Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Liberals - A way out of the woods (III)

It's easy for an organization to turn in on itself and go wobbly in times of trouble.  It happens to all organizations at some time or other.  But when it happens to political parties, it's in the public eye and far more visible.


For political parties, there's a term coined for that; "Opposition Syndrome".  Academic George Perlin coined the term in his 1980 book on federal PC politics about the federal Tories but it applies locally just as well.


Perlin argued that when a political party is excluded from holding office, the party members tend to indulge in internal politics on the basis of motives that make conflict difficult to resolve.  Political self-interest and other conflicts trumps communal party interests.  Members fight among themselves for greater influence over smaller spheres of activity and responsibility.  Internal conflicts come to dominate, and then hinder, party activity.


These conflicts generate and harden factions.  The factions make it hard to achieve organizational cohesiveness.  Factions focus on other internal factions, instead of outside factors, as the main obstacles to the party taking power.


Internally, parties in opposition syndrome reject desperately needed reforms and cling to obsolete tactics and ideas.  The party look inwards instead of out, backwards at old grievances instead of forward to new opportunities.


This undermining and display of organizational ineffectiveness, with some played out in the glare of media and others safely away in the backrooms, leads to further electoral defeat.  Those defeats maintain, reinforce or even intensify the internal warfare.


Thus the cycle deepens.


To the public eye, the party looks unstable and that undermines public confidence in the party's ability to govern.  The party can't attract new volunteers and sheds whatever public support it has left, down to a floor.  Donors abandon it.  The leadership positions are occupied by a string of short-term and interim leaders.  Labradore has generated a great graphic showing the leadership eras of both main provincial parties.


The Liberal party experienced this through most of the 70's and 80's under a string or leaders.  It was only when Clyde Wells took over in 1987 and worked diligently for 2 years to quell the internal warfare, impose peace, focus and discipline on the party structure to win electoral victory in 1989 was the cycle broken.


If the Rideout PCs had won that very close 1989 election, Liberal history would have been very different; Wells would likely have been dumped as leader and the cycle would have gone on for one or several more terms.


The PCs had two eras where they suffered from Opposition Syndrome.  The first was 1949-1972 barely broken by a combination of an exhausted and unpopular Smallwood government facing a new and energetic PC leader in Frank Moores.  The second era was from 1989 to 2003 (partially documented here).  That stretch was broken by the entry of another strong personality who imposed his will over warring factions to lead his party to victory over another spent and unpopular government.


Both the Liberal and PCs had their periods in Opposition Syndrome and both eventually snapped out of it*.  How did that happen?


 *The NDP are in a permanent and persistent variation of the state of Opposition Syndrome; no change expected soon.

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