This election feels like a non-event – quite boring perhaps – and that is exactly where the Prime Minister and his Conservative Party want it to stay. However the interesting story is really what is going on with the centre and centre-left, with the Liberal branding problem which has allowed Jack Layton to swagger in and pretend he owns the place.
In a sense, the campaigns really only have a couple of days left, this being the Easter weekend, and Thurs-Fri-Sat being taken up by discussion of the Royal Wedding.
The opposition Liberals have struggled to establish an identity and presence for their leader, Michael Ignatieff. The two years of consistent negative branding by the Conservatives and NDP through successful advertising and an Internet-based whisper campaign have proved to be very hard for Mr. Ignatieff to overcome in a short campaign time. The NDP has surged in the polls, trying to fill in this branding vacuum. The Greens just seem to have run out of steam.
The Prime Minister’s Campaign – Textbook.
The governing Conservatives have – by and large – been running a state-of-the-art, cautious and well-managed campaign. They have been able to stick to their core brand, and high-tone vision for Canada in an authentic-sounding fashion. This effectively counters the fear-based tactics that Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Layton have been using: “A Harper majority will change Canada.”
Two examples. The Conservative answer to Auditor General’s G20 report was very simple: “the document isn’t valid yet.” Their answer to the allegation that they have been co-opted by pro-life groups to cut funding to Planned Parenthood was straightforward: “Prove it.” These sorts of factual and aggressively rational responses to emotional appeals work.
The Prime Minister is staying above the noise. He handily won the English-language debate, looking imperious while Mr. Ignatieff was halting and hesitating, and Mr. Layton was bobbing up and down and blurting out hipster clichés. Mr. Harper certainly looked prime ministerial. When thinking about whether someone looks “prime ministerial” ask yourself how you would react to that person standing beside Barack Obama or Hu Jin Tao at an international podium – if that’s hard for you to imagine, then the person is not giving off a prime ministerial allure.
A side note. In fact, the hugely popular comparisons on Twitter between Mr. Harper and Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars actually serve to reinforce this message of “strong leadership” for the PM.
The Liberals – Searching for a Message and a Tradition
One of the biggest problems that I am seeing in the Liberal campaign is the type of political cultural strategy they are using. Politics is about people. It’s visceral – it’s blood and sweat. Politics is about the dreams and fears of the populace. The Liberal Family Pack addresses these visceral things quite well. But politics is also about a national dream, a national mythology, a national persona. The Liberals, starting with Sir Wilfrid Laurier have always been exceptionally good at tapping into the veins of our beloved country’s past and tying them eloquently into the stories of the present. The Liberals, from Laurier to Trudeau, were the party of Canada’s history and tradition.
Neither Mr. Harper nor Mr. Ignatieff is capturing the imagination of Canadians. Mr. Harper is offering a nice goodie bag (double TFSA, income splitting, etc.), but no dream, no vision. Mr. Ignatieff’s “Rise Up” speech sounded tinny and uninspiring. There was no greatness in that speech. Canadians are awaiting a great leader and have grown to expect this from the Liberals. The standard is high.
Look at Jean Chrétien. He was a superb politician, but his pandering to political correctness and his lack of high-minded rhetoric did violence to the Liberal brand. He was a fiscally competent Prime Minister, and kept the country unified through a referendum (something that it is hard to imagine Harper doing, with his polarizing ad hominem attack strategy). But Chrétien didn’t propose a grand narrative for Canada. And he made many cultural mistakes. One big one that resonates to this day, and is an appropriate example on this Holy Saturday, was Chrétien’s banning of Christian prayer at the Peggy’s Cove memorial service for those who died in the terrible Swissair accident. This would have been acceptable had Chrétien banned all religious prayer, but he didn’t: he allowed other religious groups to pray. Christians never forgave him for that episode.
That sort of error feels like a betrayal. It makes Christians feel as though Chrétien was out to get them, to marginalize them. It may have been politically expedient at the time, but it did not send an inclusive “Great Canada” message to Canadian Christians. While this couldn’t be further from the truth, that is how it resonates. This destroys trust and drives voters into the hands of the Conservatives.
Trudeau got Canada – even those who hated him, admired him (and often wanted to be him). He got Canada’s greatness, and he got Canada’s beautiful and complicated history of compromise and consensus-building. The Liberals need to weave the Liberal story back into Canada’s story, Canada’s national history, national mythology, national dream. They need to show that they are for a Great Canada.
