Every time I think about the long decline of the Liberal Party, I recall vividly a conversation I had over coffee with my local Liberal counterpart back in 2007. We were discussing a municipal election, and the conversation turned to local Green Party ‘doings’. I was pretty chuffed at the time. My constant harping and lobbying of the GPC central office was having an impact, as the Green party was actually working on a couple of different voter contact databases. (CiviCRM, and GRIMES). It was looking like we would soon have a viable tool to upload and preserve all our local electoral data in. The municipal election was providing us with reams of data on local voter issues, and key little tidbits on the electorate like School Board affiliation, home ownership status, voting intentions and current updates on the raw contact info like addresses and current phone numbers. I will paraphrase my Liberal counterparts response: ‘I don’t know why you are making such a fuss about ID’ing and GOTV. It is not complicated. All you need is lots of volunteers on EDAY and bang doors getting people to the polling booth.’ At that time, I was a partisan Green, so I bit my tongue and nodded vaguely back to him. My mind was boiling though. Could it really be true that my Alma Mater, the Liberal Party was led by people who just did not understand what was happening to electoral politics in front of their noses?
So there is the context for my impulsive decision to rejoin the Liberal Party in 2012. I had read that Liberalist was purchased, and that the age-old Liberal practice of hoarding electoral data locally was on its last legs. When I learned that a solid, effective measure had been adopted to shoehorn ALL the data from the next leadership contest into Liberalist, through the good offices of the Supporter category, I became a supporter on the spot. You see, I am terrified by the prospect of Canadian electoral politics being polarised between two ideological extremes. If my children are to grow up in a country that seeks to implement policies that work for ALL Canadians, rather than chomping on ideological popcorn policies that reward one or the other extreme, then the Liberal Party MUST succeed in adapting to the political paradigm shift that is sweeping them away. The shift in essence is to leave behind the idea that ‘all politics is local’ and the corollary that location-based data is what it is all about. The new paradigm is that all politics is affinity based, with location being relegated to second tier tactical mapping of polling stations, EDA boundaries and a basket of important, but secondary highly distributed ‘local issues’. Please understand, I am not arguing that location-based politics is dead. It is alive and well, but there is a whole another world of much broader communities of interests, and communications tools that strike out across ALL physical locations. It is this ‘higher plane’ of electoral politics that has determined who wins elections in Canada, because it strikes closer to the root of individual motivations, and determines where increasing numbers of Canadians place the X on the ballot on EDAY.
In the past, this higher plane was crudely called ‘demographics’. In essence, Politicians segmented their electorate along broad lines like age groupings, Sex, and to a much lesser extent ethnicity and mother tongue. The means of communicating with these segments was called the ‘Air War’ because it largely consisted of crafting messages targeting specific demographic groups, and delivering those messages through the print, and broadcast media. This was inefficient, because the message intended for, say senior citizens had to be delivered simultaneously to ALL Canadians through a press conference. Nuance and careful parsing of the message was critical, so as to attract the intended recipients, without turning off the balance of the population. The politicians (and the War Room) eagerly awaited the next days newspapers, and the evening news broadcasts, crossing their fingers that the media did not alter the message too much, and that appealing to the seniors did not leave everybody else cold. It was, at best a crude instrument. The means of communications dictated the message, and methodology. The interlocutors, (the Press) were all-powerful brokers, shaping and defining who gets to hold power. There was incremental progress towards more sharply defined electoral groupings that were NOT based strictly upon where, how old, or which sex. Much of that was lumped under the heading ‘Ethnic Press’, or specialty publications, and the power of that particular set of interlocutors rested on the fact that a more carefully honed message could be delivered, without worrying about offending a broad demographic. Despite all the attention paid to, and importance of the Air War, elections were fought primarily on the ground, because the only way to communicate an un-filtered message was to knock on a door, deliver a pamphlet, and starting in the seventies and eighties, to telephone electors.
So what is the paradigm shift of which I speak? Simple, the process of segmenting the population into ever more discrete groupings has been made virtually free by the low costs of computer power. The means of enabling two-way communications between really large, or small numbers of people has evolved due to the essentially zero costs of electronic communications, and near universal access to the same. Instead of a focus on broad demographic groups, it is now possible to segregate databases into ever shrinking subsets of people, and store actionable data on those subsets for instant retrieval. When I say ‘actionable data’ what I mean is that you can now DO SOMETHING useful with those little subsets, or segments of the electorate. To whit, you can send them a message for free, that they can react to instantly with a tangible, useful outcome. Now given my past assertions that people are motivated by things other than a broad affinity, the logical conclusion is that political databases can be used to segment a broad population according to what turns their crank, and drives their political actions (voting, donating, volunteering, policy wonking, lol). It does not matter WHERE those people are physically located anymore. You can dialogue directly on the basis of what really matters and motivates, engage and draw political resources from them in perpetual campaign mode, and then `outsource`the reaping of their votes to the geographically organised Electoral District Associations come election time. Oh Lord, the means and methods of doing this effectively are as boundless as human imagination! This is the present in which chunks of the Conservative Party dwells, but it truly BELONGS to the Political Party that dwells at the centre. The pragmatic Party that eats from whatever policy plate is serving the best meal today. The Party that can appeal, without reservation, to ordinary Canadians with ordinary desires and motivations across this great country. The Party that can solicit their feedback and input, and then craft pragmatic policy prescriptions that are intended to WORK, as opposed to narrow, futilel, ideological policy failures. And the whole g`damned thing rests with the creation of a political database soon to be populated with large quantities of actionable data, namely Liberalist.
