NPA 2011: A roadmap for Vancouver’s centre-right party

The NPA must campaign when the people are engaged, as Truman once did

Just as it was in November 2002, Vancouver’s NPA was reduced to rump status during the 2008 election. Some pundits quickly suggested that the tide had turned permanently, and that the NPA was an anachronism. Those of little faith began to doubt whether the NPA brand had any cachet left with voters, and whispers began of trying to create something new.

Their confidence was so shaken that the NPA itself seriously considered throwing away their name. Thankfully those who were still involved agreed with the words of Vancouver business pioneer Charles Flavelle – the former owner of Purdy's Chocolates – who argued vehemently at a general meeting that the NPA must remain the NPA because established brands are too valuable to give up.

As we enter an election year the prospects for Vancouver's NPA seem to have measurably changed. They no longer appear to be a political group at death's door. Some muse, perhaps over-optimistically, that the NPA may form majorities on city council, park and school board in November. Whatever happens in the next nine months, I believe there is no doubt in my mind that Vision & COPE's super-majorities are threatened. The NPA will elect several more people than they did in 2008.

However, there are endless ways the NPA may, so to speak, drop the ball as they run toward the end zone.

It happened during the NPA’s miraculous political recovery in 2005, where they won majorities on city council, school board and park board. However, each of these bodies instead of upholding strong caucus solidarity, ultimately split. NPA elected officials in both the school and park board left their caucus, and of course an NPA member of council decided to run against the NPA mayor.

Weakened solidarity within the NPA led to their wipeout in 2002. The split in COPE led to their defeat in 2005. And the NPA’s failure to remain unified almost decimated them in 2008. Clearly, unless everyone in the NPA can remain united, they will make no gains this November.

A mistake the NPA board is purportedly set to make which could hurt the party’s prospects are plans for early candidate elections in the spring. The idea of electing candidates a year out from an election may have seemed like a good idea on paper during 2010, but there is no question that acclamation of three candidates, and the decision to elect only one park candidate last November was a failed plan. It’s no reflection upon the people the four people the NPA will run in the upcoming election to say that appointing candidates was an idea that didn’t meet the goals the organization set out for itself.

The fact is that no one except for a very small group cares about municipal politics until a few weeks before Election Day. Candidate elections used to happen around Labour Day until 2005, when the NPA board thought it was a good idea to choose candidates in two sessions in May & September. The candidates who ran in May practically sailed in, whereas the candidates who ran in September had a true contest that invigorated membership ranks and created buzz around the NPA.

All that buzz around the NPA will not exist if candidates are voted in by the membership six months out from an election. Like last November, the vast majority of the NPA rank and file do not care and will not come out to vote. This is one important reason that instead of voting in candidates this spring, the NPA board should instead open up nominations for seats on council, school and park board. They should leave the membership vote for these candidates until after Labour Day.

However, when it comes to who will run for the NPA’s mayoralty candidate, it would be helpful for prospective NPA candidates to know who might get that job before deciding to run. By knowing who will be the NPA’s mayoral candidate, the organization can better woo strong candidates for council, park and school board.

For example, when Christy Clark faced off against Sam Sullivan in 2005, both camps had at least a couple of months to sell memberships and build their campaign teams. The building excitement about who would win that contest was a critical piece of the NPA’s victory in 2005.

Exactly how and when the NPA chooses their candidate for mayor is open for debate. Candidate selection meetings are a huge drain on party resources, so you really only want to have one gathering if possible. Perhaps the NPA could stagger the deadlines so that mayoralty nominees must be set before the other spots on the slate. For example, the deadline for mayoral nominations could be set by June 15, and all other candidates by July 15.

Another important consideration why the NPA shouldn’t nominate candidates early is because we have no idea what Vision Vancouver’s strategy is. Vision have not yet revealed how they will approve candidates for the 2011 election. We do not know the date of their meeting, nor whether they’ll open up the slate to all comers or provide incumbency protection (something they railed against in 2008). We also do not know how many spots Vision will keep open for COPE, nor do we know if COPE will run a mayoralty candidate.

Not knowing exactly who your opponent will be is a surefire way to lose. I recollect that during 2008 Vision set all their key deadlines for candidate selections until after the NPA had theirs. It was just a good strategy, and you can bet once again they’re waiting to hear when the NPA will announce theirs first.

Another reason to halt plans for more early nominations is the fact that six-month campaigns are needlessly expensive and exhausting. I ran the campaign for an NPA council candidate who was nominated in May 2005. In the end the candidate spent a lot of money and didn’t win. It was grueling work with a high personal cost. If we could have done it all over again I would have strongly urged the candidate to consider running in September and not May.

There are more arguments for stalling the candidate elections, but the NPA board has traditionally not been a very nimble organization. I think as a group representing free enterprisers the NPA board should adopt an important tenet of business, which is to admit when your strategy isn’t working and adapt. Good businesspeople do a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) and develop their strategy from there. Today, the NPA cannot know what many of these factors are.

One could argue that the longer you let the attention remain on Vision Vancouver, their accumulating mistakes will drive more people to the NPA. Vision already have the reputation for creating a sealed fortress around City Hall, and for impregnating the public service with accommodating political friendlies. They are also known as social engineers who are more focused on paying lip service to the environment through ideas like backyard chicken policies.

It's my opinion that Gregor Robertson & Vision are out of step with the majority of Vancouver voters.

The opportunity for the NPA today is to build the very best team possible to take into the 2011 election. Only as the months pass and we get closer to November will we see viable candidates drawn into the NPA fold. To really succeed in November the NPA must have two key strategies:

  • The #1 strategy should be to win six seats on city council. You win six seats then you win government or;
  • The #2 strategy should be to win a minimum four seats on city council. By winning four seats you immediately take away "super-majority" status for mayor and council. All key votes on by-laws, grants and motions for reconsideration require the approval by eight members of council. If you have four NPA city council candidates you take that ability away, and immediately force the government into compromises.

If the NPA simply become more dominant without winning government, then the re-energized NPA opposition must focus on winning it all in 2014.

One of the keys to winning the additional seats on city council – remember this is goal #1 – is keeping your incumbent representative. While Suzanne Anton may be asking herself if running for mayor is in her future, if her commitment is to bring back good governance to the City of Vancouver she would be putting all of her energy into a return to council where the chances of her success are highest.

The NPA must set out with a mission to bring back accountability to City Hall, Park and School Board. A campaign message which asks voters to help the NPA return a strong opposition may have the effect of bringing out more votes. Students of Canadian politics will recall that this "strong opposition" strategy worked for Bob Rae, who did the unthinkable by forming an NDP government in Ontario.

The NPA must also campaign on a message that they will bring back Vancouver’s traditionally non-partisan public service. The NPA have always supported the idea that we need a public service that tells political decision-makers what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. The NPA should tell voters that they will promise a full review of all senior management appointments during Vision Vancouver’s term, in order to ensure that the work of building our city is not tainted by partisan politics.

Vancouver’s NPA have a real chance at expanding their influence over the affairs of the city, provided they are strategic. There are many citizens who are desperately looking for an alternative to vote for next November that isn’t Vision Vancouver or COPE. Winning will require adopting some of the tactics of successful past elections, such as delaying the nomination of candidates.

As things wind down on the provincial leadership contests, we might see Vancouver’s most experienced centre-right political operatives turn their attention back to civic politics. With their influence the NPA will make the right calculations on who to run, and when to ask the membership to choose their candidates.

- post by Mike

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