The real world of electoral politics has been changing for over a decade. The Liberal Party of Canada has finally, at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour noticed WHY they have all but disappeared. It boils down to the fundamentals of the new politics. Know the electorate well, and communicate with them directly. Some months ago, I became a ‘supporter’ of the Liberal Party of Canada. The reason I did so, was because it appeared that the Liberal Party was finally coming out of their fossilized shell, and adapting to the new reality. The evidence I had to go on was that the rhetoric of change emanating from the Liberal AGM was being matched by a concrete measure, the creation of the supporter category within Liberal membership ranks, and the breaking up of the very local monopoly on electoral databases in favour of a centrally administered database called Liberalist.
Historically, databases and lists of members and supporters within the Liberal umbrella were (and are) a critical tool in the only game that seemed to count within the Liberal Party. To whit, Leadership contests, and the internal battle for control of the natural governing party. As such they were jealously guarded from fellow Liberals, and sharing those names and contacts was a guaranteed ticket to irrelevancy for the ‘holder’ of the data. While the Conservative Party of Canada spent the last 10 years single-mindedly enriching their CIMS centrally managed database(s), the Liberals were recruiting phony rent-a-member recruits, and jealously guarding their names in readiness for the next round of the leadership battle. I have certain knowledge that even at a constituency level, election canvas results were hoarded as a weapon for candidates to use in the battle to control the local EDA. Fact is, the distribution of power across electoral districts, regional organisations, provincial divisions, and then even to the discrete factions vying for control of these rinky dink units prohibited the creation and maintenance of the most important tool for organising for, and contesting general elections. Now that the Liberal Party is clearly NOT the natural governing party, the prize of leadership is an empty chalice. I have an inkling that the sensibility that: “If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately” has at last set itself deeply into the party structures at all levels.
So, pray-tell what is the evidence that this is the case? Well the most compelling evidence is the very existence of Liberalist, and the fact that it is being populated with new data. The supporter category introduced for the first time with the current leadership contest is the direct evidence that I have. The Liberal Party is drilling this message into the EDA structure, and has offered an enormous reward to Leadership campaigns that embrace it. Supporters are entitled to vote for the next leader of the Liberal Party. The threshold for becoming a supporter is pretty low. To be enrolled, one has to click a link like this one, fill in your postal code, name, and email address, and voila, you are a supporter! So what good is that to the Liberal Party, if all you need to do is like them enough to label yourself supporter? Well, one at a time it is useless. Multiply it by thousands of people prepared to self identify as someone with an affinity for the Liberal Party, and you have just enriched the basic name number and address that every Political party already owns. The requirement for an email address provides the means to communicate directly more or ;ess for free. The incentive for leadership candidates to stuff this data into liberalist in bulk is going to enrich the whole Party permanently. The data is rolling in as I write, and Liberalist will NEVER stop growing, just so long as the Liberal Party keeps making it very easy to ‘sign up’.
So here we are, the centralised tool exists, and it looks like it is such a useful tool that all Liberal organisations will rely on it to manage and retain their data. Collection, retention, and sharing of data is a necessary condition for joining the real world of electoral politics, but it is NOT a sufficient condition. The sufficient condition lies in the application of the data to the tasks at hand. Somebody in the Liberal Party obviously understand this, and is in a position to take the next (baby) steps with it. You see, the tool itself becomes sharper and more effective as you populate it with richer and richer data at the individual contact level. It is not enough to have a name, address, and phone number. You need to be able to communicate directly and as cheaply as possible directly with each contact. Hence the need for email address from new supporters. You need to be able to single out collections of individuals based on more sophisticated criteria. What you need is a lot of RELEVANT information about masses and masses of people, so that you can tailor mass communications to people who will be receptive to your message. The next step is to take the data, no matter how shallow it is, and to both make practical use of it, and enrich it with additional actionable information at the individual level. This is happening, and I have been very chuffed to see it succeeding so quickly.
So how the heck does a mere supporter, with no real connections or pipeline to the Liberal Party structure know that it is succeeding? I signed up as a supporter, and I can attest to the use to which the Liberal Party has put that teensy nugget of information I gave them about myself. Over the past few months, I have received occasional communications via the email address I provided. There was the expected automated ‘welcome new supporter’ email at the time of enrollment. It was followed by infrequent communications, from the leader, from individual Liberal executives, all of them with a modest request, maybe an ask for a small donation, and a policy message of some sort associated with the ask. What that tells me is that the Liberal Party has incorporated my name into a program of enriching their data about myself. I can guarantee that everybody who responded to a specific ask, connected with a specific policy or issue, will be ‘tagged’ in the database as responsive to this issue. The asks have not been overbearing. They did not ask me to sacrifice my life for the Liberal cause, they merely tried to obtain a small action from me to certify my affinity with that specific message. The typical $5 contribution is NOT the objective of the ask, it is the funky and essential BY-PRODUCT of enriching the database. The $5 is what pays for the process of finding out what hundreds, and thousands, and soon to be hundreds of thousands of Canadians care about, and WHY they deem themselves Liberal supporters. Those who pop $1,000 onto their credit cards when thrown a soft pitch about a specific issue have just qualified themselves as deeply motivated and concerned about that issue.
And HOW do I know that the process is working? Because the Liberal party is not hoarding the info. They are freely offering a report card on the success of the supporter category. Think for a little bit about the above process I am describing. It is not an isolated event, it is a systematic effort to continuously grow both the breadth (numbers of names) and the depth (affinities and added information about those names) of Liberalist data. I have three emails from 3 different Liberal luminaries over the past three days. Each one provides a total of the numbers of respondents to the pitch. here is what I LOVE TO SEE:
1) On Thursday, Anne McLennan asked me to be one of their targeted 5,000 donors of $5 (or more) and told me that there were 600 so far:
“It is a pleasure for me to be in touch with you during the holiday season. So many of us are sending thoughtful and caring wishes for our country to the Liberal website. I hope each of the 601 wishes for Canada that donors have shared with us so far will inspire you to give. “
2) On Friday, Stephan Dion told me of the horrors of out of control F35 procurements and told me:
“In this campaign it doesn’t matter how much you give, just that you give. That’s why I’m personally thrilled that 719 Liberals just like you – including 326 who gave for the first time — have each chipped in an average of $47.71.”
3) This morning, Michael Ignatieff expanded on the horrors of the F35 procurement fiasco and told me:
“So far 1,001 Liberals like you, including 455 bold first-time donors, have told us what issue they care about. They’ve joined the fight.”
So there is the concrete evidence that the Liberal Party is well along in the process of joining the real world of electoral politics. They are systematically growing and enriching Liberalist, and as a by-product have raised tens of thousands of dollars in three days from supporters being converted into NEW DONORS. There is every reason to believe that the current leadership contest is going to add tens of thousands, or more likely hundreds of thousands of supporters to Liberalist. Many of them shall graduate to fully paid up members, volunteers, candidates, EDA executives, and field organisers for the new and improved Big Red Machine. Next Christmas we will be seeing emails telling us of hundreds of thousands of dollars, from thousands of new donors. This is the beginning of a long good-bye to the CPC’s electoral dominance in Canada.