The silence of the lambs, er, candidates
The political parties have had me thinking of McLobster lately. I'll come back to that oddity in a moment.
I am intrigued by the Conservatives' announcement, less than a week into the campaign, that the leader’s tour will no longer be answering questions about local candidates. This comes after negative information (known as ‘oppo’ in the business) was disclosed by parties about candidates running to become a Member of Parliament. Sometimes this seems to have been timed with the movements of a leader's tour. When a leader arrives in an area of the country, the party's messaging is destabilized by having to deal with a localized controversy. It's a smart tactic, no?
Unfortunately this is another nail in the coffin for the ability of major parties to recruit and encourage independent thinkers. The parties already expect that their candidates will be salespeople repeating key messages, will use campaign materials such as lawn signs whose ‘look and feel’ is designed by the party centre, and that they will avail of party-controlled technologies such as telemarketing and Web site design. Aside from saying a quick hello on a doorstep there's increasingly little that the average candidate is allowed to do.
(Quick aside: I am currently monitoring the electioneering of local candidates across Canada. If anyone has noticed any unusual forms of campaigning in their area, from lawn signs to technology, please do take a moment to leave a comment)
To some, the lack of candidate independence is distressing. It is bad enough that MPs are muzzled in the House of Commons, and vote on party lines like sheep, but surely an election is the embodiment of free speech, a discussion of ideas and, ultimately, a barometer of the health of a democracy.
I think that candidates, electoral district associations, party members and local campaign workers had better get used to this reality. In a 24/7 media environment political opponents and bored journalists can quickly jump on the slightest hint of controversy. There are too many risks associated with candidates issuing news releases, participating in all-candidate debates, updating Facebook profiles and publicly musing on Twitter. With every disruption, with every controversy, the party centre gains a reason to encroach upon candidates' freedom of speech. Given that research shows that the party leader and the party label hold by far the most sway in vote decisions, and the local candidate is largely an afterthought for electors, muzzling candidates is in the best interests of the party to perform well in a democratic election. It's not how the system was designed, but the reality is that candidates are merely salespeople of the product, and not the product itself.
Which brings me to the McLobster. If you look at political parties and their candidates as franchisers and franchisees, somewhat like UBC's R.K. Carty has, then you will appreciate how imperative it is for local representatives of a national operation to be singing the same tune. McDonald's Canada, for instance, controls its restaurant franchisees' product, pricing, place and promotional decisions. If one of its restaurants is notoriously dirty, has terrible service or offers special side deals, this weakens the overall brand and has negative repercussions for McDonald's Canada and for its other restaurants. It is up to the national company to ensure quality control which has been one of the keys to its success. A significant variation is the flexibility to respond to local markets, such as offering the McLobster on the East coast. In the same way the parties practice some limited regional variation in public policy to suit the tastes of the local electorate.
But whether it is a national political party or a national restaurant headquarters, success in the marketplace apparently depends on the local affiliates falling in line.
Alex Marland (Memorial University) has published about political marketing in the Journal of Public Affairs, political talk radio in Media, Culture and Society, and about Newfoundland nationalism in the International Journal of Canadian Studies.
His research interests include political communications, electioneering, and politics in Canada and in Newfoundland.