Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why the Liberal Party Took a Chance on the Supporter System

The boldest and most surprising outcome of this weekend's Liberal Renewalfest in Ottawa was the party's decision to open its doors to all Canadians by adopting a supporter system. As a result, any voter who supports the Liberal Party will be able to vote for its next leader - no need for a membership card or membership fees. I've blogged ad nauseaum about why I like this system, but I never expected it to pass - and neither did a single person I talked to at the convention.

So what caused Liberals to support the supporter system? How did this come about?


Systems like this are hardly new. The Americans have been using variations of it since the 1952 New Hampshire primary, but the rules and mechanisms have varied from state to state and from year to year. Currently, Americans register as Democrats, Republicans, or Independents on their taxes, and vote for their party's candidate - though rules on who specifically is allowed to vote vary from state to state.

The French socialists opened their leader-selection process to the public in 2011 and 2.7 million voted - this to choose the leader of a party with 200,000 members. The British Conservatives mailed an entire riding ballots to pick their candidate in Totness in 2009, and about a quarter of eligible voters participated. Despite these largely successful case studies, the idea of the Liberal Party trying this wasn't on anyone's radar until 8 months ago, when two events softened the ground enough to made it a distinct possibility.

The first you're all familiar with. On May 2nd, the Liberal Party was obliterated. After making excuses for years ("we lost because of Adscam", "we lost because of the income trust investigation", "we lost because of the Green Shift"), Liberals realized the party needed to change and try something new. Many of the speakers in support of the supporter resolution on Saturday gave variations of "we have nothing to lose but our third party status" - when you're down, you're a lot more willing to take a risk and try something new.

With the Liberals down, it didn't take long for them to start considering an open primary - I heard Alf Apps float the idea at an Edward Blake Society gathering in Toronto just two weeks after the election.

The Alberta Trial

Also in May, the first Canadian case study of the supporter system was launched, when a room full of Alberta Liberals voted overwhelmingly to give Liberal supporters a vote in the party's upcoming leadership contest. The party's young executive and executive director Corey Hogan had drafted the resolutions and run an aggressive "Yes" campaign with buttons and pamphlets, but even the party's 83 year old former leader Nick Taylor spoke in favour of the move. Like the federal grits, the Alberta Liberals were down and out, and were willing to take a chance.

In effect, it was that feeling they had little to lose that got the ball rolling on the supporter system in Alberta several months earlier. On February 1st, Hogan and party president Erick Ambtman held a press conference to discuss ALP leader David Swann's resignation, and fielded question after question along the lines of "Does this mean the Alberta Liberal Party is dead?". Hell, most reporters weren't nice enough to include the "does this mean" part.

According to Hogan, that's when he began seriously floating the idea of allowing all Albertans to vote for the party's next leader. Having flirted with the idea of free memberships and registered supporters for some time, Hogan and Ambtman decided to go all in. Within a week, resolutions were approved by the party's Executive Committee. Within two weeks, they were approved by the Board of Directors.

Despite this enthusiasm, many party officials described themselves as "blown away" when 95% of Liberal members not only voted in favour of the supporter system, but voted to use it in the current leadership race. They needed to draft rules, iron out logistics, and administer this new system in a matter of days.

The results of this rushed and messy experiment in democracy were mostly positive. Twice as many Albertans voted in this leadership race than in the 2008 contest that had elected David Swann, and the party added the contact information of 27,000 voters to its database. Removing the $10 fee and the stigma of being a Liberal in Alberta certainly helped, but the big catalyst in this supporter drive was the ability to sign Albertans up over the phone - a technique used to great success by the contest's winner, Raj Sherman.

That's not to say there weren't problems. Runner-up Hugh MacDonald complained about the lists, but since they were cross-checked with the Elections Alberta voter list, they were arguably more accurate than party membership lists - no cats or corpses allowed. There was a takeover attempt by Craig Chandler's right wing PGIB group, but it failed spectacularly with their candidate finishing fourth with just 7% of the vote.

The impact of the Alberta "case study" cannot be understated - it was mentioned by Sheila Copps repeatedly during her presidential campaign, and pointed to several times during the floor debate on the LPC constitutional amendment as a reason to embrace or avoid this system. Liberals are always wary of following the Americans and few had heard of experiments with this system overseas - I think it was reassuring to many that the system had been tried successfully by their fellow Liberals in Alberta.

The System Goes Federal

But it was still far from certain to go federal. After the outgoing national executive floated the idea over the summer and formalized it in November, Liberals were still mixed. I called in to a telephone debate among Presidential candidates in December and a push button straw poll showed attendees split - 40% in favour, 40% opposed, and 20% on the fence. Three of the four candidates for Party President were against the idea, and even Sheila Copps had begun muting her language around the concept as the convention approached.

The pundits were split. The blogs were split. Twitter was split. There didn't seem to be a large "vote yes" campaign in the lead-up to the convention beyond a modest "Liberals for Open Leadership" website. The atmosphere at a Friday discussion on the proposed changes was downright toxic, with former MP Maria Minna leading the charge against the ammendment.

