Part one of a two part series exploring the good and bad of grassroots political activism, and why it is essential to a healthy democracy
For over a decade I volunteered for my local riding association at every provincial and federal election, as well as the years of preparation in-between. This will be the first election I haven’t been involved in as a party volunteer since 2008.
By the standards of many members, that’s not long at all. But as a lowly volunteer, a still lowly riding president, and even a not-particularly-un-lowly member of a party executive council, I feel I got a pretty good sense of a side of politics most people never see.
Much as you will hear Joel MacLeod and me complain about the problems with modern party campaigns on the 905er Podcast—the apparent lack of vision, the cynicism, the focus on pointing out the flaws of opponents, the superficiality—almost none of those accusations are true for grassroots local election campaigns.
Being part of an election campaign at a riding level can be exhilarating. You make friends, you meet talented, sometimes brilliant people, you get to see politicians at work, and learn that, surprise surprise, they’re human beings after all. Sometimes you might get to do great things, like get your candidate elected after over 70 years of another party winning your riding. When that happens, you’ll have an experience to treasure (and smugly drop into conversations and articles) for the rest of your life. I can promise you there is no party like a victory party that actually happens after a victory.
My only regret over the years has been that my day job seldom allowed me to spend as much time volunteering during elections as I would have liked. I finally got to volunteer ‘to the max’ in 2018 when I ran as a candidate myself in a municipal election, and while the sheer level of work involved in canvassing streets for hours and hours each day through the hottest part of the year is something that would, independent of any other factors, make me question my sanity if I ran again, I enjoyed almost every minute.
The fantastic volunteers who signed up to campaign with me were typical of the extraordinary people you’ll meet on any political campaign. People like ‘Jack and Elaine’ the two best campaign stalwarts a candidate could ever ask for, who almost single-handedly did the work of much larger party canvassing teams. Jack kept me going with occasional displays of dry and straight-faced humour on the doorsteps. I once walked up behind him to hear him saying ‘He’s a great guy. He just got out from a 20 year stretch in Kingston Pen.’ I think the homeowner knew it was a joke—. But, while Jack may have wandered off the approved doorstep script from time to time, he certainly brightened every day I canvassed with him, as did every person who helped me, and every person I canvassed with when working for other candidates.
A campaign office should be a hive friendly and good-natured activity through the campaign, win or lose. A team is working together to do something that may literally make history—real history that appears in history books, not fake history that sits on plinths—and maybe will help change your city, your province and your country immediately for the better. What other activity offers that potential?
Being part of a local campaign is the best antidote to apathy and negativity I know of. Local campaigns tend not to concern themselves much with the opposition. Yes, a few will ‘go negative’, but in my experience it is remarkably rare for local campaigns to even acknowledge the existence of their opposition. It’s free advertising for your opponent. Candidates with a chance of winning hardly ever do it.
So local campaigns concentrate on their strengths – why their candidate is the best, their track record and experience before politics or while in office. They concentrate on policies if they can, especially local issues that will resonate with voters that the central campaign will not mention.
It’s generally rumoured that a local candidate can make at most a 10% positive or negative swing outcome of an election, usually less. It’s nothing compared with the effect a leader can have with a single misplaced word. Yet it is enough to swing a close race. As a result, if you have a good candidate you want them to speak to as many people as possible, direct and in-person. They, alone among all grassroots volunteers, can walk up to a door with a lifelong opponent behind it, and walk away with a loyal supporter. The best local campaign is therefore about making thousands of small but powerful human connections. It is politics at its best.
That’s how I came to volunteer in party politics—a personal connection by a candidate. In 2004 my local incumbent Liberal MP Paddy Torsney knocked on the door of my apartment to ask for my vote. I had been in Canada about a year and was at far away from gaining the right to vote as a Canadian citizen. In a conversation that will have lasted no more than a minute, Paddy found out enough about my history to make a connection, crack a joke, and to suggest that just because I couldn’t vote didn’t matter, my support counted and why didn’t I come out and help her campaign anyway?
Paddy left both an impression and a niggling question with me. Why didn’t I get involved? I was interested in politics, and ‘making a difference’, however small, was something that was always in my mind. I worked from home in a new country had few local friends. For all sorts of reasons, I really needed to get out more.
At the first two elections I took part in, the candidate I was supporting lost. But being part of the election team in 2011 (where I first got to know Joel MacLeod) was exciting, and made the experience of a general election completely different from the perspective you have when viewed through the filter of the media. Best of all, regardless of the outcome of that and future elections, I didn’t get that feeling of being powerless and frustrated by politics. I felt like I did something that mattered, and I didn’t just sit on my couch and complain. It took some of the sting out of losing, and made winning a whole lot more enjoyable.
I have given an unusually rosy picture of involvement with political parties here, and by now you are probably thinking I don’t live in the real world. What about the negative campaigning, the attack ads, the focus on personality, voter suppression, broken promises, lies and distortions and all the other aspects of modern politics that rightly turn so many of us off?
That side of politics will be addressed in part 2 of this series. For now, just know that I agree—modern party politics has huge and systemic problems that are driving down people’s faith in democracy to deliver good government. We are seeing it around the world, and it is shaping up to be one of the defining challenges of the century.
But when we ask how can we fix the parties, we should give far more consideration to one simple option.
Why not join them?
Despite all the flaws party politics, as a volunteer you can still have a greater impact within your community as a member than through almost any other type of activism. And you can change whatever party you support for the better, immediately. Because they all need to be better.
And if local activism is the best and most honest aspect of modern party politics, then more members can only make those parties better. The more people who join and demand higher standards, the better parties will be. The more people are involved in riding associations, voting for leaders, voting on party direction, the more representative they will be of the full breadth of Canadian life. Participating in democracy, rather sitting at home and complaining that you don’t like what’s on offer, should be a far greater part of millions of people’s lives.
Because, if you’re fed up with politics, why aren’t you changing it?
Otherwise the collapse in confidence and trust in party politics will continue to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and we will all share the blame. The parties and politicians will become more extreme, more susceptible to influence from pressure groups, special interests and wealthy donors, and less responsive to the needs of the population. It’s a recipe for disaster we have seen take full form in the US, but is already far too advanced here.
Not taking part in an election at all feels strange this year. For all their faults, joining and volunteering for a political party is still one of the best ways to get through the pain of a general election and feel good. Who knows, you might be the one who changes everything.