You’ll likely hear a lot of talk from Conservatives over the next few weeks about their “grassroots.”
Trevor Taylor, for one mentioned them twice last week when talking about the aftermath of the Coleman fiasco. The Conservatives need a contest that will “mobilize” the grassroots, according to Taylor. They need a leader who can “connect with the grassroots.”
The only problem for Trevor is that the party doesn’t have any grassroots.
No party in the province really does.
The parties got rid of membership as such decades ago. The Conservative party constitution talks about members and what they get to do but in practice, the party doesn’t have any members. Those are the people who used to sit on district associations, go to policy conventions, and do all the other things that went with membership in a political party. Having membership in the party actually meant something: members got to do things others in the community couldn’t do.
But not any more.
The party does have a group of people who do those sorts of things now, but they are nowhere near as many of them as there used to be. And given that the party holds nominations in which anyone can vote, there’s basically no way to distinguish a Conservative “grassroot” from any other kinds of grass in the province.
The Conservatives have political staff, of course. Those people used to count for something too.
But not any more.
Not since Tom Marshall put the fear of God in all of them. yes, that’s right. Not Frank Coleman. And not Danny Williams as some people are thinking.
Nice, cuddly, Tom Marshall.
Unceremoniously kicked all but a couple of people who worked faithfully for the party – in some cases since 2003 – and kicked them to the curb as crudely and as insultingly as you could do it. The shock of that has reverberated through the crowd on the Hill, just as it did when Tom Rideout did the same stupid in 25 years ago.
Those people certainly need some healing. Maybe a new leader will be able to restore some confidence in them. But will it be enough to get them to work tirelessly in the next election?
Odds are good that some of them will do as the Liberal communications directors did before the 2003 election. Some of them opted out of the campaign so that they would have an easier time going to work for the Conservatives after the election. It worked too, especially for the ones who were personal friends of Liz Matthews. They got taken back and, in some cases, they did phenomenally well for themselves re-born as Conservatives. They took to their partisan jobs (they are only non-political in name only) with all the gusto of the converted.
While reinvigoration would be nice, there are a few things working against the Conservatives.
The first problem the Conservatives face is admitting that they really are mid-way up Shit Creek. Clearly neither Trevor nor his pal Stephen Dinn have hoisted that on board. Their comments on the revamped On Point (linked above) made that clear. One of the big things Dinn wanted the new leader to do was “trumpet the accomplishments of the past 12 years.
The Conservatives have been doing that relentlessly for the past dozen years. Since Dinn’s old boss did a runner in 2010, the Conservatives met every drop in the polls with an even more intense trumpeting of the glory days.
The polls kept sliding.
The definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result than you’ve gotten the last gazillion times. Taking Stephen Dinn’s advice would be the new benchmark for stupidity.
And that leads us naturally to the second problem:
Drowning in Virginia Waters
Best example of how more of the same doesn’t work for the Conservatives was Virginia Waters.
They didn’t tie that one.
The Conservatives lost.
Or to be really pointed about it: Danny lost.
And here’s a tidbit for people who missed it: lots of Conservative voters - loyal, consistent Conservative voters - decided they had better things to do that day than vote at all. They were so fried at the shenanigans in the party they usually support that they stayed away from the polls.
More of the same?
Not a good idea.
What’s more, the loss in Virginia Waters shook the confidence of political workers in the Conservative Party. That’s why the Friday Night Massacre had an even bigger impact than it might have otherwise. Having Taylor and Dinn dismiss the work in the Premier’s Office as so unimportant that they didn’t need the jobs staffed, only tells the gang in the Government Member’s office and in other places that lots of these guys running the party don’t give a rat’s behind for them. Trev and Steve may not have meant that, but that’s the message they sent.
The Secret of Life…and Comedy
The leadership contest does offer the chance for the candidates to attract some new people to the Conservative Party. But don’t count on it.
The last time around, even with a fight between Coleman and Bill Barry before Barry bailed, the candidates were not getting huge crowds. If those guys were the A-List candidates, then that experience doesn’t hold much hope that B- and C-Listers now coming forward will do much better.
Then there’s the timing problem, which is Problemo Number Three.
The candidates have got to try and find new supporters in July and August during the holiday months when people want to tune out from politics and usually do. Da byes have got about three of the worst months imaginable to create some kind of energy in the hope of capturing some attention that might draw some new people to the party.
It’s not impossible but it will be hard.
With the leadership over by mid-September, the first attention will go to making a new cabinet.
There’s your fourth problem, errr, challenge.
Unless the new leader appoints a bunch of new faces from completely outside the House, the new cabinet will look pretty much like the old cabinet.
So much for renewal.
A Summer By-Election
Regardless of who wins the leadership, the Conservatives have to run a by-election in St. George’s – Stephenville East while the leadership is on the go.
With the party’s experienced campaign people working on the leaderships, the party will be very hard pressed to fight the by-election. If they spend time on the by-election, the party will have to bleed resources from the leadership.
Liberals will likely be sending Joan Shea a nice fruit basket as thanks for her help. She couldn’t have screwed her old friends in the Conservative caucus any more thoroughly if she tried… harder.
That’s only slightly ahead of Problem Six:
Then a Fall By-Election or two
If the leader doesn’t have a seat in the House, he or she will need one in a hurry. Tom Marshall’s Humber seat is the most obvious. While Gerry Byrne may not have wanted to take on Frank Coleman, he may be more willing to defeat John Ottenheimer, for example.
If the new leader brings in any cabinet ministers from outside the House, they’ll need seats. That means more by-elections. The Conservatives could wind up facing a bunch of by-elections between now and Christmas.
That would be Problem Seven: the sequential by-elections.
No House until Spring
The more things the Conservatives have to do over the next six months, the more likely it will be that the House won’t sit in the Fall. That’s not necessarily a problem although it will make it much harder for them to create a sense of change if things just keep on going from the spring. But we’ll call it Problem Eight, anyway.
And remember, that lack of visible renewal was a problem already . They’d decided in January just to plough on without giving the new leader the opportunity to shift anything in the calendar. When things stay the same, with the same old faces, then things don’t change
And change is really what the Conservatives need if they have a hope in hell of doing anything but save the clothes on their backs come the next election.
Saving the furniture, as David Cochrane put it this weekend, would wind up being an excise in optimism.