Has the Liberal Party of Canada finally developed a grassroots? And, if so, is this grassroots structurally focused to win local elections?
There’s certainly a cautiously optimistic sense within the party. The move to allow ‘supporters’ (or those Canadians who hold generally liberal values) to vote for the new leader offers a chance for a movement-based politics, much like in the United States, where progressive people can register as Democrats to vote for an inspirational leadership candidate.
Perhaps because of this move, there are now a number of outreach initiatives, often driven by the Liberal party’s youth wing. These groups – community and advocacy groups like the Queer Liberals or Beyond the Numbers, a movement to engage more young women in politics, and United Red, a multicultural group – are connecting to niche voter markets that are ready to work with and engage in the party.
Differentiated outreach techniques that segment and engage the Canadian electorate based on various factors are worthwhile; rebuilding the party means reconnecting to traditional support.
Yet, the Liberal Party is already a segmented party. It has a youth commission, a seniors’ commission and an aboriginal commission. Each riding has a youth club; some have seniors’ clubs. Campus clubs are limited to those under twenty-six: they’re outposts of the youth commission, not the home of all Liberals at a university. Every group has its own budget and executive.
The party is segmented by provinces, with some integrating fully with a provincial Liberal counterpart (like New Brunswick), some cooperating (like with the Ontario Liberal Party) and others trying to avoid being mistaken for a provincial small-c conservative party (like the BC Liberals).
The Liberal Party is not the Democratic Party: it is not a seamless system.
Peter C. Newman slammed the Liberals’ system as evidence of a maladroit, expensive political structure. In his book When the Gods Changed, Newman laid as much blame for the current state of the Liberal Party at the feet of the party’s confederacy structure as he did to the Chrétien-Martin fratricide of the 1990s.
A grassroots may be developing in the party but it needs to be a means to re-animate riding associations.
Indeed, in nearly one hundred ridings, Liberals barely achieved 10% voter support in 2011, and former national party president Alf Apps estimated some eighty constituencies had no active riding association whatsoever. Without an active riding association, there might as well not even be a candidate.
Riding associations – not national commissions – win local elections. All politics is local. So, there’s a risk to these outreach groups if the party doesn’t harness their enthusiasm properly.
It’s a fine line between empowering the grassroots of a party and having central direction for a winning campaign.
Organizing for America – the offshoot of the successful grassroots mobilisation of Obama for America – gets the balance right. In his transformational 2008 campaign, President Obama had a team of over three thousand highly trained organizers and 13.5 million volunteers. They identified voters at the local level and fed the information back through their field organizers to the state and eventually national campaign.
Organizing for America has its LGBT components, its Hispanic wing, its feminist arm, but each group is a controlled outreach initiative of the state or national campaign team – and is plugged into the local level. No one is improvising and everyone is sharing data and best practices. It’s truly a team effort, with no room for rogue egos.
The messaging comes from the state and national campaign. The messaging is simple and powerful. The field organizers and volunteers share the message, ID their supporters and hustle to get those voters to vote. The whole system is clockwork. The whole system is based at the local – almost individual – level.
Liberals, to quote interim leader Bob Rae, suffer from “title-itis” syndrome. There is no shame in being a foot soldier of a local campaign; not every Liberal needs to chair a commission or have their own Facebook page.
Riding associations (and, to a lesser extent, university clubs) are the foundation of a party. Everything else is a bonus opportunity – unless it distracts from the party’s ability to effectively raise money and deliver a simple, coherent message for local campaigns to win elections.
The next Liberal leader – whoever he or she may be – needs to assemble a central team that can harness the improvisational leadership of the fledgling Liberal grassroots, and ties their enthusiasm into the broader national movement while linking these initiatives to the riding level. The leader’s team can use these niche groups as a means to re-animate riding associations.
These groups are healthy signs of a party reconnecting to its grassroots but they need to be harnessed by the party and given central direction towards winning local elections.
Originally published on iPolitics.ca