Very recently I had a conversation with some thoughtful members of the Liberal Party of Canada about the concept of rebuilding and how we could know as a Party we had been rebuilt, that a destination had been arrived at after this long process of renewal. I suggested that rebuilding, though possible to measure, was a continual process and not a destination. It became clear to me from this discussion that rather than call efforts we make to improve and revamp the Liberal Party ‘rebuilding’ we should simply call it ‘building’. That rather than simply act in a way that prepares us for the immediate next election, we should continually strive for a stronger, improved Liberal Party that can deliver the kind of Canada we want now and in the future.
Building the Liberal Party
What do we mean when we say we want to build the Liberal Party? It is both a practical and philosophical question, one that needs to be answered before any tangible progress can be measured against it. In a practical sense we want to build a Liberal Party that can compete in and win elections, beginning in 2015 and in each election that follows. In a philosophical sense, we want to win in 2015 and beyond because we hope to create and implement policies as a government that improve the lives of Canadians across the country. But this is less a re-building exercise than a building exercise because we are not content with some sort of relative or temporal benchmark of success. Achievements delivered by a certain date indicate progress in the building process but are not ends in themselves. What is required in building the Liberal Party, to borrow a slogan from the Ontario Liberal Party, is that we always be relentless. The moment we give in to self-satisfaction for the status quo we have created is the moment we lose ground. After years of great self-satisfaction, we have lost a great deal of ground. Our aim must be to create a sustainable Liberal Party always on an upward climb towards improvement beyond where we find ourselves at any given time.
The Importance of Sustainable Infrastructure
The Liberal Party of Canada must have two goals in what should be a never-ending cycle of building. One should be what the Party wants to achieve for Canadians. The other must be how the Party can organizationally get to the point where it is in a position to deliver those things and to maintain that position of influence. This seems like a no brainer and the obvious point to a political Party yet there are those whose focus instead rests on a specific election as an end in itself or the creation of specific political products like attack ads as being where our focus should be. It is time to end the tunnel vision and start seeing the broader picture.
What we must aim for is a robust national infrastructure that a strong national campaign can be launched from in order to compete for and win government. I personally don’t think that’s a system that can be built in four years. When? I’m not sure. That depends on what we continue to put in instead of putting off. And two things we have long put off are the periods before and after a writ period. We haven’t been interested in doing important leg work until just before a campaign and quickly lose interest right after one. Volunteers and voters recognize our attention deficit and resent us for only calling on them when it matters to us, during elections when it is most advantageous for us to connect with them. We have the same relationship with our work as a Party as we do the people we are trying to connect with: we only come out when the stakes are highest and ignore the fact that there is a long and visible tide behind the wave of activity during a writ period, and it is that tide that determines the force of the wave.
For a long time we have shrunk the amount of Canada we actually care about, instead saying as long as we have such and such we will win and be content so long as we win. When we lost the West we said to ourselves that we could win with Central and Eastern Canada. When we lost Quebec we shrugged and focused on Ontario with support from Eastern Canada. And when we lost Ontario we suddenly marvelled at how we found ourselves here after reducing the scope of our interest and outreach for decades to the point where we only listened and focused on ourselves.
The most important aspect of building a Party on the foundation of sustainable infrastructure is building it nationally, in 308 ridings. We must operate from a standpoint that no riding is too safe or too hopeless for Liberals. We must aim to build functioning executives and riding associations in all of our ridings because the best way to convince Canadians that our Party is not dead is to show off active, living and breathing Liberals in their communities. We need to feel shared responsibility for our efforts as a Party and help out EDAs around us, working together to strengthen our Party in our regions and communities. We need to stop thinking of levels or hierarchies in our Party but see our work locally as important as the work of the National Board and recognize that we can lead the transformational changes that will improve our Party from the ground up.
The Importance of Recognition
Sustainable infrastructure requires a cycle of outreach, recognition, consultation, recognition, encouragement, recognition, collaboration, and recognition. You probably noticed that recognition appeared four times in that eight point cycle and that is with good reason. There is no greater tool when engaging others than recognizing them for their participation, interest, and concern. When we reach out to Canadians who are living liberal lives but not Liberal lives, we must recognize them for allowing us the opportunity to engage with them. When they have come aboard and share their thoughts with us, we need to recognize that they are contributing in a valuable way to our common narrative. When we encourage them to get further involved we must recognize them for setting aside their time to participate in our Party. When they begin to make a tangible impact on our local efforts in our EDAs or even the Party at large we need to recognize their commitment to our common cause. While we are all involved because we believe collectively we might be able to construct the Canada we dream of, it is important every now and then to recognize those who are standing with us in good times and bad.
In more concrete terms this means creating a real plan for engaging Canadians in and beyond the membership of our Party. It means that while micro-targetting identified and likely Liberals is important in the numbers game of GOTV strategies, we have to remember that our pool of supporters does not increase when we limit those we engage with. The period between writs is exactly when we should be engaging the community at local events, in local media, and on the doorstep.
The old saying about strangers and friendship can easily be applied to our Party. If we treat unidentified voters as Liberals we just haven’t had the opportunity to engage with yet we might actually expand our ranks. That work used to begin belatedly on day 1 of an election before we began to focus on just getting out our vote. Even then, I believe it should have begun on the day after an election so that by the time of the nextelection we would have more voters to get out to the polls. Something I’ve always heard at the door is many voters will vote for whoever had the decency to actual show up and engage with them. Liberals need to be the Party that gives a damn about voters as individuals and not just as voting blocks.
In my own job I have spent a great deal of time studying the concept and value of membership in an organizations here and around the world. The biggest theme regardless of the type of organization or where it is located is that once one becomes a member, the special attention received during the outreach period often diminishes or ends. As Liberals we have to recognize Canadians even once they become members (or supporters) of our Party. We cannot take their support for granted as we have for years. When someone comes to our Party, our first order of business should be to heartily thank them for doing so. Only after should we let them know how they can get involved. And asking for financial contributions should be taboo until we’ve proven what they mean to us, not vice-versa.
Avoiding a Liberal Languish
Ultimately our Party needs to remember the golden rule of successful social interaction: a sustainable relationship requires regular checking in. As members we need to check in with how we are doing with achieving our local goals. As a Party we need to check in on how our members are feeling about what we’re achieving together and how Canadians feel about what we have to offer. If we maintain our relationships, internal and external to the Party, we will have a much better idea of how we’re doing. If we have an accurate sense of where we are, not just in the checkbox lists of activities we’ve carried out, we will have a much better sense of where we are going and how to successfully navigate there.