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The 308 strategy… and why the Liberals won’t find it easy

Posted by cwaddell under All, Political Strategy

Paul Adams

Paul Adams will be blogging the federal Liberal convention in Vancouver this week.

Michael Ignatieff is enjoying a belated honeymoon after his anti-climactic accession to the Liberal leadership last December.

A new book. A party convention in Vancouver this week. And a warm gust of approval from the public, that has put the Liberals ahead of the Tories for the first time since last October’s election – nearly seven points ahead in the recent EKOS poll.

One striking aspect of Ignatieff’s leadership so far is that he has probably paid more attention to the internal organization of the Liberal Party than any leader since John Turner.

Recently, the committee on party renewal he appointed published a report called “The 308 Riding Strategy.” The central thesis of the report is that the Liberal Party should model itself after the successful Howard Dean/Barack Obama 50-state strategy south of the border.  By competing everywhere in the country, the party hopes to restore its image as the one true national party, stretch the resources of its opponents, and expand the areas of the country in which it can be truly competitive.

But even a cursory reading of the renewal committee’s remarkably candid report makes plain how difficult it will be for the Liberals to compete in every nook-and-cranny of the country in an election that may come as soon as this summer or fall.

We all know that the Liberals have been slow to adapt to fund-raising laws that make all parties more dependent on small donors. Well, the report lays out many of the party’s other problems in their awful splendour:

While the 2006 convention of the party agreed for the first time to have a fully-integrated single national membership system, it hasn’t happened because of “lingering, differing viewpoints among provincial and territorial associations,” as well as their differing methods of managing membership lists.

Negotiations over how to distribute revenues from membership fees since 2006 were “particularly challenging” and ended up with different agreements being struck for different parts of the country – an unsustainable pattern.

Liberal Party headquarters, which was supposed to take over the bulk of administration from provincial and territorial associations under reforms mandated in 2006, failed to do so.

As a consequence, the provincial bodies haven’t done their newly assigned job of becoming the focal point of voter outreach and organization.

These provincial and territorial bodies are still gobbling up a quarter of the money received from public party financing, even though their roles still aren’t sorted out in practice.

The Liberals aren’t even doing the little stuff right, according to the report. Tax receipts don’t go out in time, and — believe it or not from the party of bilingualism –you can’t phone up party headquarters and automatically expect to get service in French.

That’s just the internal stuff. The report also mentions that the Liberal Party, which it calls “the party of multiculturalism,” is not reaching out to ethnic communities the way it once did. (Congratulations Jason Kenney, in other words.)

One element of party organization around which the report dances more gently is the existence of party “commissions” – that is, auxiliary bodies for women, seniors, aboriginals and young people. Although these commissions consume resources that might otherwise be available to the larger party, it is not at all clear that they are consistently effective in either organizing the constituencies they purport to represent, or representing those interests to the larger party. (They do come in handy for generating delegates to leadership conventions, sometimes through so-called “paper clubs” that appear out of nowhere and then vanish just as suddenly.)

Though Ignatieff has shown impressive energy in addressing many of the party’s debilitating long-term structural issues, it would be foolish to think that the kind of reforms the report identifies can be fixed in time for an election this year.

The modernization of the Liberal Party is going to be a job for the long haul.

Paul Adams, a former political correspondent for the CBC and Globe and Mail, is a member of Carleton’s journalism faculty and executive director of EKOS Research Associates. He is researching a book on the Liberal Party.