Jenni Byrne is vice-president of strategic communications for Bayfield Strategy.
Ten years ago this past weekend, Stephen Harper was sworn in as prime minister of Canada, leading the Conservatives to victory on a wave of change.
In the Conservatives’ wake was left a weakened and divided Liberal Party that had allowed its local riding associations to atrophy and die on the vine, with no money and no organization. It took the Liberals a decade to rebuild.
As Conservatives look to 2019, it is important to remember how strong the party actually is. The party didn’t lose the last election because it was ill-prepared or lacked a strong organization. The Liberals won because Canadians had an overwhelming desire for change, the extent to which wasn’t fully appreciated until after the campaign had started.
The 2015 election had been different than the past six national campaigns I worked on – two as national campaign manager and two as deputy chief of staff. Never had the desire for change been so great.
Going into this campaign, the party knew it was up against its biggest challenge yet: two likeable opposition leaders with credible teams, a media thirsty for blood (more so than usual), and the baggage of some unpopular policy decisions.
As is always done, the party worked hard to build local campaign teams, including training more than 4,000 key organizers, the most ever trained for a campaign. The party also developed new tools, such as the CIMS-to-Go smartphone app that allowed volunteers to carry one of the most advanced voter databases in the world in their pockets. And local campaigns were provided more resources than ever before.
When it comes to the ground game, nobody does it better than Conservatives. Just look at the record on by-elections, in which the party won every seat it was in contention in, and even won seats it wasn’t expected to.
In this election, the party accomplished what it needed to achieve on the ground. More Conservative supporters were identified than ever before, and the party got them out to vote. In fact, many defeated Conservative candidates, such as Brad Butt in the Ontario riding of Mississauga-Streetsville, received more votes in this election than they did in 2011 when they won.
Despite the challenges faced in this election, the Conservatives still managed to get 5.6 million votes, only a fraction off of the 5.8 million received in 2011 – and, in fact, earned more votes in this election than it did when it formed government in 2006 (5.4 million) and 2008 (5.2 million).
Organizationally, the party continued to outperform the other parties. But having the strongest organization isn’t enough when the desire for change becomes insurmountable.
In Atlantic Canada, the changes to employment insurance proved very unpopular, leaving people feeling the party was against them. Despite the strong winds of change, local campaigns still performed well. Central Nova candidate Fred DeLorey identified more than 11,000 supporters and got them out to vote – a 100 per cent success rate. But the desire for change was too great – and the party lost every seat in the region.
Another key factor that led to the Conservatives’ defeat was that the party needed the NDP to do well. With the NDP rising in the polls for the first half of the campaign, Stephen Harper was well-positioned to be re-elected.
Having argued since 2011 that the NDP were never our main opponent, including making the internally unpopular decision of dismantling our NDP unit that was tasked with tracking and attacking that party, I lost the argument to others who felt they were the more serious threat.
The decision during the campaign to turn our guns on the NDP was a mistake. They were never the party’s enemy. The final straw was when the party went after the NDP on the niqab issue. It crushed the NDP in Quebec, but it also removed them as a viable alternative in the rest of the country, something Conservatives needed them to be.
The collapse of the NDP had a profound impact. Former Mississauga MP Stella Ambler increased her vote total from the previous election, but couldn’t win when NDP supporters in her riding went to the Liberals, even though the Liberal candidate barely ran a campaign. Similarly, former Richmond Hill MP Costas Menegakis increased his vote total and percentage of the vote – but with the NDP losing 75 per cent of its vote, he had no chance of retaining the seat.
Ten years ago, the Conservative Party formed government on a wave of change, aided by a weakened and disorganized Liberal Party. Today’s Conservative Party is nothing like the Liberal Party of 2006. If it remains united, keeps the organization strong, continues to train and motivate volunteers, raises money, and offers a sound alternative to this Liberal government, the fundamentals to a Conservative victory in the next election are there.
Of course, the alternative could also be true. If the Conservative Party doesn’t focus on the issues that matter and affect Canadians, maintain local organizations and build on strong campaign fundamentals, it could be years in the wilderness.Report Typo/Error