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Should local riding associations be doing more in between elections to get their point of view out to the public?

I don’t often do a lot of “wonkish” blogposts on here with regards to the inner workings of a political party and whether something (like the political culture of the members) should be changed or not, but in light of a recent situation, I thought I’d do such a post on the topic today.

Basic background: in the riding where I currently live, I was asked by one of the Liberal riding association members to help redesign their website. No big deal, but when they asked me for suggestions on what they could put on it for content, one of the things I said was “Well, if you folks send out press releases attacking (local Conservative MP) for something he’s said/done, or if you’re rebutting something he says when he attacks Liberals, you can always put your press release here at the website so people can read it”

The reply to that question surprised me: “What press releases?”

Apparently, there is no one in the local organization – not the President of the Liberal riding association or anyone else – who goes out to do that sort of thing to try and keep the Liberals of the riding in the public eye, or to try and make make sure the local riding knows what our point of view is on a topic that the local Conservative MP is putting forth on his website, and in releases to the news.

I decided to do some inquiries to other Liberals to find out if this is the same in their riding where the incumbent MP is not a Liberal, and I’m being told its all too common that its very silent when there is no election campaign going on: that the EDA’s (Electoral District Associations – a fancy term the Liberals use to describe local ridings – ie. the EDA of Oxford) are more or less just “coffee clubs for Liberals who have no one else to bitch with” – to quote one person who I asked.

In my view, I would think the President of my local riding association should be watching what the local Conservative MP does like a hawk; what he says in public to the press, and at his website. The President or the designated spokesperson of the local riding should be issuing rebuttals or statements to the media whenever he says or does stuff we Liberals don’t agree with. I believe you really need to pay attention to those MP’s and their ridings, and aggressively try to get messaging out against them.

If you’re wondering where I’m coming from on this, I’ve seen how each local Democratic or Republican committees in each congressional district that isn’t represented by them does this all the time. Sometimes they’re reactive (releasing a counter-point to a Congresspersons press release) and sometimes they’re proactive (attacking a congressperson for a specific position, or not taking a position). I think the Liberals would be well served as a party if our EDA’s would do that up here on a consistent basis as well – not just during an election campaign, but between elections. Call it the perpetual campaign if you will. In my view, we need our EDA’s to be doing that; particularly in non-Liberal ridings with smaller media markets (such as Oxford). The local media might not publish every press release that gets sent them all the time, but often they’re looking for news stories to fill their papers or their air time, and they eat stuff like that up.

Maybe our EDA’s and/or the President of those EDA’s has to pay more attention to the news cycle, but forgive me for not being sympathetic if they whine about having to do that; they’re trying to get our party elected to that riding after all. This is far from a difficult thing to monitor; Google is certainly very good in looking for their political rival in the local media (plus of course any website the person may have for their constituency).

I’m curious about how quiet or how active local riding associations in opposition-held ridings (particularly the Conservative ones are) so I’d be interested to hear from any Liberal member (whether by email to me or posting a comment here ) if they belong to a riding whose local Liberal association is vigorously active in making sure the Liberal POV gets out against the local MP.. particularly a Conservative one.

For that matter, if any other member of a political party such as the NDP has examples of their local riding association being vigorously active in between elections trying to counter the local MP’s message with their messaging, (ie. issuing press releases to the local media whenever the incumbent MP in the riding says something they disagree with), feel free to write in as well. It may very well be that this is a common occurrence with all political parties here in Canada, and that the political culture is different up here then in the US with regards to engaging in that “perpetual” or permanent campaign (though I suspect the Conservatives are the closest to emulating it).

From my point of view, I think that political culture needs to be changed – and I would particularly like to see it from the Liberal Party, since the Conservatives are on constant “opposition-like” attack mode against us. I think the Liberal Presidents of our Electoral District associations who are in ridings not held by Liberals (in particular, those held by Conservative MP’s, since they are the government party) should be “encouraged” (or perhaps mandated) to be more active in between elections in making sure a rival party incumbent MP’s messaging to the local riding does not go unchallenged.

UPDATE @ 4:39 pm: an interesting point from a Liberal who wished to remain anonymous:

I won’t emphasize on what has already been said in the comments of your posts, but the challenge is great because of the volunteer positions. But, one thing that I haven’t seen from anyone is the “clique” nature of riding associations. In essence, an individual who wants to get involved with his riding association but “never hears back from them”. Sometimes it is because of the lack of a good riding association from top to bottom (I have a friend who is president of a riding association in Qu├ębec, he is active as a riding president but has rarely found more than 20 people interested in an event at one time), but in most cases, the riding association are simply not interested in getting new people, who may change the dynamics of the association or change the small power that a riding exec. has. This is greater in unheld ridings because there are no MPs to speak on behalf of the Liberal Party, and the riding president is sometimes not even interested in electing a Liberal MP to see their power in that riding diminish.

