Saturday, January 24, 2015

On common messaging

It shouldn't come as much surprise that the new election year is bringing out the usual, tiresome round of calls for strategic voting and candidate withdrawals.

In the past, I've responded by suggesting that if Canada's opposition parties have enough common ground to cooperate, they should consider working with joint messages rather than trying to carve up the electoral map. And I'd still be curious to see how that type of arrangement would work if there was any interest in pursuing it.

But I wonder now whether the best course of action may have nothing to do with party arrangements - particularly in light of how the Canadian political system has evolved since 2011.

Until the NDP's rise to Official Opposition status in 2011, it was tempting for far too many people to pretend that all parties other than the Cons could be safely ignored. And the Libs' "blue door, red door" rhetoric in that election took that narrow mindset to a new extreme - before it proved as inaccurate as it was laden with hubris.

Now, though, there shouldn't be any escaping the fact that we're now in a true three-party system. And due to that change, both major opposition parties are inherently focused not only on making the case for change, but on doing so with messages which are designed to differentiate themselves from each other.

But that doesn't mean the public is similarly limited. And I'll suggest that it's worth putting the full weight of public fatigue with the Harper Cons to good use.

With that in mind, I'll suggest a crowdsourced effort to answer these questions (with a hat tip to the #fivewordsharperfears hashtag which offered plenty of ideas).

What brief, easily-remembered message will best convince voters to turn against Stephen Harper and the Cons when they go to the polls in 2015? And how can be make sure that message is the one Canadians consider as they vote?

I'll suggest a few starting points for such a message:
- It should be friendly to swing voters, rather than insulting anybody who's voted Con in the past but might consider switching votes this time out. 60% of voters have ruled out the Cons, and the goal of this message isn't merely to speak to them; instead, it needs to target the next 10-15% who might swing an election.
- But it should also be consistent enough with progressive values to avoid driving away the people who are most motivated to spread it in order to end Harper's reign.
- In addition, it should fit with well-known political messaging structures: favouring "change" over "the same", progressive/nurturant themes over conservative/authoritarian ones, etc.
- It should be consistent enough with how people already see Harper to fit easily into existing perceptions, but be distinct enough from past campaign messages to avoid any concerns about having failed already.
- And finally, it should counter the "better off with Harper" theme the Cons have already set up as their primary message.

A simple version would be "Canada can do better" or "we can do better" - leaving open the question of who would serve as the best alternative, while focusing attention squarely on whether Harper deserves to maintain power and answering with a clear "no".

But that first thought serves only as a starting point for discussion. And hopefully, progressives of multiple partisan stripes can agree enough on a common theme to make it stick to Harper.


  1. Sub-Boreal6:15 p.m.

    How about "Canada is better than this"? Inspired by:

    1. Great example to work from, and I can see it fitting particularly as the punchline of an ad campaign..."This is Stephen Harper. [Insert outrageous Con action.] Canada is better than this."

  2. "Canada is better than this." Excellent.

    Riffing off Greg's response ...
    Could have a variety of ads, each one opening with "Canada is better than this", followed by targetted short list - one on economy, one on fairness/decency/equality, one on environment, etc. etc. Each one would end with :
    Canada is better off without Harper

  3. Sub-Boreal10:30 a.m.

    Except that I can't imagine the NDP doing this.

    Each new election seems to be one more opportunity to achieve a perfectly calibrated lameness in their messaging -- simultaneously demotivating their own supporters while making no headway with anyone else.

    1. Again, the whole point of my post is that I don't expect any single party to look for this precise type of message. Both main opposition parties (rightly) see themselves as having to battle on two fronts, and so neither will be focused so much on the most powerful message against the Cons as the most powerful message to boost their own support. (Most obviously, in 2011 the LIbs probably helped the Cons immeasurably by running "tax and spend!" themes against the NDP which bolstered Harper's overall message.)

      But citizens who are primarily concerned with getting rid of the Cons aren't bound by the same constraints. And I think it's worth seeing what we can come up with, while anticipating that the opposition parties may eventually pick up on messages which are successful enough.

      (Meanwhile, I'd think supporters of all opposition parties should have reason to be happy if it's possible to drive the Cons to a support level where they're no threat to form government, then deal with the opposition's competing visions from there.)