If you’re rebuilding a political party, you have to listen. You have to WANT to listen. And you have to listen to a lot of people. One of the best things that ever happened to me was Preston Manning coming to my high school to talk about his newly formed federal party, the Alliance Party. There was no way in hell I’d ever have considered voting for that party, but it got me engaged in politics long before I could actually vote. Why? Because Preston Manning was able to tell me why I should care about federal politics (because like it or not, the federal government makes decisions that you’re going to have to live by, and uninformed choices – or worse, no choice – are what makes a country weak and vulnerable). Preston Manning, in his weird squeaky voice and his even weirder, slightly dorky Mr. Dressup sweater vest, gave enough of a shit about a bunch of high school students in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, that he took time out of his schedule to come and talk to us about politics. Sure, I bet most of the people in that room didn’t care, but we sure talked about what he’d said for a long time. And more importantly than what he said was what he DID – *he* asked *us* what *we* thought.
He didn’t argue with us. He didn’t tell us we were wrong or stupid or silly. He listened to us. (And, for the record, most of us WERE stupid AND silly.)
If I were going to try to rebuild a political party that’s suffered from disengagement, disillusionment, and, frankly, resounding defeat after resounding defeat, the very first thing I would do would be to tell the people who *already* support me that they have a job too. Their job is to find someone whose political opinion they disagree with and listen to them. Not to argue, not to debate, but just to listen. Ask non-directed questions. You’re not going to change anyone’s mind; your job is only to listen.
The New Democratic Party (NDP) has been fighting a downward battle in this province since probably the late 90s. There are all kinds of things that people smarter than I am cite for this, but ultimately I think it boils down to one thing and one thing only: engagement. Certainly in the last eight years, the NDP has utterly lost the ability to engage with citizens. It’s not about their platforms and promises and budgets. It’s not even about vision and mandate and goals. It’s about relevancy.
For at least eight years, the NDP has been selling itself really hard to its own supporters. It’s pretty easy to convince yourself that you’re engaging and relevant when all the people you’re talking to agree with you. The CHALLENGE is in understanding what your DETRACTORS need and want and figuring out how to address those things without ostracizing them. The challenge, the very first challenge of engagement, is in learning how to listen.
By no means do I think the NDP, and socialist parties in general, are irrelevant. I mean, they’re irrelevant to people who are afraid of socialism and the political left, but for every ideology there is an equal and opposite ideology (Newton’s First Law of Politicodynamics, don’t ‘cha know). Hell, nearly half the country decided the Conservative Party of Canada was irrelevant in the last election, so it’s clear how that pendulum swings.
So this isn’t about whether the NDP still has anything to offer – it has a lot to offer. But it won’t win any more votes and it won’t gain any more seats until it figures out how to engage with the people. What the NDP used to be so good at was knowing what people needed. What they wanted. It figured out how to accomplish those things, and that was how it won votes. What we saw in the most recent election in Saskatchewan was what looked like a scared, emaciated party campaigning on fear and negativity, and that was unfortunate. Nobody wins an election when they talk about all the truly shitty things that will happen to you if you don’t vote for them. You can’t *threaten* people into choosing your party. It didn’t work for Harper, and it didn’t work for the NDP (not in 2011 and not in 2016).
Here’s what I wanted the SaskParty to do in the most recent election: I wanted them to campaign on their strengths. I wanted them to talk about all the things that have gone exceedingly well in the past eight years (regardless of whether they can ACTUALLY take credit for them). Instead, what happened was this George Bush-esque “stay the course, stay on target” stuff that worked, not because it was particularly inspiring or engaging, but because there were no viable alternatives to form and lead the government in this election.
The NDP *could have* started campaigning for this election on November 8, 2011, but instead, they had to fire Drain Lingenfelcher and then panic for a couple of years. Look, I’m not trying to be mean, here. I desperately wish, as should everyone who’s currently been elected for the SaskParty, that the NDP could get their act together so they could actually provide a solid opposition. Democracy only works when there are checks and balances against any one party having too much control of the system. Without a strong opposition, the SaskParty runs the risk of becoming complacent, of losing touch with the electorate, and of abusing its power. Yes, my more astute reader, just like the NDP did after fourteen years of nearly uncontested governance.
Maybe somewhere in the province, the NDP *were* listening and engaging. I can think of a few candidates who’ve actually done incredible jobs of being opposition critics (I’m thinking of MLA Trent Wotherspoon, MLA Danielle Chartier, MLA Buckley Belanger, MLA Cathy Sproule, and MLA Warren McCall in particular), and I think they won their ridings fairly handily – this indicates to me that they have engagement with their constituents. I think a real danger to any political candidate is the tendency, and I’m sorry to say that while Cam Broten is a lovely man, he has this tendency, to talk at people. To talk TO them, rather than to engage with them.