UPDATE 2 @ 10:31 pm: Now this is a bit different. This email comes from a Liberal (again wishing to remain anonymous) talking about an EDA that HAS a sitting Liberal MP, but also in his mind has issues:

I find that my EDA is more like a fanclub and no one but the sitting MP has a political opinion. Sure they gather feedback from members on what matters but to have a discussion that is two way — only happens with the MP. There is a disconnect between (name of area) staff and here. (This area) is more political but it is the MP’s opinions not theirs. Its all spin. He has to stay on Message and you can’t risk the staff and exec of EDA to say something that could be taken as the MP’s opinion if it is different. Only on the policy committee did I find that we can actually converse on issues but then it is still very high level.

11 comments to Should local riding associations be doing more in between elections to get their point of view out to the public?

  • Past 3 years i have been an active member of riding executive – non-held, barely competitive riding. We would meet monthly, make plans, but as noted the # of members willing/available to commit to the projects often left things undone. We’re talking things of varying importance, like christmas card mailings, membership renewal, summer functions etc.
    It always came down to leadership – our pres was quite organized and willing to delegate, but he is also often not interested in sharing any more of the responsibility. On many occasions it is completely understandable. I suggested a couple of projects that i was willing to lead – forming an issues-related letter-writing/discussion group (the NdP are very present here via this). Unfortunately, that fell flat with the other members. I also suggested that we initiate a grassroots membership drive, starting with current membership (100 or so), where each exec member would get 10 names and would be in charge of contacting them. This was well received but, after a disagreement with the president on another issue (he wanted the exec to record addresses of provincial election signs and proceed with a campaign to accumulate possible sign locations for the next election) the idea of contacting even just the current membership fell apart.
    I think it all depends upon leadership. As Jeff noted, one does not have to be the face of the Liberal party to jab away at CON blunders/platforms, whether in the media or in public. But it also takes energy, which seems to be in short supply. Perhaps its because we’re all conserving for the next minority-gov’t election?

  • kelsey

    What’s most depressing about my EDA is that it consists of a few people sitting around a coffee table if we’re lucky. We can’t even find people willing to run because the stigmatization of being labeled a “Liberal” is so great here. How do you recruit volunteers when everyone feels so ashamed to admit to being a Liberal?

  • Christina Dawn Monroe

    Well I know how much it frustrates me, I sit on the executive here in Western Arctic. I am the policy chair. We have had challenges from the fall out of the after math of a long term sitting mp. After 5 terms our mp was turfed 2006. It became my stepping stone in 2007 to become active with the Liberal Party again. I had not had much to do with the party after moving to Yellowknife in 1999 and finding myself without an in to the association. The people there were ones who worked with the mp and never worked to build the organization as an independent entity. I became active and joined the executive in February 2008.

    We have had challenges with finding a candidate, and came late into the game a week after writ was dropped in 2008. We had been working hard as a group to find a candidate sucking the vast majority or our collective resources. Comparitively the conservative party had a candidate in place over a year in advance, and although they did not release a lot of press releases there was a candidate to get a sound bite on every issue. Our mp is a NDP who had previously lost 2 times to the liberal mp, and has been ineffectual as an mp, and has not done a lot in within the community other than photo opportunities and quarterly newsletters. The man has not pissed anyone off though, and that has hurt us liberal’s. People are unlikely to turf someone who has not pissed them off. At least up here where it is not always about party affiliation but the person running. We have no territorial political parties, we have consensus government. I could go on forever why that is a bad idea, but another time. It basically does not help people who do not have exposure to the idea that a party has it’s own agenda. Just because you like the conservative guy as a person or worked with him you vote for him you are saying you want the same ideals that are held by the party as a whole. It can be like hitting your head against a brick wall.

    Number one most annoying thing is not having a candidate. Once you have one you can not make the association be only about them. It is hard to get members engaged. We have made a committee and have made objectives for the association to be able to stand on it’s own two feet. With or without and mp or a candidate. We have hosted policy workshops, and made a point to meet with the northern critic to ensure our voice is heard. We have had several small events with every liberal mp who has come up to the north for other business, and then reported back to our members. We hosted a sign making party to replace our old sign frames as no one wants to be making those if we have a winter election. We still need to work on getting a website up and running, and meet the targets or our action plan. We are trying to host at least 2 other general meetings a year other than the agm to report what we are doing, and engage our members. We did send the largest amount of delegates to the convention of the 3 territories. We did spend our time there networking and doing our best to learn and get the most out of what was offered to us there. I spend a great deal of my time reading and reporting back what is going on both locally and on the national scene and have been working the social media like FB to make connections and read what other liberal’s are thinking and saying. Heck I even tried the en famillie website and follow what liberal’s are saying on there.

