Reading the Leaves: we will recover from this

I spent the past 5 weeks working as a door-to-door canvasser with the David Forbes campaign, 11 hours a day, 6 days a week. I was also able to donate a few days towards helping Peter Prebble. As such, I had discussions with thousands of ordinary people throughout this time. In the past I have worked on many different campaigns, both provincial and federal, and I have 13 years of experience working among volunteer and activist organizations.

As the provincial election drew to a close I wanted to get my thoughts on paper in an attempt to process the experience and perhaps help others to analyze what happened, what worked well, what can be improved upon, and where we can go from here as a party and as a progressive movement.

The reflections that follow are my thoughts only. I do not want this to be perceived as an attack, but rather I offer them in the spirit of constructive criticism, with the hope that they prompt dialogue and discussion within the party.

Most of what will follow will be written in a series of notes. Part one will discuss organizational deficiencies of the SNDP and what we can do to address them. Part two will look at the strategy employed by the party in this past election and where that strategy went wrong. In both parts I will highlight success stories that should not be forgotten or overlooked as we move forward.

As I live in Saskatoon, and have very little contact with people from other communities, my thoughts will probably reflect a Saskatoon bias or myopia.

Thank you for reading. Your comments and criticism will be very much appreciated.

I. logistical and structural strengths and weaknesses

During the last few leadership campaigns youth rallied behind candidates such as Nettie Wiebe and Ryan Meili. This energy has largely been squandered after those candidates were defeated and their people were largely isolated from the party. Further, many of my associates and friends have long had a love-hate relationship with the party. We enthusiastically jump on board during an election or leadership campaign, only to get burned out and alienated from the party. Then we take months or years off from working with the party, only to be asked (begged) back in the lead up to another election. This could largely be a coincidence of demographics, personality, and ambition, as the party has been, and continues to be, dominated by the baby boomer generation.

The party could benefit from some serious changes in our organizing structure, practices, and culture. The party needs a mechanism for developing and embracing young talent. The SYNDP is great, but it suffers from the obvious flaw inherent in an organization that limits it’s membership to people 25 years of age and younger. The party has no mechanism for developing and mentoring people once they are 25 years old. We need a better, more stable, and more methodical way to bring youth into the party. We need to approach youth to not just fill roles on our campaigns, but to serve on executives, run for local office (school board, co-op boards, credit union boards, and the like), and take jobs that would further their development (at our various universities, with CBOs, in MLA’s offices, at the SFL, etc) and we need to communicate clearly with the youth that these are natural career moves that will develop their skill set while also positioning them for more central roles in the movement. This must be a formalized process, leaving it to chance hasn’t worked well in the past several years.

Many people aged 25-35 feel that we’re not quite ready to take a more central role in the party (or perhaps more accurately, don’t feel like the party is quite ready for us to take a more central role in it!). As such, we need to create a safe space for us to communicate, network, organize, and claim that role. I would like to see a gathering of “young adults”, ages 25-35, in each major centre, perhaps monthly, for the purpose of networking, organizing, analysis, and mentorship. This group could maintain campaigns on important issues between elections, fundraise, and host rallies, town hall meetings, and the like.

Obviously, with the major losses from this election, the SNDP will be losing a lot of it’s budget. As a result, many of these changes will necessarily have to be done on a volunteer basis. If there was a mechanism that the party could use to facilitate and encourage such an organization – a formalized relationship perhaps, like the YNDP enjoys – I would encourage the party to embrace a change along these lines.

The party needs to come to grips with the fact that it is no longer 1997. It amazes me that the party is so far behind the times in terms of adopting technology. For instance, the SNDP has a website that talks about why people should become members, what rights they have in the party once they become members, but there is no way to buy a membership online! Does the party honestly think that someone will read the website, call an office, then attempt to meet a member in person and buy a membership with a greenie? Why can’t you just buy them online? Several national leadership candidates have websites that allow you to buy memberships online, as does the federal party, and both the Manitoba and Alberta NDP parties. Why don’t we?

The party’s website is far from the only place where current technology is being underutilized. The party also needs to have a media person in each city to be at all NDP press engagements to record them, to be at all SK PARTY press engagements to record them, and to be at all community events, town hall meetings, speeches, and forums where our NDP MLAs are attending, and record them. After getting these videos, we can post them on YouTube, enabling us to spread the videos that are particularly strong via Facebook.

As a party, we need to organize conversations with E-Day co-ordinators about how we can use technology to facilitate and simplify E-Day. Perhaps we can use Ipads to remove the need to get the vote lists from the inside scrutineers? Perhaps we can have our database stored in the cloud so the inside scrutineer can update the list on an Ipad and the person pulling the vote door-to-door can receive that update instantly via a VPN connection? Why do we still send people to pull vote with two hour old lists in this day and age?

