Party leader must tick the right boxes

January 20, 2020

Party leader must tick the right boxes

In 见解

Written by Robin V. Sears for the Toronto Star. Click here to read the original.

It is always surprising there is such a wide gap between what journalist outsiders think goes into becoming a successful leader and what the partisans who must choose look for.

You must be able to win over these activists, local leadership and, crucially, caucus members to move from convention fluke victor to long-term success. The first ingredient they assess is always culture. Does the leadership aspirant breathe the political culture of the tribe? Do they understand some of its history, ancient wounds, preferred vocabulary and shared mythology?

For progressives this must start with medicare’s inviolability and sacred place. You must also have a deep conviction that fairness matters more than order, hierarchy or material success.

For progressive conservatives — that strange Canadian offshoot of British “One Nation” Toryism — you must be skeptical about both the state and the market, and about the promotion of rapid change of any type. For Harperite conservatives you must believably swear to the sacred place of balanced budgets and lower taxes.

For Conservatives, the leader who failed at this first hurdle was Kim Campbell. Seen as an outsider, speaking a very mixed political dialect, and not respectful of party history or elders, she was doomed from the start.

The second box is a demonstrated ability to move minds and shift political loyalties. Few partisans choose a leader to “save the furniture,” and when they do, they usually fail at even that low bar. You want a leader who has the ability to clobber the other guy. It’s not the same as charisma — that overworked term of art that afflicts much political journalism — it’s toughness, persuasiveness, broad appeal, etc.

Such a loser was Michael Ignatieff. For a party down so low, the search was for someone who could at least prevent a further slide.

Thomas Mulcair was equally indigestible for many New Democrats. He would never be Jack, but he might be able to hold the line, was the prayer. A Quebec Liberal by formation, he had no progressive vocabulary or sensitivity to its mythology. Happy to be seen more as an angry enforcer than a persuader, a leader who spent half his week in Montreal, and all to rarely available to the faithful across Canada, he was the most disastrous leader the party has elected.

The third essential is believable conviction. Political vacillation in public you may be able to get away with tactically, but if your party is not convinced of your values and your commitment to them, you will fail.

Andrew Scheer was never a believable representative of modern social conservatism to its adherents, nor was he believably a leader committed to tolerance and inclusion to most Canadians.

Only once you have ticked those boxes in the hearts of a large chunk of your activist members can you then safely move to focus on the public attributes, which outsiders see as the acid tests.

Do you have a track record of success? Not as important as pundits believe: Jack Layton and both Trudeaus had very thin federal political CVs when they were chosen.

Are you a compelling Commons fighter, TV adept, and debater? Yes, the ability to perform persuasively is essential. Does anyone really believe that the robotically partisan Pierre Poilievre would be a more likeable, persuasive, compelling counter to Justin Trudeau or Jagmeet Singh in public debate? It appears as if there will not be a strong woman candidate, which is a real weakness in 2020.

It is this division between the internal and the external capabilities that makes a party’s choices so tough. Poilievre could win the internal tests hands down. Jean Charest would have a harder time than him in ticking the party culture and strong conviction boxes, given his long and complex career. But could he thump the two opposing leaders better than Poilievre? Are you kidding?

So that division may mean a path to success for someone who straddles the inside and outside tests more successfully, perhaps Peter Mackay or Erin O’Toole. But therein lies another rub. The compromise candidate — Andrew Scheer, Stéphane Dion — can sometimes be the worst choice of all.

As the Tory contest unfolds, the only horse race predictions worth listening to are those who have served in the party trenches, who are more committed to the survival and success of the tribe than to any one candidate, and who are themselves representative of mainstream Tory culture and conviction.

Journalists, pollsters, and political opponents claims of predictive powers deserve a far more skeptical hearing. Including this one.

Robin V. Sears is a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and was an NDP strategist for 20 years. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robinvsears