    We are trying, we want help, there is no best practices guide to help. I have found that there are people out there writing them. They are willing to share.

    I wish the LPC would send out more people to help us, but until they do I work my ass off going to weekly executive meetings, hosting events that no matter how small make the members here feel engaged.

    We all need to work harder, regardless because frankly we can not take another conservative government.

  • Good Call. More voices and more turbulence to bring some air into the room so the party does not become a machine that runs in its sleep. Riding associations need to act like real people seeking their own authentic voice and perspective. They need to make noise. Is ee no needs to criticize but I do see a need for authentic experience and communication.

  • Chris S.

    I agree with Sean S., however I don’t think EDAs being run by volunteers is a good reason for them to be totally silent. Surely there must be a workable medium between dead to the world and EDA war room.

  • newsjunkie

    Sean S. raises an important point about volunteers. In the US, there is typically a district/city office for the local party with a few professional staff. The staff serve candidates for all levels of government. In the UK, parties have professional “agents” in battleground constituencies. Not so in Canada.

  • The problem, Scott, is that riding presidents aren’t really mandated to speak on broader political issues and events outside of those involving the riding association directly. It would be like Alf Apps speaking for the Liberal Party on policy.

    The other problem is that most Conservative MPs are so woefully uninvolved in their own ridings that it would be difficult to find anything to criticize them on that had a specific local impact. Or maybe I’m just thinking of Lisa…

    In general, I’d have to agree with Sean – get candidates to speak for the party on the riding level. Riding presidents are administrative and do not represent us in the same way as a candidate. But that doesn’t mean that EDAs shouldn’t be more active and public about their activities – just in a more positive way rather than simply attacking the incumbent.

    • @Jennifer Smith, If there is an elected in candidate in place, sure. But most often (and particularly during a 4-5 year majority government) there won’t be.

      They should try to keep on message generally, but the riding president is absolutely empowered to speak to the media, on behalf of the association, about local issues, party policy, and the job performance of the incumbent. It happens in many ridings all the time. And they’re elected by the riding members, so they do have a mandate.

      What would also be helpful, though, is to revive the twinning program (pairing unheld ridings with caucus members) and engage the twin MP to do media outreach, with the riding briefing them on local issues, and having the MP do local press too.

      When I lived in a rural, little-hope riding, we knew we weren’t going to get any help from the powers that be though. We knew if we wanted to get anything done, we had to go out and do it ourselves. And so we did.

  • In held ridings the MP’s office will generally run lead, but in unheld ridings you should have a communications director/VP communications that runs lead on this, in coordination with the president. Its the VP comms who should be cranking-out press releases and coordinating letter-writing campaigns.

    Of course, that will vary from riding to riding, and the time and energy people have. Most unheld ridings don’t do much from an external comms pov. But its unfortunate, because it can be effective. Local small-town media will generally be quite receptive. These guys are usually starved for content, and if its well-written and compelling all the better. When I was comms chair of my riding in small-town BC, I had great success getting earned media for our EDA, generally a few hits a month.

    So if your riding isn’t active in this area, my advice would be to just get involved and offer to help.

  • Sean S.

    Let’s be fair here Scott – most people on EDA’s/riding associations/whatever you want to call them work full-time and don’t really have the time to constantly be tuned-in to news cycles. I know, I’ve been there as both an Exec member and riding president.

    Should more be done – sure, but when most Riding’s not having an incumbent are trying to raise money, keep in touch with the membership and build capacity – media doesn’t rank high on the list.

    I’ve always argued that ridings should have their candidates nominated ASAP so that person can shoulder the public face of the party and let the association do the behind-the-scenes work. Get out and door-knock, goto events, get your face out there and known. Sadly, we don’t do that here.

    Frankly, I wouldn’t want to be involved in a riding association that had a culture change to something like the US…it gets tiring pretty quickly. There is a reason why most Ridings have maybe 5-10 Exec members – the same members, year after year. They can only do so much with so little.

  • Chris S.

    Absolutely. Even in electoral districts when the incumbent *is* Liberal, more should be done. I base this opinion on the fact that so many fellow Liberals have long lamented the fact that their association rarely engages their members, let alone the public, outside of their annual general meetings and writ period. Whether this habit is the result of over a decade of complacency or has other reasons, it is a gross impediment to attracting and exciting new and existing Liberals across the country. It needs to change if we want to continue our vector towards a renewed and stronger national party.

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