Furthermore, we must also implement simple ways to save time on the campaign, such as sending text messages and emails to people on E-Day and on the day the advance polls open. Why doesn’t the voter contact database have a spot to enter and collect cell phone numbers and email addresses so we can access them easily? Why couldn’t we input these so we can simply email and text people about advance polls and E-Day? Wouldn’t it be useful to be able to pull up a list of our supporters by email address or cell phone number for this purpose?

As a party, we need to co-ordinate post-election analysis meetings where we can have the kind of discussion I am hoping to foster by writing this article. There are so many conversations that the party needs to have, and they do not seem to be happening. A forum such as this, supported by the party, could be a tremendous asset.

I do not want to end this section without discussing a part of the campaign that was a tremendous success: SEIU’s “I am a health care voter” campaign. My deepest respect goes out to the SEIU leadership and membership. I didn’t honestly think that a union could still organize an election campaign for it’s members as well as you organized this year. You have set the standard that all unions should strive for moving forward. As a canvasser for the entire election, I talked to thousands of people. As soon as I talked to an SEIU member, it was clear they were voting NDP… they were often volunteering and donating as well. Contrasting this response to what I heard from members of other unions, including my own, it’s clear that the SEIU did an amazing job communicating and engaging their membership.

Can you bottle that? The rest of the labour movement needs you to analyze what you did, why it was so effective, and put it together into a program that you can share with other unions. If your organizers can develop trainings, tools, workshops, and seminars that can be spread to other unions, that would help us all be more effective at engaging, energizing and utilizing their membership. The tremendous job you have done in the last year should be a springboard to better campaigns in the future.

My brothers and sisters in the labour movement, please look at their campaign. What can you learn from the SEIU’s success, and how effectively can you put it into practice? With the Saskatchewan party directing their opening shots at you mere hours after forming government, how you answer this question may be central to your future, and the future of our province.

II. strategizing for success, or failure

Negative advertising is a term that needs to be unpacked. While few would argue that the Saskatchewan Party (hereon called SKP) revelled in negative advertising aimed at Dwain Lingenfelter, most Dippers say that the federal party under Jack Layton didn’t use negative advertising in the last federal election. And fewer still would admit to liking negative advertising.

Our party’s history of negative advertising, against Brad Wall and Elwin Hermanson, is interesting. Few will argue that the “painted car” ad and the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” ad were largely unsuccessful. In fact, they backfired. Like the infamous “Jean Chretien’s face ad” that Kim Campbell’s PC party once ran, they were horrendous busts. This, however, doesn’t invalidate the effectiveness of negative ads, but rather they serve as evidence that poorly conceived and poorly executed ads are ineffective.

Pundits everywhere will tell you, without hesitation, that negative advertising works. Given the past Conservative campaigns against Stephane Dion, Michael Ignatieff, and the recent SKP campaign against our own Dwain Lingenfelter, it is difficult to argue that negative advertizing is ineffective.

Let’s back up a bit and discuss the tactics at play behind this advertising, then revisit these ads. Saul Alinsky describes tactics in his book Rules for Radicals, in which he describes rules for picking effective tactics. The three rules that are pertinent to this discussion are:
– make your enemy live up to their own book of rules
– a good tactic is one your people enjoy
– ridicule is your best and most potent weapon

Clearly, when the SKP ran ads saying we “say one thing but do another”, they are attempting to make us live up to our own standards. This is a highly effective route to take, especially with Link as our leader, and his history. We could have done the same thing, holding the SKP to account for their stances on the Crowns, their Sask-First policies, and their history of privatization and contracting services out. But we did not.

It seems that there is no mood for SKP style negative attack ads – such as the car ad or the sheep ad – in today’s NDP. I would argue that the SKP, and their supporters, enjoy and embrace these negative ads. I think that this speaks to the conflict of values between supporters of the two parties. This explains why the provincial party went to great lengths to avoid campaigning negative this election, even to the point where they wouldn’t advertise the holes in the SKP record in power, or scandals they were involved in during their time in office (hello there, Rob Norris!). The SNDP was worried that they would offend their support base by going negative, which they had heard powerfully and directly from their membership following the disastrous negative ads in previous campaigns.

In ridicule we see a way forward. Who among us doesn’t enjoy The Daily Show, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, and the Rick Mercer Report? Lefties love satire and ridicule, when properly done. We enjoy it when the absurdities of the right wing positions and ideology are exposed to humorous effect.

And we enjoy humorous ads that employ this tactic. Witness the “chiens” ad or the “hamster” ad that the federal party ran in Quebec during the last federal election. These were negative ads, designed to ridicule the two front-running parties. They were a smashing success. Another great example would be the Federal Liberal ad called “hey Stephen Harper, stop creeping me on Facebook”. I doubt that anyone in the SNDP would argue that these ads are too negative.

