Strategic Thoughts

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January 19, 2006

The MP's Job

There are three qualifications needed to succeed as a Member of Parliament: 1) winning a nomination, 2) getting elected and 3) doing the job. The hardest part about getting elected is winning a nomination for a party that stands a chance in any given riding. The 2006 election shows that even that rule may not always be valid as Liberals will probably go down to defeat in what were previously considered "safe" Liberal seats; nevertheless, running for the party that finished second in a constituency in the last election or, better yet, becoming a party's candidate in a riding where the incumbent is retiring after winning for years, is over half of what it takes to start a successful political career. That is why nomination fights are so nasty in "winnable seats" and dull or non-existent in others. That is also why some parties make extra effort to assist women and minorities preparing for nominations in winnable constituencies.

Getting elected is a simple matter of winning the most votes under our first-past-the-post system. That would change if proportional representation were adopted. Successful election campaigns for the major parties are very complicated; just ask the Liberals, who seem to have been abandoned by strategists with the know-how. Campaigns consist of the central campaign focused around the leader, and the constituency campaigns. The central campaign includes the leader's tour (daily announcements and the campaign bus and plane), the "air war" (television and radio advertising), polling, research and central support for local efforts (for example, help with questionnaires). The local campaigns usually focus on voter identification for the purpose of getting supporters out on election-day (e-day). Successful voter identification and e-day campaigns require hundreds of volunteers. Endless door-knocking and phoning is all about being able to pull the vote when it counts. Some local campaigns may restrict their efforts to attending all candidate meetings, putting up signs, distributing leaflets, placing local advertisements, fund-raising and responding to inquires from potential voters - all essential elements for any campaign, but not a replacement for the essential e-day "ground war" that gets identified support to the polls.

Participating in nomination contests and election campaigns is not easy but it can be very exciting. The hard part comes for the poor devil who wins; suddenly it becomes necessary to consider what the job of MP actually involves. For someone from BC it means weeks away from home, like the life of a traveling sales agent or a long distance trucker. When home it means attending as many local functions and meetings as possible and acting as an advocate for local constituents, both in terms of delivering community grants and in terms of representing aggrieved individuals. That can be all there is for many MPs; they may never see a cabinet room or participate in forming public policy. The skills it takes to do that are not learned in winning elections. Advocacy groups and the media can have more influence on public policy than any MP, which is why effective MPs need to learn how to work with the media and community groups. It is why more New Democrat MPs can be more effective than another member of the government whether it is minority or not.


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