Tonight I attended Michael Ignatieff’s town hall in Hamilton at Liuna Station. Over 1000 people attended according to The Spec and CTV News – three times the number who attended the nearby Harper rally in downtown Hamilton. It was a very good night for Mr. Ignatieff. He definitely carried the momentum that he had gathered in Week 1 into this event.
The Crowd – More proof of significant NDP defections and the NDP’s struggle for relevance
The crowd was mixed: a large contingent of Liberal faithful, but many “normal” people in evidence as well too. It was definitely a bigger crowd than just the “usual suspects” who turn out to any given party’s political rallies. The were many recognizable NDP supporters who were either holding signs supporting the Liberals or being very vocal about the fact that they are supporting the Grits this time around. This is a necessity for the Liberals in Hamilton, which remains one of last NDP strongholds in Ontario, even though their stranglehold on the labour vote has been significantly weakened, given Harper’s validation of the Liberals as the left-of-centre alternative to his right-of-centre Conservatives.
The feeling of irrelevance attached to the NDP that I have talked about in previous posts was even more in evidence here, as NDP supporters vocally admitted that their party “can never form a government.” I think this election represents a true identity crisis for the NDP, which finds itself creaky – with aging demographics and a very uncertain leftist ideology.
I am very interested to see how the NDP come out of this election – I suspect they will come out of it with their brand vastly diminished and their relevance as a national party in serious question.
The Preamble – Evidence of a well-organized rally
I got to the event a little early with my former honours thesis student and close friend, Melonie Fullick. She is a superb photographer, and took many great snaps that she has posted to her blog, which you can see here.
There was a powerful buzz in the air, even 60 minutes before the event. The Carpenters Union was demonstrating loudlyin support of the Liberal party in front of Liuna, as were a motley crew of other activists.
The room was packed. I was fortunate to know one of the event’s main organizers, Hamilton lawyer and Liberal organizer Mr. Tyler Banham, who got us great seats in the second row, behind the MPs. There was a real regional Liberal show of strength, with Andrew Kania, Frank Valeriote in attendance, as well as all local candidates, including Michelle Stockwell, Anne Tennier, Bev Hodgson, David Braden and many others. Popular provincial Liberal former Minister Ted McMeekin was also present.
The crowd was expertly managed – they were let in 15 minutes before Ignatieff arrived and had just enough time to get settled and excited, without getting restless.This is often a problem at political rallies – the crowd is allowed to start to fester and they grow restless and grouchy. That didn’t happen here.
David Braden introducing the candidates – the night’s only real weakness
The event was introduced by Mr. David Braden, the Liberal candidate for ADFW. Sadly, he was the only person who didn’t perform well all night. He made a hash of his lines, hesitating awkwardly, tripping over his fellow candidates’ names as he introduced them and taking more than his allotted time. A good high-energy smooth introduction is a serious plus when putting on a rally – it hypes the crowd up and gets everyone ready to be on a buzz and a high when the Leader does his walkthrough. What it does too is make the walk-through from the door to the podium seem like its taking less time. When you’re on a buzz, time is compressed at an event. When the introducer is low-intensity or stumbles, it feels like the Leader’s walk-through is taking a long time, because you are waiting for him to hype you up, to do the work that the introducer failed to do.
It was a relief when he threw to Anne Tennier, candidate for Hamilton Centre, who expertly and enthusiastically welcomed Michael Ignatieff and announced his entry into the hall. her intro was warm and from the heart – an excellent preview of what would be the night’s themes: inclusion, enthusiasm and honesty.
Ignatieff’s stump speech – setting the scene
Micheal Ignatieff then took over and gave a heartfelt and sincere greeting. He put the focus on the excellence of his team, saying several times: “The other guy is a one-man show. I am lucky to have a team. A team made of talented, caring people.” It was classy and forthright. Excellent political communication. Honesty, transparency, consistency and sincerity. Very satisfying.
After parsing out the main issues for the crowd – he put the focus on Stephen Harper’s Jets, Jails and Corporate Tax Breaks, and how this de facto spending meant that any meaningful social justice spending on ordinary Canadians would have to be put off until 5 years hence. He contrasted this with the Liberal Family Pack, which he pitched as a “value investment in our families and our future.”
The messaging was powerful and accessible to “ordinary” Canadians, and made him seem like someone who truly cares about Canada’s families. It very effectively broke the “distant professor” or “haughty intellectual” branding that Harper has tried to taint him with.
Ignatieff takes questions – thorough, thoughtful and heartfelt.
