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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Wednesday 27 March 2013

Party Friction : A House Divided

This is a much more complex statement than most political organizers give it credit for. 
How often do unelected senior staff see themselves as the embodiment of a given Party - and therefore, the only voices that matter?  This is not a stance that gets staked out maliciously.  A lot of high-level political staff work their way through the ranks, making personal sacrifices and putting in a lot of blood, sweat and tears in support of the vision their Party represents. 
This brand loyalty is commendable, but in the high-stakes, competitive game that is politics, there's a natural shift that happens between supporting the vision a Party represents and backing the tribe, no matter what.  It's this shift from cause to partisanship that leads people astray.  
When you see yourself as a grizzled Party veteran, you develop a certain sense of entitlement - you've been through the trenches, you know what's best for the Party.  Newbies, be they staff or even Members, don't have your skin in the Party game nor your institutional experience, so it's their job to serve you, in support of the Party, rather than your job to empower them.  Strict control of the team and a go-for-the-throat approach to the opposition is the only way ahead.  
The result is an increasingly tightening fist that ignores, threatens or eliminates opposing perspectives.  Of course, the public has differing perspectives; when you cease to include them in internal conversations, that approach bleeds out to public communications, too, with a shift of focus from informed conversation to message control.  It happens all the time, to all Parties - it's a chief reason why governments (and for that matter, nations) fail.
As is happening now to the Federal Conservatives (and as some of us predicted was coming); internal dissent to this increasingly top-down process and growing frustration with the firewalls that have grown up around government are eating away at the CPC from within and chipping away at those walls from without.
There's another side to this story, though - in a tightly controlled system, many of the staff that work their way up the ladder are able to do so because they affiliate themselves with (or are taken under the wing by) senior staff who groom them to carry on their particular legacy. 
Those who might have differing perspectives or loyalties more to an employer (elected official) or the vision over the brand can be seen as not being team players and be marginalized or even fired, creating disaffection among natural Party advocates.  Yes, actual ability and creativity play a role in this process, but not as much as everyone likes to tell themselves.  If disenfranchised staff manage to stick around - or even if they don't - they can harbour grudges against those senior folk that, from a non-insider perspective, are seen to have hijacked the Party from its roots and its beliefs. 
Leaders come and go; when one leaders goes, the Senior Centre will naturally gravitate towards one who is most reflecting of their way of doing things and under whom they can carry on in the general roles with which they've become comfortable
They may legitimately see differing voices within their own Party as threatening to the establishment they feel they've built and, therefore, the Party itself.  At the same time, those who have been marginalized over the years (and also those who simply want to build something of their own) are going to see the Establishment as the problem and themselves as the solution.
In this way, leadership votes can be less about a particular leader than about the teams that back them and the strategies/communications gambits they have played.  It's not how politics should work, but it often is.  This being the case, backroom operatives that fight tooth-and-nail for a particular candidate/method of operation in which they play a key part may see the Party's choice of a differing candidate as a slap in their own face. 
If they aren't shown the door by the new team, they may just walk off themselves in resentment.
More than a few political operatives should pay heed to the advice of Colin Powell: "Never let your ego get so close to your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it."
This is the scenario unfolding right now in Harper's Conservative Party; if he's serious about keeping his coalition of Reformists and Conservatives together, he's going to have to switch up the methodology that got him into power and with which he's governed so far. 
A good model for him (and his potential successors) to look at would be Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.  Wynne faced a similarly polarizing battle with Sandra Pupatello that demonstrated a rift between the establishment and many of the junior staff/Party members.  The Leadership Convention itself was a bit messy, but Wynne and her core team did an amazing job of reaching out to and including the organizers of other candidates, especially Pupatello's. 
Worth noting - what allowed Wynne to pull this off was a steadfast focus not on the Party as a brand, with wagons circled and pistols drawn, but of the vision and virtues the Party is meant to represent.  In her internal actions, her dealings with Opposition Parties, the press and stakeholders, Wynne has kept at it, walking the talk and leading by example
This inspires trust, faith and loyalty, which are the fibres that hold a Party together.  Carrots and sticks simply don't have the lasting power to accomplish this.
Yes, there are differing viewpoints both within the Party and across the province, but Wynne is applying her mediation skills and active listening ability to keep people engaged, making them feel respected.  This allows her the space and time to drill down to points of commonality and build back up from there.
If Team Harper put their vision (though I'm not sure exactly what that is, as their actions are pretty contradictory to their supposed intent) first, they would be able to engage the growing discontent in their own Caucus and across the country the same way.  Take abortion as an example; at the end of the day, pro-life advocates don't want to see young lives penalized for the sins of their fathers/mothers.  Fair enough; what about looking to empower those fathers and mothers to make better choices at the outset? 
Contraception is part of that mix, yes, but not exclusively; education, as for all things, is key.  Sex education, social-emotional learning, respect for difference and self-discipline through initiatives like Positive Psychology and Roots of Empathy.
You can take the focus on abortion and judo-flip it into a mandate to directly tackle stigma, poverty and education challenges.  Why bait and switch when you can convert?
There is always a solution to every problem, but as every problem is complex and interwoven with the very structure of our society, it's important to scale down to the core basics that everyone - even those whose opinions you detest - can agree upon.  From there, you build up and move forward.
Which brings me to my key point - yes, the party that doesn't stick together doesn't win together, but you don't achieve cohesion through strict top-down control; that's invariably a recipe for friction. 
The best leaders don't act like tyrants - they tend to be more like teachers.

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