Despite a strong Saturday push by the Young Liberals, and words of support by author Don Tapscott and a pair of Obama organizers, I fully expected a 50/50 vote, far short of the two thirds majority needed to pass this resolution.

Then on a Saturday night, with 2000 delegates watching in the convention hall (and dozens of Canadians watching on TV), Bob Rae stood up to argue passionately in favour of the supporter amendment. A murmur went up around the room - even though Rae had previously voiced support for the resolution, I never got the sense he was fighting for it. I turned to my friend and said "This could be a game changer - I was wrong, this thing could pass".

Rae was followed by a young girl...then by Justin Trudeau. Suddenly, we had a ballgame. Supporters of the supporter system spoke of "renewal", "openness", and "historic change", playing off the mood of the convention. Opponents focused on logistics and warned of outsiders hijacking the party. Then a Liberal delegate got up and said how he'd supported the Liberals for years but this was his first convention - he was here to "hijack" the party and he hoped millions of Canadians joined him in hijacking the party. Game over.

It's not often that high profile constitutional resolutions are won and lost on the the convention floor, but I truly think the speeches from the floor - especially Rae and Trudeau's intervention - tipped the scales.

And just like that, a resolution that looked dead a week earlier, and which no one would have contemplated a year earlier had passed. As the great philosopher Bob Dylan said "when you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose". The Liberals took a chance on change - who knows what the repercussions will be, but we'll soon find out.

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  • As a Conservative, I look forward to being a proud new Liberal "supporter". Bob Rae for leader!!!!! :)

    By Blogger Michael, at 9:22 a.m.  

  • "but I never expected it to pass - and neither did a single person I talked to at the convention."

    That was stunning, because everyone did expect it to fail. I would argue Rae's passionate plea just prior to the vote was instrumental in changing the mood around supporters.

    By Blogger Steve V, at 9:47 a.m.  

  • Great post Dan, but you do forget to mention that the Young Liberals launched a "youth for primaries" campaign complete with T-Shirts, Pins and a press conference.

    This was something almost all young liberal delegates voted for and many of us were on the floor educating delegates one-on-one about the issue.

    I myself sent an e-mail to the entire delegate list (using my last candidate e-mail) the day before the convention started...

    By Blogger David Valentin, at 10:19 a.m.  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger Mr.E, at 11:28 a.m.  

  • Thanks Dan for providing the most complete picture of how and why the Registered Voter system came to be in Alberta. It's a story I'm glad to see told.

    Matt Grant
    Former VP Communications for the ALP

    By Anonymous Matt Grant, at 11:49 a.m.  

  • Jeremy - good point. I missed the sessions on Friday, but from the Twitter feed, it sounded like the crowd was hostile.

    David - Yes, I forgot to mention the youth support for the motion...important considering the high number of youth delegates there.

    I hate editing already published posts, but I think I will add those two tid-bits, since they should not be overlooked.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 11:51 a.m.  

  • And thank you Mr. Grant for being part of that young ALP exec that pushed so hard for this change!

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 11:56 a.m.  

  • Does this mean the Liberals have officially ended the practice of alternating between anglophone and francophone leaders?

    By Anonymous Nuna D. Above, at 12:33 p.m.  

  • It is yet to be seen whether the "supporter system" will make a difference in the Alberta Liberal Party's electoral fortunes. You are correct that twice as many people voted in the 2011 race than did in the 2008 race, but it was still only 8000 people (much lower than both the recent PC and Wildrose leadership contests).

    The 27,000 "supporter" contacts will certainly help in the next election, but the polls still show the Liberals sitting at ~13% in the polls and the party has only nominated candidates in 23 of 87 constituencies (with an election call expected in the next few months).

    The Liberals under Raj Sherman seem to want to occupy the same space that the PCs under Redford currently occupy. Will Sherman be able to give these voters a convincing reason to leave the PCs Big Tent? I'm skeptical.

    By Anonymous daveberta, at 12:45 p.m.  

  • Nuna - Don't think this has anything to do with that, though if I were a francophone leadership aspirant, I'd be tempted to argue the system should continue.

    The alternance idea has been part convention and part fluke. Alternance helped Trudeau win in '68 but he could easily have lost, just as Turner could have lost in '84 and Dion could have lost in '06.

    I don't remember anybody in 2006 voting for Dion because of alternance, so I wouldn't expect it to play a big part in the next race.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 1:12 p.m.  

  • Dave - Agreed. The supporter system isn't going to give the Liberals a bump in the polls and its direct impact will be minimal in the next election (unless the public REALLY responds, like in France).

    It's more about getting that data, and using it to help the party's ground game, membership recruitment, fundraising, etc.

    As for the ALP, I'd argue their problems aren't connected to the supporter system and that Sherman would have won under any system.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 1:17 p.m.  