The “not so great moment” ads that the federal NDP ran in the last federal election are another example of ads designed to hold the other parties to their own rule book, and thus are negative ads in a sense. However, the party struck the right balance between playful optimism and careful scrutiny. These ads are light, amusing, and effective. And we, the Dipper community, enjoyed them.

That the SNDP ignored this, on the basis that it’s membership (us) had told it for years to avoid negative advertising, is unfortunate. We need to accept that not all negative ads have to be filled with greyed out images, sinister music, and character assassination. We need to learn to use humour, ridicule, and positivity in our ads. We must be critical of our opponents, their platform, and their record. We cannot let them campaign without being held to account for their record or comments (hello Greg Ottenbreit!) because we are afraid of offending our base. We cannot run a campaign in fear, for fear of running a campaign of fear.

The SKP’s ads effectively turned the election into a referendum on Dwain Lingenfelter’s leadership. We should have seen this coming, as the federal conservatives have been doing this for ten years now, and Link was a giant neon target for this kind of campaign. The SKP effectively asked the electorate a question that had only one answer: do you dislike Link? As a result each of our candidates was running, in effect, against Brad Wall. We needed a clear and articulate response to this, and if we had one, I didn’t see evidence of it.

We should have had a plan (and perhaps a few back up plans) to direct focus back onto the issues, and this should have been communicated directly to the local campaign teams clearly and repeatedly throughout the lead up to the election, and directly (perhaps weekly) during the campaign. I do not know if this happened, but if it did happen, I didn’t hear anything about it.

The often used redirect when running a campaign with a weak leader is to focus on a team’s bench strength, and point out the weaknesses in the other team’s bench strength. This would have been the most obvious campaign to run, given that the Sask Party’s team were either Name-On-Paper neophytes (david cooper), under-performing ministers (rob norris), gaff prone incompetents (bill hutchinson) or big-name but experience deprived people (a certain football player comes to mind).

We entered this campaign in a situation that was remarkably similar to the situation faced by the Paul Martin Liberals. After being dubbed Mr. Dithers by the press, and facing a strong opposition in a united Conservative party, the Liberals decided that their major advantage stemmed from having much deeper reservoir of talent than their opponents. To highlight that team strength, the Liberals had high profile cabinet ministers announce major platform pieces. They had the deputy leader and the finance minister go on leadership style tours independent of the party leader. They had rallies where the past party leaders would give speeches to the crowd and answer questions from the media.

In this last election we had a situation where the SKP has only formed government for 4 of the past 16 years. We could have contrasted our bench strength against their campaign – which seemed to consist of taking people’s attention AWAY from the local candidate, while insulating the local candidates from the electorate – as a way to direct people’s attention back onto the local races. This would have taken the focus off of Link, shifted it to the people who have been cabinet ministers, and have had many, many years in government. We should have brought out Roy Romanow or Lorne Calvert to speak at rallies. This approach blunts the single leadership issue that we were beaten by.

To it’s credit, the party did use a David McGuinty-esque “I’m unpopular, but vote for us anyway” ad late in the campaign. However, this was simply too little, too late. We knew this pummelling was coming, the Sask party started in on Link from the moment he declared his candidacy. We should have had a plan laid out months, hell even years before the election was called.

An interesting thing happened in this campaign, that I want to draw attention to. The Green party beat the Liberals in all the Saskatoon ridings, except Saskatoon Greystone (follow the link, click on the map of Saskatoon, then scroll over the constituencies).  This interests me, given that Saskatoon Greystone had a specific approach to turning Green voters away from the Green party and towards their candidate, Peter Prebble.

Canvassers were given letter entitled “dear Green Party supporter” that Peter had written. Whenever they encountered a Green Party supporter, a canvasser would say something to the effect of “Peter shares your concern about the environment and deeply respects your decision to vote for the Green Party, however, he wants you to know that he has worked on this issue in depth for years.” Then you give the letter to the Green Party supporter and say “This riding is a very tight riding, in fact during the last election, 250 votes decided the winner. Given that it is such a tight race here, your vote could be instrumental in helping elect Peter Prebble, a tireless supporter of the environment. Here is a letter that he asked me to give you, please do consider voting for Peter.”

Peter Prebble is a candidate that is uniquely positioned to use this technique, given his deep interest and history in environmental activism. However, this pitch could be generalized and used in many more ridings. This needs more study, obviously, but it does show that we as a party can possibly suppress the Green vote by taking their concerns seriously and having a targeted message ready.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. Please do continue the conversation in your city and amongst your constituency associations and EPCs. It is through careful analysis of our work that we become stronger. I hope that this spurs conversations that can help us move forward. Please write me with your comments.