Mr. Ignatieff then took questions from the crowd. The questions were obviously neither scripted nor contrived. The first questions came from young ladies from McMaster who asked him about the impact of his $4000 per student allowance. Ignatieff answered sincerely, saying that it was not enough, but that it was a “the first measure ever to put a dent in rising student debts.” Other questions centered mostly on health care, universal equality, gun control, economic opportunity, employment insurance, fluoride in the water, international policy, and the fighter jet purchase.
Ignatieff answered each of these questions thoroughly and thoughtfully. He was earnest in admitting the limitations of the Liberal approach, but said that any fiscally prudent plan during a time of economic recovery would have have certain limitations. He stressed that the fundamental principle that underlies the Liberal approaches to all of these problems is equality.
He parsed the fighter jet issue particularly well, taking a very complex set of messages and interpreting them for the audience very effectively. This is one of the trickiest things to do in politics – take an idea that is an easy sell (think patriotism and the inherent mystique of Top Gun fighter jets) but very hard to critique (expensive, doesn’t necessarily generate jobs in Canada, single-engines might conk out over the Arctic) and make your critique understandable while making the person who made the promise look like he has pulled a fast one over the public. Ignatieff managed to do this with the fighter jets issue. He came back to it several times in several different questions, reinforcing the message each time and further parsing out the meaning and importance of the fighter jet purchase to the Canadian people from different angles. Masterfully done.
He stayed on message throughout, even taking an off-the-wall question about whether he thought that fluoride in the drinking water is toxic and converting it into a thoughtful question and answer about the importance of water to the Canadian economy, identity and our national prosperity: “I want Canada to be the go-to country when it comes to water issues around the world! I want us to have the expertise.” This is a classic positive political communications manoeuvre – faced with a question that sounded a little crazy and to which he couldn’t really give an answer for want of data, he actually made the questioner look good by reinterpreting the premise of the question as being about something that is of mainstream concern. I noted that a member of Ignatieff’s RCMP detail discretely ran over to the questioner as Ignatieff left the stage to collect the materials and make sure that the man felt he had been heard and taken seriously. Again – a political communications win: that man and all those in his proximity will see that Mr. Ignatieff was true to his promise of transparency and openness.
Ignatieff’s concluding remarks – building a national culture of respect, equality, prosperity and hope.
He then expanded on that saying that classical liberalism demanded equality of opportunity, but that he wished to extend this to “equality of hope.” That each Canadian had the democratic right to hope, however that person defined hope for him or herself. It was a powerful message that resonated with the crowd. They were with him and he was on fire. He had several standing ovations during the event, including two during his closing remarks. Very impressive. Hamilton is a tough town for politicians: it is one of the most politically-engaged and savvy cities I have ever been in, and often extremely sceptical of politicians making promises or using high rhetoric to bring across leftist points. Mr. Ignatieff surfed these expectations expertly tonight – hitting just the right chord of populism and high-minded labour unionism to win a tough Hamilton crowd over. This was textbook political communications when you’re in a tough town.
After the event – a long crowd walk and scrum
After his concluding remarks, Mr. Ignatieff made himself available for a major crowdwalk that lasted at least 20 minutes, and then spent pretty much as much time in scrum with reporters as he left Liuna Station, and even tarried for a long time just outside the Liberal bus. This is something that politicians often neglect – they are tired and a little frazzled after 2 hours of talking and answering questions, and they forget to pay respect to the citizens who took time out of their evening to attend the event. Making yourself available after an event to both journalists and the citizenry, to answer their questions and hear their concerns is incredibly important.
Some closing thoughts – the most successful Liberal rally I have been to in a long time.
I stayed to get a feel for the crowd as it dispersed – it was buzzing like crazy. Mr. Ignatieff gave these people something to dream about, something to discuss and a giant dollop of crackling energy. I watched as clumps of people made their way to their cars or to the buses or over to nearby pubs. They were animatedly talking about the event.
A small criticism of an otherwise almost flawless performance from Ignatieff was that he didn’t make a call to action at the end of the event. Generally, that is a good way of building up the volunteer base for local candidates. It could be that the positive energy of the event will inspire people to get out and volunteer, but it is always a good move to be direct when asking for people to take action as volunteers. People like to be asked directly. It makes them feel as though they matter.
All in all, I don’t think I have seen a Liberal political rally go this well since Chrétien was winning in the 1990s. Mr. Ignatieff managed to create a sense of purpose and energy; a sense of electricity and hope. He certainly has carried his momentum from week 1 forward into Hamilton and built up even more with this rally.
Now it is up to Mr. Ignatieff and his Liberal team to keep the snowball he has started growing and rolling forward faster and faster. Let’s see if he can do it. It’s a challenge, because up to now polling hasn’t shown significant movement in voter intention away from Mr. Harper. Time will tell whether Mr. Ignatieff’s positive thinking campaign will lead to a real swing in momentum. I think this weekend will be quite important for that.