  • Agreed.

    By Anonymous daveberta, at 1:22 p.m.  

  • It's not even remotely accurate to say the Alberta Liberal Leadership contest had a participation rate much lower than the Wildrose.

    The Alberta Liberal contest had more votes cast than the Wildrose one.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:52 p.m.  

  • Liberals need to step back for a moment and ask themselves "Why" certain people did as they did, and what differences exist between Alberta and Canada as a whole.

    First, Alberta doesn't have a strong party to the left of the Liberals, so opening the party would be more likely to bring in people close to the mainstream of Alberta politics.

    That's not the case nationally, where the NDP are in Opposition, and the Conservatives in Government.

    There can be a hope that this system would "grow the middle", but why would it do that? It doesn't stake out any political real estate.

    It's when we look at the Pot resolution that it becomes clear: Rae engineered this to take over the full-time leadership, and ultimately sell out the Party to the NDP.

    Supporters can vote for the leader, and the real estate staked out is likely to attract the "soft NDP" voters - those who have regularly switched their vote between the Liberals and the NDP anyway. And there are a lot of them - easily enough to influence the outcome of the leadership, and their candidate is already considered tough to beat among loyal Liberals.

    But what happens after Rae wins? Those itinerant supporters will be enthused, while those who supported other candidates will feel less so. Guess who starts driving policies forward which are in line with the politics of their new leader? And in short order, the policies of the Libs and NDP are minimized and a merger is no longer out of the question - despite improved electoral success, the parties are little different to voters.

    You might not believe me. Rae will, no doubt, deny it. But remember what he was promising just SIX months ago, and what we know now.

    Think long and hard about the future of your Party.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:24 p.m.  

  • Anonymous - Thanks. I checked my numbers and stand corrected. The Wildrose had a similar number of voters as the Liberal leadership. Both around 8000, though it is important to note that the 8000 in the Wildrose contest were paid members.

    It is unclear how many voters in the 2011 Liberal leadership contest were paid members or supporters.

    By Anonymous daveberta, at 6:59 p.m.  

  • "First, Alberta doesn't have a strong party to the left of the Liberals, so opening the party would be more likely to bring in people close to the mainstream of Alberta politics."

    That's nonsense. Why do people outside of Alberta assume that there couldn't possibly be a left wing here? The NDP currently poll at or above the level of the Liberals.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:30 p.m.  

  • If this somehow gets soft NDP voters into the Liberal fold, then that's a good thing.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 9:53 p.m.  

  • @Anon 7:30pm. Are the NDP in Alberta likely to form government any time soon? Official opposition?

    I never said they didn't exist. I said they weren't potent.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:01 a.m.  

  • Dan, as always a detailed and well written piece. With respect, I think you avoided a few other pertinent facts.

    Yes, Chandler's group did not take over the Party. Conversely, the ALberta Liberals elected a former Conservative MLA who was thrown out of the PC Caucus because he is a wing-nut, prone to late night e-mail rants copied to a wide and varied list.

    The Executive and staff who spent so much time preparing the constitutional amendments to allow for the new system, have spent no time in organizing constituencies (over half of which do not even have functioning boards, never mind members or supporters).

    The increased list of "supporters" has not lead to an increase of donations to the Party (as was promised), nor has it provided any significant increase in "sign locations" or confirmed votes in those few ridings where the ALP has actually nominated a candidate.

    Dan, have you seen who the new executive of the ALP is? Surely, the composition of the Executive is proof positive of how far the ALP has sunk.

    What the system did allow for is the easy take over of the ALP without even forcing Dr. Sherman to pay for the memberships of his supporters thereby depriving the ALP of that nominal amount of revenue, while being forced to take on the cost of administering the list of so-called "supporters."

    Look, the bottom line is that allowing "supporters" may be a good or bad thing for a political party. I happen to think it is largely a positive (especially if the federal Party had passed staggered primaries forcing candidates to actually spend time in each province and not just focusing on larger voting markets).

    However, the only thing example that the ALP should be held up for is the gutting of one Alberta's oldest political parties (admittedly, not much left to gut) by focussing on this political science experiment (which may be a good thing) at the expense of doing the things that might actually keep the ALP viable after the next election: constituency organization, strong candidate recruitment (again, look at some of the "stars" the ALP has nominated), actual fundraising (not repeated grammatically unsound emails to "supporters" asking for $10), an actual media strategy with co-ordination between the few caucus members left and the ALP etc.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:44 a.m.  

  • "Are the NDP in Alberta likely to form government any time soon? Official opposition?"

    Government? No. But let's just say they have about as much chance, if not better, of forming the opposition in the next election as the Liberals do. Between the orange crush boosting the NDP's numbers in Alberta, the PC's shift left, the Liberals' shift right, and the Wildrose as the most credible party of the far right... there just isn't much room left for the Liberals in there. Never mind the fracture building in the party between their new leadership and the establishment.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:53 p.m.  

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