New mayor, new politics

What can the left learn from Valérie Plante’s win?

Josie Desmarais

As the last days of the municipal campaign foreshadowed, Denis Coderre was defeated by Valérie Plante on Nov. 5. And this defeat is largely attributable to the outgoing mayor's bad campaign. A year ago, I wrote that Plante's three challenges as a new leader were to reunite the party, make herself known, and take Projet Montréal out of its comfort zone. There was total success on all three levels. Now that the election has passed and the mayor has been sworn in, what lessons can the political left draw from this victory?

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First, the idea that in order to win, it is necessary to "refocus" — that is to say, to adopt the discourse of the liberal consensus in economics, which was represented by the candidacy of Guillaume Lavoie for the Projet Montréal leadership race in 2016 — has been completely defeated. Not only have the "fears" been appeased, but Projet Montréal has had the biggest victory at city hall since the re-election of Jean Doré in 1990. In other words, the Montreal parties that have had the greatest success in the last 30 years have been leftist parties. Victory is possible: it is not a question of substance, but of form first and foremost.

Sustainable development and social justice

The reasons for the victory of Valérie Plante and her team are numerous. Some concern the programmatic and communication choices that a political party can make. First is structuring the platform around a limited number of clear measures. Projet Montréal went further than the principles or the affirmation of general orientations: the party proposed measures that translate these principles into the daily life of the population. It has shown what a city of sustainable development and social justice looks like. It offered a concrete horizon for the next four years, without ever compromising on principles.

Plante was the ship and the admiral of her campaign.

The pink subway line project, in particular, embodied this approach. While it was believed the population had resigned itself to the status quo, at best the addition of a few stations, along came a politician with an ambitious infrastructure project that, above all, meets the very basic needs of the population. To dream concretely: it is the great force of the message that Projet Montréal adopted during this campaign. This is a real "road to victory" that allows a progressive party to break the “airy-fairy” image that could too easily be stuck to it.

Even more striking is the emphasis placed on the leader herself. The whole campaign revolved around her and her face, beginning with the launch of the slogan “l’homme de la situation” (“the right man for the job”). Both this slogan and the personalization of the campaign go against the habitual reflexes of the left, which tend to favour depersonalization, emphasis on the "collective," and broad projects (which are sometimes a little abstract). Here we had a woman and her measures. While Richard Bergeron had to compensate for his lack of charisma with the development of a strong and competent team, Plante was the ship and the admiral of her campaign. Does this mean that personalization is the only way to win? That would be an exaggeration, but at minimum this should be a call for a re-evaluation of the usual ways of doing campaign communications on the left.

Impressive ground game

As the race drew to a close, it was clearly headed for a tight result. Almost in unison, the usual pundits made an observation that was relevant though not original: everything would depend on voter turnout on election day. And to get the vote out, there are many un-sexy tasks that require an infallible commitment. This year, Projet Montréal took their ground game to another level, including with the use of Nationbuilder software (used by the Obama and Sanders campaigns, among others), which was used to coordinate phone calling operations, door-to-door canvassing and pulling out the vote. Identifying supporters and convincing (and reminding) as many of them as possible to vote: that's what needed to be done. And this was done brilliantly (despite some technical glitches on polling day).

It is important to emphasize these points, because they are most often invisible when observing a campaign from the outside. We remember faces, phrases, debates and signs — and they are certainly essential elements of any successful campaign. But none of this would make sense if there was not an electoral machine, made up of enthusiastic and willing volunteers ready to put their shoulders to the wheel, to translate the good ideas into real support, the expressed sympathy into concrete votes.

New blood

Following the 2016 leadership race, Projet Montréal was divided, and some said that Plante, associated with the left of the party, would have a difficult task in rebuilding internally. Many doubted her ability to rally, much less after the appointment of her phantom cabinet, where Lavoie’s absence was glaring. However, three things allowed the ranks to tighten and even grow in time for the campaign.

The first is the personality of the new leader, who reassured her team and led without ever blaming certain people who supported her opponent. The second reason is the political culture of Projet Montréal, which has become a "real" party in the sense that it is not just a machine for electing people and has an activist base and a program to ensure political and ideological continuity. In this way, the party enjoys resilience that gives it stability through changes, among other things.

The third reason is perhaps the most important: very quickly, Plante expanded the Projet Montréal caucus by looking for elected representatives from other groups, starting with Maja Vodanovic (elected in 2013 under the banner of Équipe Dauphin in Lachine, now mayor of the borough), followed by elected representatives in Île-Bizard-Sainte-Geneviève and Benoît Dorais (mayor of the Southwest borough). And all this, remember, in the context that Denis Coderre was considered a sure thing for re-election. Despite past divisions and the difficult election ahead, Plante was able to replenish Project with new blood.

This whole story of the months leading up to the vote gave a symbolic boost to the Projet Montréal campaign. This narrative, to speak in the manner of "communicators," is what fuses the different elements of a campaign together. And it is not a grand narrative with epic components, in the style of socialist folklore. The story to be told is not that of the damned of the earth who stand up and act as the agents of common salvation: it is a story on a smaller scale, with which a majority of people can identify and want to participate in. And it is also what gives meaning to the tasks — often thankless, but always necessary — of the activist base, which offers a horizon of meaning crucial to maintaining morale.

There was no magic recipe, and there never has been. The strength of a campaign depends on several factors, some predictable and others completely fortuitous, from organizational strength to charismatic personalities. Not to mention what might be called kairos, the opportune occasion. And Valérie Plante knew how to seize it. Clear ideas, the right leader, an efficient machine and a story to tell: much more than just a matter of smiling.

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