So the basic tool has been created, and the process of populating it with contacts and supporters with the means of communications (email addresses) is underway, but hold on a minute… That process just hit a brick wall. The Party that is struggling to enter the real world of politics has conceived of the supporter category as an effective means of collecting data, but what happens now that the leadership contest is over? Well, the Liberal Party now has 300,000 members and supporters, spread across 308 local Electoral District associations. I am guessing that it is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time within a National organisation like this. Creating and growing the population within Liberalist is directly analogous to a media organisation building it`s circulation. The media builds circulation and readership because the more people are exposed to their message, the more tasty results they can enjoy. To whit, they can charge advertisers more money. For the same reasons, one of the primary objectives of the Liberal Party must be to build up the sheer volume of people whose email addresses are stored safely within Liberalist. Guess what? Individual units of the Liberal Party posses reams of exactly this kind of data that have never made it into Liberalist. Prospective candidates possess standalone databases, which they are jealously guarding to wage nomination battles. I personally know of several of these, which number in the tens of thousands of unique contacts. They do not have huge numbers of email addresses, but hey, every incremental addition counts. Many EDA`s also possess standalone databases, perhaps they are older, and polluted with a lot of bad data, but it is surely worth the exercise of scrubbing that data, and fixing the holes in it, when building circulation and national success is the objective isn`t it? There are like minded, or loosely affiliated politicians, and interest groups that can give Liberalist a hefty shot in the arm. The Provincial units, and Provincial Liberal Party`s spring to mind. Canada`s privacy acts specifically permit the sharing of personal contact information, provided it is `used for political purposes`, so brokering agreements to pool and share data with say the Liberal Party of Ontario, or the Smitherman mayoral campaign are prospective sources of really large chunks of data. So the most obvious pools of data are those which already exist. If YOU my reader possess such data, then perhaps you should be contacting the Liberal Party to arrange a transfer?
Moving forward, I shall draw on my media circulation building analogy for inspiration. Ever been to the Exhibition in Toronto? Ever noticed how at public gatherings, radio stations, and sometimes print publications have booths promoting contests, giving free subscriptions, and gathering names and emails on lists? They do not make money on that activity, right? WRONG! They are building their circulation in order to charge advertisers more money. Now it costs folding money to set up and staff booths at the Ex, but what about online venues, where the `booth`can be virtually created, and staffed by a happy little database app. and a sign-up page, busily collecting email addresses, and data on the interests of visitors for almost zero cost? Now imagine that the `booth` is located on an issues related website or portal. The visitors can be reliably assumed to have an interest that can be associated with their unique record within Liberalist. I mean, come on folks. Anybody can create and `staff`such a booth. Here is one right now: JOIN THE LIBERAL PARTY DUMBASS! Ok, not much of an effort, and I do not anticipate a whole lot of new Liberal memberships generated by it, but everybody who DID follow that link would be identifiable as someone with a sense of humour, with an interest in political databases, because of the context in which they clicked on the link. Now imagine for a moment that there were Liberal Party members and activists who had a burning policy interest that they shared with many other Canadians. Could these members not create interesting, even totally absorbing websites complete with policy forums where fellow Canadians could argue about their interests, and, say, formulate policy prescriptions to present to the electorate come election day? Imagine that there were reams of links to articles and journals concerned largely with their shared interest. Imagine that Liberal Party Shadow Cabinet members were tasked with delivering speeches, touring the country promoting membership in their forums and issues based websites. Imagine that policy announcements did not happen through sorry assed press releases, but were released through dedicated online communities. Would these virtual communities not be the perfect venue to gather data about supporters, while simultaneously engaging people continuously in something that really matters to them? So long as something like the supporter category exists within Liberalist, the processes to deliver a flow of new subscribers can be created and enhanced every time a Liberal organiser with her head screwed on tight figures out a new venue or channel.
Does that sound far-fetched? The real world of politics I describe is there in plain view for all to see. How do you think it is that the long gun registry managed to shoe-horn the Conservative Party into a majority government position? The Conservatives sure did not pooh-pooh the idea of organising people around a single issue. Jason Kenney does not whine that it is complicated and time-consuming to campaign in between elections. They rolled up their sleeves, and recruited people to organise long gun owners into a massive voting block, collecting email addresses and data as they went. They created a community of people with a moderately burning issue, for the express purpose of influencing electoral outcomes. Then they learned a salutary lesson. As much as they did not want to lose this community, they had to deliver the goods, and eliminate the Long Gun registry, and all vestiges of it. Then they did something painful, but necessary. With the long gun registry gone, the community they created tried to become a Canadian NRA, with a machine gun in every closet. The Conservatives recognised it was not useful any longer, and they threw it under the bus. No more NRA light activists on advisory committees, or gadding about the globe at arms trade conferences. Goodbye to the second best issues based community they ever created. However the extremely succesful community they have created around the pro-life movement shall NEVER suffer the same fate. The Conservative Party will string them along for decades to come. There will be private members bills galore, carefully orchestrated to keep the issue in the TARGET publics eye, while NEVER achieving it`s objective. There will continue to be hundreds of websites, churches and religious groups, abortion clinic protestors, massive electronic mailing lists, and fundraising circles. Even though they could criminalize abortion at their whim, they would never allow this die-hard constituency to win, because then they would go their separate ways, and they might actually start voting according to other issues, issues that are NOT owned lock stock and barrel by the CPC.
So there it is, the real world of Canadian politics in action. And all that is needed for the Liberal Party to take on, and beat the crap out of their political opponents is for them to recognise in what way the world has changed, to create the tools to engage and motivate the electorate, and start the arduous process of stuffing Liberalist full of identified Liberal Supporters, engaged through their policy interests, and continuously being fleshed out with calls to action.