Making the next Prime Minister

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On the issues other than corruption, health care, Canada-U.S. relations and crime, the Election Study showed a strong gender gap. Women voted left and men right.

University of Calgary political scientist, Tom Flanagan, has laid out the winning strategy for Stephen Harper and his ruling Conservatives. According to his close advisor, the road to a majority for the Prime Minister requires building support within three groups: traditional Ontario Tories, Reform/Alliance Westerners, and Quebec conservatives.

Decisions by the Prime Minister can be decoded by looking at how they play within these target groups. When he refuses to take the podium at the international AIDS conference hosted by Canada, Harper loses no support from those he seeks to influence in the Western Reform/Alliance group. When, instead, he travels to the North to assert Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic, he is reaching out to his potential voters among his Ontario Tories.

The Conservatives won a minority government by edging out Paul Martin and the Liberals in popular vote. The next Liberal leader will be looking to shed the image of corruption that, according to the Canadian Elections Study 2006, was an important factor in the last campaign.

Liberal electoral successes — majority wins in 1993, 1997 and 2000 — were assisted by divisions within the opposition. The rise of Reform/Alliance hurt the NDP and the Conservatives.

The Liberals used their partisan advantage to great effect throughout the Chrétien years. More Canadians define themselves as favourable to the Liberal Party than they do to other parties. This, coupled with a decline in electoral turnout (until 2006), led to an obvious conclusion: if fewer people vote, and partisans vote more than others, those with the most partisans (the Liberals) win.

In 2006, probably because of the corruption effect, the ambivalent — those without strong views on party affiliation or policies or even politics in general — became a factor, and enough of them voted Conservative to defeat the Liberals. As the Election Study showed, this was not because Harper became more popular or was viewed as more moderate. In 2006, Jack Layton was the most popular leader, Harper stood no better than at the end of his poor 2004 campaign in voter approval, and people still saw him as extreme.

On the issues other than corruption, health care, Canada-U.S. relations and crime, the Election Study showed a strong gender gap. Women voted left and men right. The failure to attract women in the same proportion as men blocked the Conservatives from reaching a majority.

The lessons from the recent past for the Liberals are clear. They need a new leader who can wipe away the past corruption associated by voters with Chrétien and Martin. Most importantly, they need a leader who can remind Liberals why they are Liberals, and make them proud to vote Liberal, so as to mobilize partisans.

Deeper forces are at work as well in Canadian politics. What Tom Flanagan called “the wave” (in his book Waiting for the Wave) refers to movements in voter attitudes, as structural shifts in society produce new political trends, and create new opinion clusters within the body politic.

The lesson for the NDP is that these deeper forces cut across regional lines, and traditional voter patterns, where the lines of combat between the Liberals and Conservatives are drawn.

To be successful the party needs to recognize the new forces at work. It should re-brand itself, meaning adopt a new name, project a new image, and reach out as never before to sources of support in traditional constituencies, and new social movements, both undergoing great changes, and with new concerns, waiting to be articulated by political leaders.

More women than men vote NDP, but more women vote Conservative than vote NDP. This signals the need to continue to mobilize around issues that make a difference to women.

As Jean Chrétien prepared to run for the Liberal leadership, internal union polling data found he was most popular among unionized males. The NDP has failed to replace him in the hearts of these natural allies.

The city is the new NDP region. Though it is poorly understood, urban issues are rooted in federal politics. Energy policy, foreign investment, monetary policy, debt, social spending, privatization, de-regulation, made-in-Ottawa, these all drive what happens downtown.

The environment is the over-arching issue. It is within an ecological perspective that promising alternative economic thinking will emerge.

The task of the right is to convince people that they make no difference, that actions by the many can have no effect, and besides the world can do better under the existing rules, and with the same referees.

A left party has another purpose: to explain how citizens acting together have created most that is worthwhile within society, and to articulate current needs and concerns so as to lead people to the next stage of citizen mobilization.

Do it well enough, and you make a Prime Minister.

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