MORGAN: Conservatives must change their game to take back city governments

MORGAN: Conservatives must change their game to take back city governments

The end of 2023 brings one bit of good news for Calgarian conservatives. A recent, comprehensive poll found that two years into her term, Mayor Jyoti Gondek is the least popular mayor in Calgary history.

Only seven percent of respondents strongly approve of her while 23 percent somewhat approves of her. A whopping 61 percent disapprove of her and this poll was done before Gondek infuriated the nation with her public boycott of a menorah lighting ceremony. Her support numbers have surely dropped even further since then.

Now for the bad news.

If an election were held in Calgary tomorrow and Jyoti Gondek ran in it, she would probably be re-elected.

That’s because conservatives do the same thing in civic elections across the country every time.

Several strong candidates will surface from the right with similar conservative election platforms. They will run poor campaigns with limited volunteers and will split an uninspired conservative electorate while the known left-wing candidate will consolidate support in a well-run campaign and win the election even with a minority of popular support.

Though people cringe when its mentioned, what Calgary and many other cities need are municipal political parties.

Yes, there are many challenges and flaws when it comes to political parties. They can further entrench a sense of divisive political tribalism. They can limit the flexibility and independence of individual candidates and they can implode with infighting, causing more damage to conservatives than they help.

Political parties can be terrible things. In fact, the only thing worse than an official partisan system is an unofficial partisan system and that’s what most cities are running under now.

There is a dominant political party sweeping civic elections across the country though it doesn’t call itself that. This party is the public service union party and it is winning elections in nearly every city.

What unions are offering isn’t simply money on public advertising campaigns. Many conservative candidates are better funded than their left-wing opponents yet still lose to them. The unions offer consolidated organization around certain candidates and muscle out other left-wing contenders. They support and train candidates in campaigning and they provide ready made volunteer bases as they reach out to union members and encourage them to support particular candidates.

This gives progressive candidates a great edge in elections where the names of the candidates are often not well known and electoral turnouts are low. The union-backed candidates have the resources to set up databases, identify supporters and get them out to vote on election day.

Meanwhile, several well-qualified but politically inexperienced conservative leaning candidates tend to flounder and fight each other for the small pool of known supporters in their area.

They often enter the campaign with great ideas, funding and energy, but have no base of support to work with. To win campaigns with tens of thousands of potential voters, a candidate needs dozens if not hundreds of volunteers and a well-organized campaign keeping them on message and getting their supporters out to vote. That can only be effectively done with a party.

Another issue is progressive candidates slipping through the system campaigning as conservatives only to change their tune once they get into office. Naheed Nenshi was a prime example of that.

Once a candidate becomes an incumbent, it is very difficult to unseat them even if they govern totally differently from what they campaigned upon. Nomination processes in party politics tend to weed out those pretenders.

The government doesn’t need to legislate a party system. A non-profit organization can be formed with a mandate to create a broad conservative platform and hold a form of nominations for candidates.

The group can create consistent messaging and branding for candidates along with training for the campaigns. Such an organization could freeze out disgruntled nomination losers or individual candidates once campaign time comes thus limiting the vote split.

This could all be done without running afoul of current election financing rules or third-party advertising laws. It would be a loose organization that focuses on several campaigns and candidates will identify as under that group's umbrella.

As relatively simple as that sounds, nobody has managed to get such a thing going yet.

In the years leading up to the last election in Calgary, I participated with an informal group that had the intent to support a slate of candidates. While there were good ideas and good people within the group, in the end it just turned into a navel-gazing exercise of years leading to an ineffective endorsement of some candidates at election time. We need something more solid and organized. Like a political party.

I have heard from a few local conservative types who assure me that there is work going on behind the scenes to ensure conservative candidates win the next election in Calgary.

Well, we are less than two years from the next election and if things don’t break out from behind the scenes soon, they may as well stay there.

If nominated candidates aren’t hammering on doors eight months before election time, they won’t be able to unseat incumbent councillors or the mayor. It will just be a repeat of the last election. If a group is going to nominate candidates, it needs to be formed and in the open yesterday. Tomorrow may still work but the door is quickly closing.

So how about it?

Are conservatives ready to get this party started?

Or will they continue to perform the same action while expecting a different outcome?

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