Sunday, October 13, 2013

Leading the evidence

Paul MacLeod's post-mortem of Nova Scotia's election campaign is well worth a read. But following up on Kevin Milligan's astute point, I'll point out how one of the main factors in the outcome looks to hint at partisan politics taking yet another turn for the worse - even as it signals what activists may need to do to bring about change which may become increasingly difficult through the party system:
It was around this point that the Liberals decided they needed a new game plan. They had recently been trounced in the federal election and the Liberal brand was at an all-time low.

That fall, the provincial party hired Toronto’s Gandalf Group to do an extensive (and expensive) poll of voters — what they liked and what they didn’t like.

This poll, combined with business roundtables and other research, created a wealth of data.

Reading through the numbers, the Liberal campaign team decided the weakness of the NDP was electricity. If they could paint Dexter as an ally of Nova Scotia Power and McNeil as a champion of ratepayers, they could move votes.

It was, in the words of one senior Liberal, the first time they had an evidence-based plan instead of just following their gut instincts.
Now, it isn't exactly news that most parties are interested in developing evidence-based politics even if their policies don't match. After all, the Cons have quite happily trashed the census and other forms of public knowledge about Canada at the same time as they hungrily collect (and limit access to) constituent information for their own political uses.

And that trend doesn't much figure to change if conventional wisdom coalesces around the idea that success in politics revolves solely around poll-tested campaign messages rather than competent governance or coherent plans.

Indeed, I have to wonder whether the Libs' lack of principles might actually create some advantages on that front just as it did when politics were seen more as a matter of brokerage rather than contrasting visions. While a party with a reasonably well-defined set of core beliefs may have a more limited range of options in testing messages for public presentation, one which is accustomed to simply following the leader might adapt more easily to changing messages at a moment's notice to fit the latest poll numbers.

But if partisan politics are headed toward more sophisticated efforts to be seen as the main pitchman for whatever voters seem most likely to buy, that creates an opportunity for anybody focused on issues rather than parties.

Anybody looking to see an issue promoted to the forefront of an election campaign can get there by persuading a party that the cause can shift votes. And if the worst danger of that approach is that all parties might be forced to echo one's message in order to avoid having it turn votes against them, that's hardly a disastrous outcome - especially if political competitors continue to have an incentive to force the government's hand once a campaign is done.

Of course, in the longer term I'd think it's well worth trying to ensure political discussion - in both partisan and non-partisan form - takes place more in the realm of "what will be best for the public in the long run?" instead of "what will shift votes in our favour today?" But the more political parties are prepared to follow evidence in at least some form, the more likely we are to see a successful effort to bridge the gap between the two.

[Edit: added link.]

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