They need to do this via social media. But that will be the subject of another post.
Jack Layton and the Politics of Resentment
Jack Layton is an ambitious man. He is someone who has spent his political career pandering to special interest groups to move his party closer to electability. He has never given any indication that he cares about socialism. He seems to ready to say anything to exceed Ed Broadbent’s record-setting total seat count before ceding the leadership of the NDP to someone else.
In fact, the NDP platform is really just a more left-of-centre version of the Liberal one, and un-costed at that. Layton has proven himself good at being against things: against the Prime Minister’s perceived lack of concern for “working families” (which is, in itself, a slam on other silently suffering groups such as the unemployed, the infirm, etc.); against Michael Ignatieff; and the list goes on. The question no one has really asked him is what does Jack Layton’s NDP really stand for?
Jack Layton’s NDP have made inroads into Quebec following the French language debate, and are trying to lure the values voters who support the Bloc Québécois. Their support in the rest of Canada is fairly stable, with minor increases in Ontario and the Maritimes, and a larger increase in BC, as evidenced by Nik Nanos’s latest numbers. Most notable are Jack Layton’s leadership numbers, which seem to be climbing. As Chantal Hebert explains very cogently here, Mr. Layton’s climb has to do with the Liberal support of the extension of the Afghanistan mission.
Layton has always been good at playing the aggrieved party. He is a good at tapping into people’s resentment at being excluded from power – both economic and cultural. He isn’t good at providing workable solutions. But when you are in the position of being a third party in Parliament, you have a lot of room to play on the margins of credibility and get away with things. This isn’t the high-minded political strategy of someone who wants to be Prime Minister, but it may certainly raise the NDP seat count. The problem is that the politics of resentment aren’t good for Canada or for the progressive movement in Canada.
It will be interesting to see where the NDP end up in this election. They have been given a free pass from the media, their gappy platform remains un-examined. There is no greatness in Mr. Layton’s political communications. Just a lot of resentment, ambition and clever tricks.
So where is this going for the centre and centre-left?
So what’s going on? Why is the NDP making inroads on the Liberals? Mostly because the Liberals are not keying into their history as the progressive, nation-building alternative for Canadians. The “Great Canada” vision of Laurier and Trudeau versus the “Humble Canada” vision of the Conservatives.
They have not cultivated a grass-roots campaign for the last several years that builds a powerful and educated membership willing to be evangelists for the Liberal brand. They have not ‘friend-raised’ enough. In fact, they have been arrogant. Ever since Paul Martin took over the party, it has been a party that thinks is really ought to be in power. Martin ran a front-runner’s campaign and lost. Dion ran a weak campaign based on an intelligent, but complicated political-economic theory that the Liberal political communications machine couldn’t explain to Canadians – and lost. Mr. Ignatieff is running an oddly subdued campaign that lacks the fire and brimstone that an opposition campaign should have – he is not using the traditional Liberal “Great Canada” brand thus opening the progressive door to the NDP.
This election has in many ways been a referendum on the Liberal brand as it stands today. The answer has been that it is not a clear brand. Its connection to history is tenuous. Its resonance with Canadians is weak. The Liberals need to tell a better story – their story – a story of the most successful classic liberal party in the world.
As for the NDP replacing the Liberals, it is as bad a thing for the left as it was when Bob Rae’s NDP swept into power in Ontario in the 1990s. It was a tale of ambition, incompetence and shoddy governance. Why do I say this? Because the NDP hasn’t won the progressive vote with effective political communications. They have not created their version of a “Great Canada” narrative that they are proposing to Canadians. Jack Layton’s NDP is simply filling a vacuum.
So who won weeks 3 and 4? – Mr. Harper, hands-down.
While it is tempting to credit Jack Layton with wins for the NDP surge, I actually don’t think he’s the big winner. The big story is the incredibly effective and competent campaign being run by the Prime Minister and his team. They are winning the battle for Canada’s imagination. What do I mean? Conservatives are winning by making sure that Canadians don’t enrich their expectations with their imaginations. In this way, they win the war of imagination. They are also winning the battle for voter trust; the battle of perceived competence.
Weeks 3 and 4 go to Mr. Harper.