Columnists

Duncan Cameron
Halifax09: Winning conditions

| August 18, 2009
New Democrats from across Canada meeting this past weekend in Halifax were challenged by incoming party president Peggy Nash, CAW activist and former MP, to build momentum for the next federal election.

It helped that delegates to its national convention were being welcomed to a "New Democrat Nova Scotia" as former party leader Alexa McDonough put it in her address opening an evening tribute session entitled "Breakthrough Nova Scotia: It Can Be Done." Overall Premier Darryl Dexter, his cabinet, caucus and party members fresh from the breakthrough victory, brought considerable energy to the proceedings.

For the large number of labour delegates, the convention was about calling on the party to step up, and take on the economic crisis that is devastating communities across Canada and the world.

In addition to debating policies to improve the lives of Canadians, delegates were asked to look at the electoral challenge, so successfully addressed by the Nova Scotia NDP, and ask each other: how can federal New Democrats best establish winning conditions?

In "showcase" presentations speakers from the Manitoba government, the Obama campaign, and Nova Scotia laid out some guidelines for success.

1. Allow the leader's biography to tell a story. For Nova Scotians, Darryl Dexter became the neighbour you would call if your car would not start, and the leader who had something to say about the issues that matter most to people. Nova Scotia New Democrats became the champions of seniors forced to pay for needed health care, with some having to sell their homes to do so. Darryl Dexter guaranteed to redress the impoverishment of seniors. Voter support got built around this commitment, and others.

2. Electoral politics is about building long-term relationships, not selling soap door to door during the campaign. Premier Gary Doer told delegates the most important call was the one after the election. You build support when you are genuinely looking for input and advice on what to do next. Governments are re-elected when people are encouraged to participate in the political process, and given a role in the party.

3. The voting public need to know what you care about. In Manitoba New Democrats laid out five priority questions based on issues that resonated with potential supporters. In government the Premier reported back regularly to the population on progress on all five issues. In contrast with the previous government which had sprung privatization of telephone service on an unsuspecting public, the Doer government stayed with its program, guaranteed no surprises and has gotten re-elected twice.

4. Creating winning conditions means organizing supporters, not attacking adversaries. Time, money and energy spent on attacking opponents is wasted, and should go into building a organization based on commitment. Building respect means giving respect, said Betsy Myers, operations chief during Obama's run to the presidency. Losing the New Hampshire primary was the best thing that could have happened to the Obama campaign she added. The leader met with senior staff, and said New Hampshire showed leading in the polls, or scoring well in focus groups was not what winning was about. Getting people committed to having their neighbours over for a party, or to make calls and to attend caucuses was what mattered. Subsequently the Obama campaign refocused on connecting with people, giving them a voice and building "a ground game."

5. Organizing for Obama was modeled on the civil rights movement, the farm workers movement and used well-tested strategies developed by unions. Tell me your story of why you are here, and I will tell you mine, it is our common values that create solidarity, and get us out of our issue silos, said Marshall Ganz, advisor to the Obama campaign. Our challenge was to build leadership teams, and then let them go on and build others, spreading across the country, he pointed out. You need to give direction, keep your hands off and let momentum build from the ground up. Building relationships is what linked organizing, campaigning and Obama's leadership to enough of the voting public to put him over the top.

6. Meeting and overcoming adversity starts by dealing with inertia. Nobody thought an African-American with 10 per cent name recognition had a chance to win. For Myers the Obama team won using the techniques available in 2007 and 2008, while the Hillary Clinton (and McCain) campaigns lost using reliable methods from the 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns. If the Obama campaign had tried to brand, market and sell the candidate it would have failed. Instead it decided to focus on mobilizing people, and a tidal wave of volunteers overcame all obstacles to victory.

For the organizers of Halifax09 putting together winning conditions is about staying the course, the way Gary Doer did, through 21 years in politics, 10 of them in opposition.

The new direction for the party must include an all out attack on an old foe, inequality, urged former leader Ed Broadbent.

Politics today requires confronting an unjust financial system, and creating an economy built on solidarity, Claude Béland former head of the giant Desjardins Co-op argued before delegates.

Working for Canada means funding cultural agencies so Canadians can tell each other their stories said Nova Scotia cabinet minister (and professional actor) Lenore Zan in a superbly documented presentation.

Party leader Jack Layton sent delegates out the door with these words: it is time to do away with a vision of Canada that rewards greed, and ignores need.

Duncan Cameron writes from Quebec City.