Failures On The Grey Edge: The NPA

The main problem for the NPA in the 2014 Vancouver municipal election was the fact that they had wasted a year, at least, of getting ready.  The brand has had a bit of a bad smell for a decade. The Sullivan-Anton-Michael Davis years were full of terrible decisions, oppressive policies, and electoral decline.  The unexpected BC Liberal election victory swept up Sam Sullivan and Suzanne Anton, leaving the battered NPA free to rebuild.

It should have been obvious that they needed to rebrand right then and there, especially as the left opposition was failing to regroup as an anti-Vision bloc in advance of the election, and many were looking to place their support. It is not like the NPA were not told. But they didn’t do anything.

They waited through last winter and then through the first half of this year, and did nothing.They were told over and over again that to beat Gregor Robertson, the NPA needed to get their person into the field early and running for name recognition.  No, they said. We don’t want to give Vision the chance to maul our candidate over so many months.

By this summer, during that rather embarrasing period when the still un-named new mayoral candidate took time to look over his team, they were still the old NPA that no-one wanted to touch with a barge pole. And when they announced the name of their choice, it was Kirk who?  He was interesting but not immediately mesmerizing — and completely unknown. So now they had two months to sell a worthy but unexciting unknown to a population that thinks civic campaigns should start just a day or two before the polls open.  So the early sales pitches for Kirk went unheard by those who needed to be moved.

Kirk LaPointe and Doug Leung and others behind the campaign did the best they could. They managed to raise a fighting fund large enough to match Vision;s advertizing, and Kirk did well in the debates — but not well enough.

Kirk came across as earnest, well-meaning, intelligent and a quick learner, But he never did learn how to give a rousing speech. I went to one event where the speech was exciting and well written and should have been given like a triumphant gospel preacher.  Instead, Kirk delivered it in a rather low-key way, with lowered tones where roaring crescendos were called for.

The failure to get a candidate out there early and often was a strategic error.  Another was the apparent lack of concern about the Vancouver First Party.  The NPA were clearly worried about the effect of Bob Kasting’s candidacy for Mayor. In fact, as the October 17th deadline approached for candidates to withdraw from the race, the NPA put on a full court press to try to get Kasting to pull the plug (which he did anyway later, to little effect).  As an early endorser of Kasting for Mayor, I was subject to a lot of pressure to get Bob to pull out of the contest. I know others were too.

But when the NPA were asked at the same time what they were doing about Vancouver First, they generally pooh-poohed the very idea that V1 was an issue at all.  But in the end, it was conservative vote splitting, from the NPA to the more radical Van First, that lost them a share of controlling Council.

Tactically,

  • the use of the angry white man’s voice on some TV ads was a mistake.  The ads were much improved with Kirk’s more moderate tone;
  • the overall need to concentrate on Kirk LaPointe’s lack of recognition led to a downplaying of the rest of the NPA Council team. In my opinion, they each should have been given a campaign plank to sell; something to hang their hat on and get known for.  The difference in votes between the last few Vision successes and the highest of the NPA failures was quite small.  Had more work been done on selling the members of the team, that might have been eradicated;
  • the release of the campaign donors did no real harm to the NPA, but didn’t help it either:  Peter Armstrong was simply this year’s Rob McDonald in people’s minds.

In the end, according to a lot of people I have talked to since the election, a lot of it came down to trust and optimism.  So many told me that they just couldn’t hold their nose long enough to vote for NPA, there was a lack of trust in the brand.  They also seemed swayed by Vision’s optimism which they compared — unfairly in my judgement — to NPA more dour expression.

Kirk LaPointe made a lot of promises about how a new NPA administration would work, stressing transparency, accountability, collaboration with the neighbourhoods.  If the NPA of 2018 want to break through the trust barrier, their reps on City Council had better live up to the LaPointe hype.  However, if we see a lot of 10 – 1 votes (with the NPA bloc voting with Vision) on controversial developments, their future is guaranteed to be as flawed as their past.

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