So what exactly is engagement? It’s more than just being interested in something. It’s more than just listening to a speech or reading up on a platform. To engage is to become active or involved; to attract; to captivate. Engagement is what happens when you read a book and you see yourself in those pages. It’s when you get so lost in the story that you don’t want to stop reading. It’s when you go to a party and get talking to someone and then the sun’s coming up and the birds are singing and you’re, “oh eff, I have to work in an hour”. Engagement is a discussion, not a lecture. It’s Q & A, not talking points.
The SaskParty wasn’t particularly good at engagement this time around, but the NDP were *abysmal*. If anyone made gains on the engagement front, it was the Liberal Party, riding high on the wake of the world’s most engaging leader sweeping the federal election. Seriously, the Liberals made shocking gains over previous years.
We all know what leads to disillusionment and disengagement (not listening to the citizens, making decisions that cause the electorate to lose confidence, acting like you know more than the people you serve, assuming you’ll get the vote because you always have*). Yet we come back again to the question of how to rebuild a political party? Pundits are talking about how the NDP need to “go back and rebuild”, and frankly, I think that’s utter rubbish. The NDP need to get the eff out of their own heads, to get the eff away from their own supporters, and start to engage with the people of Saskatchewan. NDP candidates and supporters need to have those discussions with people they don’t agree with – but they have to learn how to do it respectfully and honestly. If you learn what’s actually going on with someone, you can begin to form a plan to address it.
No political party, no government, will ever be able to address all the wants and needs of the people – that’s why we have democracy, in which majority rules. The majority cannot rule *properly* (nor, I believe, efficiently) without proper opposition, and that’s the truly unfortunate result of the past two elections. And no party can represent the peoples’ needs and wants without proper engagement. The best they can do is guess. It seems to me the NDP has been guessing a lot lately.
If I were rebuilding the party, which I’m not, I would be spending every available hour I had at town hall meetings, on coffee row, in high schools, at events, listening to people. I’d go to events organised for the opposition, and there’s no way I’d use them as a platform whence to crow my own opinions; I’d be there listening. I’d go to every publicly funded event I could. I’d go to everything I was invited to. I’d invite myself to things. I’d spend my time meeting people, listening to people, and connecting with people. I’d use social media not to broadcast my message, but to have conversations. And sure there would be people who’d be abusive and who’d make fun of me and who’d call me names and try to bully me. There’d be people who’d call me an idiot and a pinko communist and worse, and I would do my very best not to make fun of them because that kind of stuff says more about the person who says it than it does about the actual pinko (that’d be me).
If I were rebuilding a party, I’d challenge every one of my MLAs to be diligent in their opposition duties. I would insist that they learn, inside and out, the portfolios they’re charged with being critics of. I would send them to the government Ministries to meet all the people who actually do the *work* of government. I would send them to the groups and associations who benefit from public funds, who benefit from public subsidies. I’d stress again and again how important it is to know peoples’ names, to listen more than they spoke, to ask questions, and to find joy in all they do. I’d tell every one of my MLAs to learn parliamentary procedure in and out. I’m sure most MLAs do this already.
If I were rebuilding a party, I’d go on the talk shows of people who hated my party, because I’d want people who didn’t believe in my politics to know that it’s okay for them not to believe in my politics, but we can still have respectful discussions about politics, even if we don’t agree. I’d ask journalists to ask me the hard questions, because those answers are the answers more important to the people – that’s why the questions are hard. I’d listen to my advisors and pollsters, but not *too* much, because they have degrees in things like political studies and communications and PR and spin and I don’t want to speak to stats. Stats are meaningless unless you can hear the voices behind them. I’d stop paying buckets of money to consultants and I’d go back to paying attention.
If I were rebuilding a party, I’d invite people to write to me, to phone me, to come to my office and to tell me what their concerns are. And I’d mean it. They wouldn’t be meetings where I’d listen for three minutes or tell people they had five questions and then answer everything with a speaking point from a platform that’s been consensused so much that it’s pandering to the lowest common denominator. I’d find out what people find exciting, and I’d find a way to make that part of my campaign, which I’d start today.
But like I said, I don’t know anything about politics, and I don’t know anything about rebuilding a political party.
*incidentally, anyone who *couldn’t* see the downfall of the NDP back in 2007, but even moreso in 2011, should really brush up on their Greek tragedy. Things were starting to slide in 2007, not because the NDP were necessarily doing anything *wrong*, but because the SaskParty under Brad Wall’s leadership did it *better*. Specifically, they engaged the people. The NDP’s massive loss in 2011 could be chalked up entirely to hubris. That is, of course, far too simplistic a summary for something that has as many moving parts as a provincial election, but hey. My blog, my rules.
Also published on Medium.