Do Conservatives want to win leadership campaigns or elections?
Article originally published in The Star
Politics is often lampooned as “Hollywood, but for ugly people.” That may true, given the propensity actors in both have for fame, scandal, and an occasional outsized sense of self-importance, but there’s a better comparison available.
Politics is sports, for the unathletic. Politics has teams, fans, and at its core, success is defined by winning or losing. That doesn’t mean it should be treated like a game.
In sports it’s OK to oppose the other team simply for being the other team, because it is just a game. In politics, vilifying your opponents simply for being your opponents is a dangerous path to a place where ideological divisions impede progress and fracture society.
Caveats aside, professional sports holds lessons that political parties would do well to learn. Specifically, the Conservative Party of Canada should consider lessons on winning and losing as they search for a new party leader.
For the third consecutive election, the party leader during the election is out only a few months after the election. The Conservative Party of Canada will go through its third leadership campaign in five years. Such turnover in the sports world is never the sign of a franchise on the road to success.
In sports, there are teams that do well in the regular season, but never seem to win in the playoffs. Beyond our decades of disappointment, Maple Leafs fans bear the emotional scars of finishing near the top of the standings the last few seasons, only to prematurely exit the Stanley Cup playoffs with a first-round loss.
If you consider the leadership campaign the regular season, and a general election the playoffs, the parallels for Conservatives start to become evident.
A successful leadership race should result in new memberships across the country, an increase in fundraising, ongoing attention from the media, and culminate in the election of a leader that caucus and the members are excited to follow into an election.
The party has checked those boxes during its last leadership campaigns. The party and the leader looked ready to compete in the playoffs of a federal election campaign.
Then they lost.
If the Conservative party wants to form government again, perhaps they should consider how they are building their team. Instead of choosing a leader who can get their base excited, shouldn’t they be looking for someone who can get the country excited?
Highly skilled teams often realize players with more grit are needed to win a championship. They come to understand that the intensity of the playoffs needs a different skill set than the regular season.
A candidate must win a leadership campaign to be able to lead the party in an election, but if winning the leadership scuttles their chances with vast swaths of the electorate in a general election, was their leadership campaign really a success?
Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole both won leadership campaigns largely with the support of social conservatives, and maybe that is the only way remaining for any candidate to win the party’s leadership. However, in a country where most voters are closer to the centre of the political spectrum, it wasn’t hard to predict apprehension from the general electorate who do not share social conservative views.
Sports offers another lesson for Conservatives in the difference between coaches and players. A team that doesn’t win, will eventually fire its coach — the theory being that you can’t fire all the players. If a new person at the helm doesn’t bring about a change in fortune, eventually, the team does effectively fire all the players and enter a rebuilding stage.
The Conservative team has had a different coach — Harper, Scheer, and O’Toole — for each of the last three elections, and lost all three. It might be time to consider looking at the players — the coalition of Conservative voters — and ask if winning again means this is the moment to rebuild their roster.