19 May 2014

The left-wing conservatives #nlpoli

In 2010,  the provincial Conservatives had a chance to reinvigorate their party in time for the 2011 general election.  They deliberately stuck with an interim leader in order to avoid what they considered a potentially divisive leadership contest.

After the 2011 election, the Conservatives kept Kathy Dunderdale, even though she’s made it clear when Danny Williams quit in 2010 that she was planning to retire and had no further political agenda or objectives of her own.

Kathy Dunderdale finally decided to retire in 2014.  The Conservatives had a second chance to reinvigorate their party.  They chose to pass on the chance, opting for a leader picked by some sort of back-room deal.

Frank Coleman has proven to be a spectacular political failure.  He clearly lacks the knowledge of the province and the political skills one would expect of a rookie, let alone someone who is strolling, unelected, into the most powerful political office in the province.

The result has been that the Conservatives deliberately avoided giving themselves all the publicity,  the competition, and the excitement that would come from a genuine leadership.  What they’ve had instead is Frank Coleman wandering aimlessly around the province, meeting with a handful of people here or there and generally stirring no interest at all. 

To give you a sense of how unsuccessful the Coleman leadership has been for the Conservative renewal,  consider that he held a free meet and greet at a large hall in his hometown last week.  About 100 people showed up.  In St. John’s meanwhile, more than 500 people paid $500 a plate to hear Liberal leader Dwight Ball speak.

The Conservatives seem to to working under the assumption that the Liberal dominance in the polls these days is an illusion. The hard-core Conservatives seem to think that, despite a dinner at which the Liberals raised a quarter of a million dollars in a single shot,  that the party’s $600,000 debt will hinder it from waging a strong campaign.   The Conservative faithful seem to think that if they just keeping doing what they have always done, without changing anything, then people will flock back and they’ll easily win a third majority government.

It’s all self-delusion, of course.  What makes the self-delusion so bizarre for anyone who isn’t caught up in the partisan head space is that everything since the 2011 election has shown that public opinion shifted decisively. People moved first to the New Democrats and then the Liberals. The Conservatives kept doing the same thing.  People didn’t flock back to the Tory fold.

In fact, quite the opposite.  The Conservatives seem to be in that hideous place where they could announce that they’ve discovered a  cure for cancer. People would thank them, out of courtesy, and then tell them to get the hell out any way.  Once public opinion turns against a party, it is often hard to get it to turn back, especially if the party doesn’t change anything about its policies, look, leadership or members.

The province’s New Democrats had a meeting over the holiday weekend.  They held a vote about leadership.  Seventy-five percent of the 125 delegates at the meeting voted against having a leadership review.  They’ve kept Lorraine Michael.

That’s not surprising, really.  They had the big split last fall.  The party had two groups. One group felt the party needed to do more to get ready for the next election. That included finding a new leader to replace Lorraine Michael.  Michael refused to go and so two members of her caucus and a bunch of other aggressive back-room types bailed out.  The dissidents left.  The people who stayed with the party were a bunch of people who think that if they keep everything just as it is, then the NDP will be just fine come election time. 

F9or her part, Michael sang a different song to the delegates.  She admitted she made some mistakes last fall. “Maybe the most serious was not to hear concerns in the caucus and the party on how to move forward,” the Telegram quoted her telling delegates.  That’s a big change even from the week before when she continued to blame Dale Kirby and Christopher Mitchelmore for the damage the NDP has suffered.

Whether Lorraine is genuinely contrite, whether she genuinely understands the party is in the current mess as a result of her leadership, doesn’t matter.  The New Democrats are stuck with her. and they’ve got to keep going, regardless.

Both the Conservatives and New Democrats are in a curiously similar spot even if they got their by different routes.  With the leadership settled, each of the parties has no way of drumming up the sort of popular interest in what the party is doing that a leadership ruckus can generate. The NDP convention thing is done. They don’ t have any meetings or announcements to work with.  The Conservatives will hold a convention in July, right after Canada Day. Without a contest, there’s not much they could do to compete with the summer for public attention.

Both parties also have internal organisational weaknesses that showed up rather dramatically in the by-elections in Harbour Grace and Virginia Waters.  In Harbour Grace, the NDP had nothing and performed dismally.  In Virginia Waters, they had a high profile candidate.  Like the Conservatives, the NDP were fighting in an area where they are strong and where they could pull workers readily from neighbouring districts.  For all that, the NDP still came in third and really weren’t in serious contention.

Clinging to the status quo is not something you’d expect from the two political parties that are in second and third place in the polls heading toward an election some time in the next 12 months or so.  Yet that is exactly what the Conservatives and New Democrats are doing. Take you pick which party is taking the biggest gamble. The Conservatives are in power and are currently running a distant second behind the Liberals, according to CRA polling.  If they want to sit on the opposition benches next year, they seem to be doing the right thing.

The New Democrats are currently in third place, having dropped from the top of the polls in 2012.  You can get a sense of their decline from this chart of CRA polling results, adjusted to show party choice as a share of all valid responses.  The colour of the line corresponds to the colour of the party. This chart is from December 2013, incidentally.   The February 2014 CRA poll results showed party support to be about the same.
CRA Q4-13 no UND
Striking, isn’ it?

It’s also baffling.  Baffling that the two parties who clearly need to change their standing in the polls aren’t doing anything to change. 

To put this in terms of seats in the House of Assembly,  take a look seat projections based on the March 2014 CRA poll results.

28 Liberal seats.

Eight Conservatives.

Three New Democrats.

Grey means the district was too close to call.

This particular projection didn’t consider the impact – if any  - you might find if the incumbents changed parties. It’s possible that in St. John’s North, for example, the seat would go red since Dale Kirby left the New Democrats and joined the Liberals.  Ditto Mount Pearl South, where Paul Lane abandoned the Conservatives for the Liberals. In itself, that’s a striking contrast to the middle of 2012 when the New Democrats could have looked forward to a minority government. 

There doesn’t look like much chance of that happening these days and yet it’s exactly the future New Democrats appear to have picked over the weekend,  moving forward.