Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Why Parties Matter More Than I Wish They Did (pt. 1)

Nation, it's important to me that you understand how much I hate writing this.

I have long believed and argued that political parties will be the death of democracy. I haven't moderated that opinion in the slightest. Parties make it easier for candidates to hoodwink voters into supporting them without having to actually campaign or bring anything to the table. Parties give  elected representatives someone they have to serve OTHER than the public interest. Parties result in bad representatives getting elected with minimal effort, and doing a bad job governing us, on account of they hitched their wagon to the right horse.

All of that is true, in my opinion. And yet, they're a necessary evil. So necessary, in fact, that I've belonged to several at multiple levels of government, including most notably the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta, where I sat on the provincial Board of Directors for 4 years (and four Leaders). So I know a little bit about which I speak.

As Alberta's Progressive Conservatives go through the process of selecting their next Leader, I want to talk a bit about why I'm not really inclined to feel bad for any leadership candidate who feels "the Party" (aka "the people who have carried the water, kept the lights on, paid the bills and raised money over the 19 months since most of the senior leadership ran out the back door in May 2015") is cramping their style or crapping in their cornflakes.

In order to build a political movement that will last for the long haul, you need to do two things:

1) Establish a brand that will outlive the current leader's term
2) Build an organization that will outlive the current leader's term

This post will deal with the first point. The post later this week will deal with the second.

One the first point, the PC Party of Alberta has had some good times and some bad times. The brand "PC Alberta", along with "Alberta Conservatives" and "Alberta Tories", is relatively strong, even after the election loss in 2015. People hearken back to the earlier days of the Tory dynasty, and remember it fondly in the same way that you always remember the days of your youth - when your knees didn't creak and kids were respectful of their elders. But there have been some damaging decisions made as well in the past, as the party tried to capitalize - or was TOLD by the Leader to capitalize - on the personal brand of the Leader. "Ralph's Team". "The Prentice Plan". Putting the Party Leader's name on the campaign signs or the membership cards made it easier for people to remember who they were supposed to support, but it also had unintended consequences.

When the brand of your party is inextricably linked - or is overshadowed - by the brand of the Party Leader, you find yourself in a very weak position when the leaders walks out - or is pushed out - the door. This is something that the Americans figured out a long time ago. The Republicans wax poetic about the days of Reagan, but when the rubber hits the road and the signs are being printed, they keep it simple: "REPUBLICAN". Not "Bush Republican", or "Romney Republican". Just "Republican". When the PC's leaned on the personal popularity or brand of their Leader, they weakened their own future position in an effort to capitalize on what they perceived as present strength. In the same way the Alberta NDP is completely overshadowed by its own Leader: If Rachel Notley decided she wanted to run for the Federal NDP Leadership, or retired from public life, the Alberta NDP would be absolutely crushed in the ensuing election. Urban voters moved to the NDP in 2015 because they wanted the PC's out, didn't trust the Wildrose, and thought they could trust Notley (it certainly wasn't the entirety of their platform that sold Albertans on the New Democrats).

Federally, the Conservatives find themselves in a relatively good position. Despite spending their first few years after winning election being referred to as the "Harper Government", in reality the Party itself (remember: the Party isn't the Government) has been consistent in branding itself as simply the "Conservative Party of Canada". Thus, the retirement of Stephen Harper from public life hasn't hobbled their brand. By contrast, what happened to "Ralph's Team" in Alberta after Ralph Klein left? A lot of members quit the party and joined the Alberta Alliance (now the Wildrose Party), and many voters followed them, since the Klein-era PC's didn't get them used to the idea of supporting the PC Party rather than just the leader.

The bottom line is this: Leaders come and go. If your brand is wrapped up in your Leader - owing to their personal charisma, their narrative, their personal policies, their work ethic, their photogenic nature or their qualifications for the job - then once that Leader rides off into the sunset, you're stuck starting to rebuild your brand from scratch, giving members and voters every reason to take a good look at their other options and potentially undo everything you've accomplished while in power.

No Party Leader worth having would want, or even tolerate, that situation.

Tune in at the end of the week for our thrilling conclusion to "Why Parties Matter More Than I Wish They Did".

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