(Still) Searching for a new Liberalism

Why marketing is the centerpiece of modern political campaigning

A few days ago, I asked my twitter followers if anyone could say what the Liberal party’s campaign slogan is. It drew a handful of jokeysnarky responses, but no one actually managed to produce an answer as to what the slogan actually is.

It was a trick question, anyway, because the Liberal party doesn’t have a campaign slogan. At least, not one that I can make out. A trip to the website provides lots of links to the party’s platform, to some videos, and other electioneering miscellany. But the closest thing you could find to a slogan was a link to the “Rise Up Canada!” speech, which was one of the four or five elements scrolling horizontally across the page. (Since that tweet the page has been updated, with “Rise Up!” playing a much more prominent role).

Compare this with which, since the start of the election, has had the bubbly HERE FOR CANADA slogan pegged to the top left of the website. It also plays over the closing moments of all of the positive Conservative ads—though, significantly, it does not appear in the Tory attack ads.

I’m one of those people who believes that the tools and methods of marketing, especially branding, are properly and necessarily the centerpiece of modern political campaigning. I believe that the selling of politics does not undermine democracy, it enhances it, and the branding of political parties and leaders it not a tool for manipulating voters, it is a means of enabling democratic participation.

The problem with this, though, is the one that Warren Kinsella keeps repeating but which almost everyone ignores: The single most important law of the political jungle is define, or be defined. If you don’t tell the voters who you are and what you stand for, your opponents will do it for you.

Quick story: A year and a bit ago, I gave a talk to a communications class at Ottawa U on political branding. I started with a quick exercise to get the students to rough out the contours of the Harper and Ignatieff brands – I’d name a car or product or band or newspaper, and students would have to place it under either “Ignatieff” or “Harper”. Basic brand-halo stuff. Anyway, what emerged out of the exercise was interesting: this class full of standard-issue campus Canadian lefties had no demonstrable love for Harper. Yet their own brand definition of Ignatieff pretty much hewed, unwittingly I am sure, to the Tory definition of the man as “not really Canadian”, as someone who was “just visiting”, and so on. That is to say: the students had completely internalized the Tory framing of Ignatieff.

As Coyne and Wells and Geddes and countless others have noted, the Conservatives could not have been clearer about telegraphing their preferred definition of Ignatieff. Between the “coalition of socialists and separatists” and “just visiting”, the Tory election script was 9/10 written in stone by early 2009. Which is to say, the Liberals had over two years to come up with a compelling counter-narrative, a definition for their leader and party, captured in a pithy slogan that would be workable as both a campaign poster and a debate-night riposte.

The Liberals have done a lot of things right, in opposition under Ignatieff. I thought the big thinkers conference last year was a great idea, and a considerable success. Afterwards, the party held a number of daylong roundtables hammering out sound policy ideas. I still believe that the government deserved to fall over its increasingly contemptuous attitude toward parliament, and I think the Liberals deserve a great deal of credit for not caving on this.

But what the Liberals completely failed to do is come up with a proper response to the “coalition” line, one that could have been repeated, ad nauseam and ad robotum, in response to every attack ad or journalistic query about it. What might it have been? Damned if I know, but I’m pretty sure that “Parliament will decide the government, as it always does” would have been a better answer than that Red Door/Blue Door stammering. Just as “I was out meeting Canadians” would have been a better answer than “I need no lessons in democracy from you” in response to Jack Layton’s question as to why Ignatieff had the worst attendance record in the Commons.

When the arc of this election is finally understood, I wonder if that exchange with Layton will emerge as the moment when everything changed for the Liberals. It wasn’t so much a knockout blow as the gutting of a fish—the moment that the Liberal message about respect for parliament was exposed as an empty, rotting carcass.

Just what has this Liberal campaign been about? At the start, it was about standing up for democracy—when it wasn’t about corporate taxes. Then there was the family pack – a thoroughly innocuous group of policies, with gusts to good sense. Finally there was the “rise up!” speech, which was pretty obviously a mid-campaign Hail Mary that might have worked better if the ground for it had been prepared in a more thoroughgoing manner. For what it is worth—which is clearly not much, given that it was completely ignored by Liberals—I wrote an essay for the LRC last year exploring the problems with the Liberal party’s identity, and what sort of branding they might adopt.

Free advice is worth exactly what you pay for it. But here’s the thing: Brands are not logos, and slogans are not words. They are identities, they are promises, they are stories. Every political campaign needs a story, and the Liberals simply do not have one. Sorry, the Liberals do have one: it is the carpetbagger frame the Tories hung around Ignatieff’s neck two years ago, and which he has never managed to shake off.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.