power longer. That it was pushed too far, too often and wore out its welcome shows from the result.

We can compare the Harper approach to his predecessor Mr. Chretien. The Chretien PMO was not a pussycat. Mr. Chretien was labeled the ‘Friendly Dictator’. His long-time Chief of Staff was nick-named the ‘Velvet Executioner’. But note the adjectives ‘friendly’ and ‘velvet’.  The Chretien Government recognized the need to sugar coat their hardball tactics and keep it behind closed doors.   A velvet glove was nowhere to be found in the Harper PMO.   It was all Iron Fist. 

It should also be noted that Mr. Chretien had three majority governments to Mr. Harper’s one and the Liberals lasted 13 years in power to the Conservative’s nine. They also lowered taxes (a little) and ran nine balanced budgets in a row; making it easy for the Conservatives to deliver their first two. (The last one they did on their own.) Governments last longer and are more effective when they make a concerted effort to hide their less attractive features rather than advertising them to the world. Call it useful hypocrisy that serves a public purpose.

That the Conservative campaign did not work is not the issue going forward. The problem is that it was a bad version of the type of campaign they are used to doing. The features of these campaigns are pretty common conservative fare across North America:

  • Great attention to the care and feeding of the base who provide the funds and volunteers;
  • Use wedge issues on security and values issues;
  • Micro-target spending or tax relief aimed at coveted demographic slices
  • Highly simplified emotive messaging and heavy reliance on attack ads

The goal is to polarize the electorate and obtain just enough support to win power.  Those who like us, like us; those who hate us, hate us a lot.  In this election, the Conservatives were few voters second choice. This was also true in previous elections in which they did better. An entire generation of party activist has been trained to do this type of campaign. The joke inside Party Headquarters was we can give you any flavor of campaign you want as long as you like vanilla.

Since it is in their platform, the Liberals can be expected to carry out some sort of electoral reform. Proportional representation is clearly not in their interest - plus a bad idea.  Mandatory voting and/or some form of ranked ballots is likely. Either is a real threat to a party that is so few voters’ second choice. The campaign challenge going forward is to unlearn some old tricks while learning new ones.

Apart for the issue of effectiveness, there is an ethical/moral challenge. The origins of this Conservative Party mostly lie within the Reform branch which came into being arguing for more civility and democratic expressions in Parliament. The Party ended up going down a different and more dysfunctional path. Why people drank the Kool-Aid is no big mystery. But, what stops them from drinking it in the future. 

The decision to lengthen the campaign in order to outspend all the other parties was one of the poorer decisions of the campaign. That Conservatives did outspend is clear since they had more than two times the number of ads on TV as the Liberals.  It was a bad business decision and more than a tad hubristic The greatest possible comfort for a party about to spend years in the wilderness is a fat bank account to support the rebuilding process. That option is gone.   The party drained the tank on a low probability bet. That tank has to be replenished from disappointed supporters who also will be asked to fund leadership campaigns.  The dunning e-mails are already coming from party central.  This party asks a lot of its members!

There have been some voices raised that all the party needs to do is move more to the centre. Be a little more progressive and add a dash of Red Tory to the mix – just like the old days.  This is hopelessly naïve. The Progressives in the party could hold their meetings in a broom closet. The Red Tories either left the party years ago; are really old or dead! The Conservative Party of today is not the Progressive Conservative Party of the eighties. It is far more homogeneously on the right. 

That it has to create a broader appeal is not in question but how is unclear. And this has to be done without splitting the party.  Having only come back together in the not-too-distant past, people may think that is unlikely. But, look at the Republican mess south of the border and the split between the PCs and Wildrose in Alberta. The Conservative movement seems capable of factionalizing at the drop of a hat.  

The Conservative Party has spent most of the last decade and half pummeling the base with us vs. them narratives; pushing as many emotional buttons as possible to re-inforce existing biases. Now, they will have to put water in their wine to successfully operate under a new electoral system or spend more time out of power. But, wherever they end up going, they have to bring their existing base or they may end up going somewhere else.

Exactly how this gets done is still a mystery.  The single most important criterion for a new leader is whether they seem capable of this task.

(In Part 2 of Conservative Challenges we examine the issue of the link between a weak cabinet, competency and a lack of real change.)

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