They had their convention in Vancouver over the weekend, the Conservatives did. Former prime minister Stephen Harper spoke, resolutions were debated, leadership hopefuls pressed the flesh. Above it all, one question hovered, like an ominous fog: Are we doomed?
To Conservatives who wonder if they can ever beat that Justin Trudeau guy, the answer is of course you can. But only if you do the following 10 things.
- Don’t freak out. You won just about 100 seats despite the Trudeau sweep. You still fundraise better than the governing party. You didn’t lose any of your share of the popular vote – the percentage you got in 2015, in fact, was almost exactly what you got in 2011. Your brand – as evidenced by conservative wins in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, recently – still has value. Resist suggestions, therefore, to radically change everything. Don’t overreact. And don’t think salvation lies with loons like Kevin O’Leary. That’s a cure that’s worse than the disease.
- Oppose, oppose, oppose. You are Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition: Act like it. You were not sent to Ottawa to assist the government or make creative suggestions about governance. As my boss Jean Chretien used to say to the caucus nervous nellies who worried about being too negative: “When you’re the opposition, you oppose.” Governments defeat themselves – and your job is to hurry that process along.
- Action, reaction. Politics is like physics: You shouldn’t replicate what your opponent does; you should be reacting to it. Near the end of his tenure, Harper came to be seen as a sullen, angry guy who didn’t like people much. So the NDP picked a sullen, angry guy who didn’t like people so much. The Liberals picked a happy, upbeat guy who hugged everyone. Guess who picked right? Exactly. React, don’t replicate.
- Protect the brand. As with Nike, Apple and Coca-Cola, your party’s brand has value. Your share of 2015 popular vote makes that clear. Despite the fact that your strategists didn’t run a very strategic campaign – despite the fact that your leader seemed to be phoning it in, most of the time – you weren’t wiped out, a la 1993. That should tell you one thing above all: The Tory brand ain’t dead. Reject attempts to mess with it. Nike, Apple and Coke don’t. You shouldn’t either.
- Fish where there’s fish. Justin Trudeau won for three reasons: the NDP vote went to him, women went to him, and the million-odd Grit voters who abandoned Messrs. Martin, Dion and Ignatieff came home. Those are the three pillars of the Liberal win. Ipso facto, map out a strategy that offsets all that – get a leader women trust, policies to persuade those million Liberal voters to stay home, and pray like Hell the NDP get a likeable leader next time.
- Justin Trudeau. Trudeau helpfully revealed his weaknesses to you that night he elbowed a woman and manhandled his way to multiple shamefaced apologies. He isn’t confident, he’s arrogant. He isn’t fresh, he’s rash. He isn’t youthful – he’s too young. Justin Trudeau is the reason why the Liberals won. If you fundamentally change perceptions about him, you win.
- Lighten up. Canada is the best country in the world. Politics is fun. Oppose, sure, but do it with confidence and coherence. Have fun, occasionally. As James Carville once said to me, the best way to deliver a punch is with a big smile on your face. Do that.
- Pick a leader. And not just any leader. Personally – and per the “action reaction” advice, above – I’d reckon you need a youngish, multicultural, bilingual woman to offset Trudeau, and cut into his base of support. Is it Lisa Raitt? Michelle Rempel? Someone else? Whoever it is, the Rona Ambrose experiment should tell you that when you address your leadership weaknesses, it plays to your leadership strengths.
- Ideas. Peering at my crystal ball, I predict Canadians will be quite fed up, thank you very much, with pushups, boxing matches and baby balancing by 2019. By then, they will want more steak and less sizzle. Your next leader – and your team and your policy book – should be bursting with ideas, ideas, ideas. You will defeat the Trudeau phenomenon with smart ideas, not by making lame selfie jokes.
- Work harder. None of this is easy – it’s going to require lots of hard work and discipline and strategy. But, as you unpack from your weekend in Vancouver, remember that in politics, as in sports, all that matters is winning. With the right leader – and the right team, organization, ideas and strategy – you can win again.
Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator.