Sunday, July 06, 2008

What's in a Name?

The highest profile discussions about the future of the Alberta Liberal Party have focused on one word – “liberal”. In fairness, there are more important debates to be had on structure, organization, and ideology, and I fully intend to look at them as part of this yet-to-be-cleverly-named post series on the future of the ALP. But, talking about the name is so gosh darn fun that it’s worth a post (or two) of it’s own.

I figure the best way to approach this is to first look at the arguments against a name change, which I’ve lifted from the “New Liberal” document, as it makes the most compelling case against a name change I’ve read anywhere.

[Note: For the purposes of this post, I’m equating a name change to founding a new party which, of the two, I think is the better option.]

1. “For many Albertans [a name change] will likely seem overly simplistic and possibly even insulting. While trying to fix the problems with our party, we fall prey to one of our biggest: this elitist sense that voters somehow just aren’t getting it, and are shallow enough that if we change the name, we’ll fool them into giving us a second look.”

Agreed, but only in the sense that a name change must be part of something larger. Simply changing from “Reform” to “Canadian Alliance” didn’t do the right any favours in Canada because it was seen to be a hollow move. A name change can, however, be an effective vehicle for drawing voters’ attention to a shift in attitudes and focus.

2. “It is also a complete capitulation. We are giving credence to every Progressive Conservative attack against liberalism they’ve ever made. If our upheaval ends at a name change, we may come out the other side seen as a party of liberals so ashamed of what they are that they hide it – hardly a positive step forward.”

Maybe it would be admitting defeat but, then again, most people are willing to admit defeat after losing for 87 years (Hillary Clinton being the exception). Admittedly, it would somewhat reek of desperation and the media/PCs/NDP would certainly try to exploit it. So I guess it depends whether or not people believe it has reached the “desperation” stage yet.

3. Even if a philosophy shift was not the intended goal, it would be very difficult for the Liberal Party to stay philosophically liberal should its name be changed. Our name is our compass. People coming from any other jurisdiction in this country immediately know what our core philosophy is.

This debate is probably better reserved for another post on the topic of philosophical shifts but isn’t this argument the definition of an “elitist sense that voters somewhat just aren’t getting it”? If people aren’t buying what you’re selling and it’s not an image problem, then you better change what you’re selling. And “our name is our compass” might just be the most eloquent argument in favour of a name change I’ve heard as of yet.

4. Logistical problems: You need 75% approval to change the name. If you created a new party, an ALP rump would siphon off 10% of the vote. [paraphrased]

Logistically, it certainly would be difficult to orchestrate which is why I’m skeptical this will actually happen. Having been actively involved in the ALP for quite some time, there are a lot of people suffering from NDP syndrome – “I’ve lost as a Liberal for 40 years and I’d rather keep losing as a Liberal than compromise”. I do question the claim that the “old” Alberta Liberal Party would be a vote drain on the new party if it achieved a critical mass of support – that reminds me a lot of the “Progressive Canadians” movement started by disgruntled federal PCs after the merger. However, I do think that there would be some backlash from federal Liberals that would, at least initially, cut into the volunteer and donor base of the new party. So unless the new party drew a few disgruntled PCs in, it wouldn’t be worth the effort.

5. “The Alberta Liberal Party survived having no seats through the late 60s to the mid 80s. For a brand supposedly so toxic, it has amazing longevity, and an uncanny ability to bounce back where other parties have been forced to fold. Its resiliency is a strength and must be seriously considered in any proposition that asserts it can simply be willed out of existence.”

Umm…I’m not sure if “survived having no seats” should necessarily be the shinning achievement of any political party. Do we really want to be the Toronto Maple Leafs of the political world?

To that list, I’d add the following arguments against a name change:

6. “Decore nearly won in ’93 as a Liberal, with the NEP a lot fresher in the collective minds of Albertans.” This is probably proof enough that winning as a Liberal isn’t impossible – although the economy tanking certainly helps.

7. “Victory would be a lot sweeter, if it was a Liberal victory”. And the resulting book about that election would sell a lot more.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at some of the arguments in favour of a name change and offer my opinion. Although this post probably had a heavy pro-change tone to it, that’s more for the sake of debate than anything else; I’ll try and poke as some holes in the pro-change arguments tomorrow.



  • Alberta has a Liberal party ...... who knew ?

    By Blogger Bill D. Cat, at 9:17 p.m.  

  • The only way to win is to keep the liberal name, and shift from Reform liberalism to classical liberalism; beating the conservatives at their own game.

    By Blogger James McKenzie, at 12:08 a.m.  

  • "7. Victory would be a lot sweater..."

    Not to be confused with a t-shirty victory.

    By Blogger Mike514, at 8:35 a.m.  

  • Alberta Party! Alberta Party!

    It sounds simplistic, but if you renamed the party and got a non-ALP MLA to run the show, they'd bounce Stelmach for sure next election.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:07 a.m.  

  • The Alberta Party already exists:

    ...a fringe institution that managed just 0.46% of the vote in the one riding it fielded a candidate in 2008.

    Which is a pretty good reminder to us all that for each Reform Party out there, there are a dozen Alberta Parties, Forum Parties, Western Canada Concepts, Equity Parties, Confederation of Region Parties, Wild Rose Alliances, etc.

    By Blogger Corey Hogan, at 10:20 a.m.  

  • You're wrong as usual. Albertans hate Liberals. They hate everything to do with the word Liberal. But I guess the brain trust working away at the ALP has never been wrong before, so all the power to you.

    I for one am never going to vote liberal. I'll stay home or vote green first if I can't vote PC.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:15 p.m.  

  • I'm not even sure that #5 makes any sense.

    By Blogger daveberta, at 1:15 p.m.  

  • Hi Dave,

    #5 speaks to two points.

    First, the notion that a provincial Liberal Party will be subsumed or otherwise completely disappear is unlikely. There will still likely be a big-L Liberal Party, in one form or another no matter how successful any name change/new party initiative is.

    Second, if a new party is created, it will have no history and no life preserver. If a new party is created and an election is contested where this new party loses spectacularly, it won't bounce back - there will be no loyalty to the new brand. Say what you will about the Liberal Party, but if it can go decades without an MLA and still exist, that speaks pretty strongly for the brand's resiliency.

    Anyhow, that's point #5. What's your take on 1,2,3,4,6, and 7?

    By Blogger Unknown, at 1:34 p.m.  

  • Every time I read 'new liberal' I read 'new coke'. The party doesn't need a new name. It needs to attract the new population in the province that hasn't spent generations blindly voting the way their grandparents did, or not voting at all.

    I'd settle for at least a vote turnout. Then at least the 'conservative' vote could say they really do represent the province should they form the government.

    By Blogger Niles, at 2:02 p.m.  

  • The name change misses the point of the exercise.

    People who seriously suggest that the biggest problem is that the name Liberal is the fountain of the ALPs problems are likely smoking something prohibited by the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

    The problem is not the name. Rather, I think the problem is the failure over a few decades to create positive associations to the brand, and leaving the field to those who have besmirched the name using tactics which Herr Goebbels would have applauded. (I'm still amazed of the degree of acceptance that the National Energy Program caused the worldwide downturn of the petroleum industry in the 1980s.)

    Its time to rebrand our name, and give it a meaning which we want -- not something based on the lies of others. And then, we should take the time to defend our name.

    If we don't do this, it doesn't matter what name we choose -- the other guys will simply tell everyone what it means. And I doubt they will say anything nice.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:42 p.m.  

  • corey: My point was that between 1967 and 1986, the Liberal Party in Alberta pretty much existed on paper and where ever Nick Taylor was running.

    On points 1-7...

    In Alberta it's important to understand that "Conservative" is more of an identity than simply a voting preference and "Liberal" is viewed as the opposite in that paradigm.

    Re-branding or the creation of a new party is going to take more than a new name, a fancy website, and a new blue and avocado logo. Re-branding is a serious process that will takes in-depth research, outreach and a commitment to a core set of values.

    Myself, I'm not interested in brand loyalty or becoming one of those “I’ve lost as a Liberal for 40 years and I’d rather keep losing as a Liberal than compromise” types. I'm interested in instigating positive progressive change in Alberta, regardless of brand name. If a name change, or a new party, is what it takes than so be it.

    What's the worst case scenario? The Tories win another election?

    By Blogger daveberta, at 4:08 p.m.  

  • Dave, I agree with you wholeheartedly on the rebranding issue. Rebranding is the last step in a process of renewal that involves reorganizing, reimagining, and rethinking our position in this province.

    It will take a lot of hard work from all sorts of dedicated individuals committed to a philosophy that they can bring to their family, neighbours, and friends.

    That said, we've been in worse places. And my worst case scenario is a little grimmer.

    I think the worst case scenario is a defunct left and centre lead to the Conservatives become the "left wing" party to a new right wing government, shifting the debate further away from our ideals.

    Also, the "avocado" in the logo for the New Liberal Initiative is supposed to be dark gold. It's a tricky colour for monitors to reproduce: yellow with black in it. Ends up green in a lot of cases.

    Corey Hogan

    By Blogger Corey Hogan, at 5:04 p.m.  

  • Well, to add to Corey's point, another "worst case" scenario around creating a new party fracturing the vote on the left and the progressive Bucknering an election they could have won. Or the NDP replacing the Liberals as the alternative on the left [then again, I'd rather see a Saskatchewan/Manitoba styled NDP gov than an Alberta PC one].

    Both those scenarios are based on the ALP staying around when a new party is created however. If the party actually disbanded, it wouldn't be an issue.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 5:15 p.m.  

  • stephen - To a certain extent, I agree. The problem surrounds the Liberal brand and it's good that most people recognize that.

    Now, the question is really what the best way is to get rid of that poor brand association. Rebranding as "new Liberal" is certainly one way to do. Creating a new party would be another or seriously refocusing the ALP under a new name would be two other options.

    I lot of businesses rename as a solution to brand issues. I don't think it's something that should be rulled out as an option. [That's not saying it's the best option, just that it deserves consideration]

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 5:19 p.m.  

  • Better to just restart with a new party than change the name or add a "new" prefix.

    At least then the debt would be gone and you could legitimately sell yourselves as agents of change.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:32 p.m.  

  • The Alberta Liberal Party keeps loosing elections for a number of reasons, the name Liberal being but a very small one. More important are the lack of organization, money, solid communications strategy and visionary leadership. You can re-brand all you want but if you do not fix the core problems you can never capture the electorate's attention and they will do what they did last election...stay home. The energy that is being spent on this discussion could be better spent focusing on fixing the core problems and getting ready for the next election. The people of Alberta deserve better than they are getting from the Conservative government and the Liberal opposition. If we give the electorate a reason to vote for us they will. There is no such thing as an irreparable brand. What the ALP needs is new thinking on the way to better organize, raise funds and communicate its policies. A dynamic new leader wouldn't hurt either.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:25 p.m.  

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