One of the most common errors political parties and politicians make is over-learning the lessons of the previous election and applying them to the current one. This idea has been rolling into my head since the 2015 federal election. As I have mentioned in posts preceding this one, the NDP fell into this trap. They are hardly the first party to fall victim to it, and they definitely won't be the last.
Here's how it goes. In the wake of election the defeated party or parties are forced to reflect on the outcome. Voters, for their indescribable reasons, chose Party A over Party B. In order to correct the problems advocates within the party push to move the party to resemble the victorious party in whatever way was deemed the reason for victory. I've seen this many times in American politics. When the Democrats are defeated there are calls to move towards the centre to recapture voters. When the Republicans are vanquished and appear to be in the wilderness their critics suggest a move to the left and a more open party would ensure them victory.
Sometimes this is successful. The 2006 victory of the Democrats was partially brought about by recruiting ore conservative candidates that could win in redder states and districts. More often than not though this idea has a habit of breaking down.
Voters, it seems to me, want alternatives, not pale imitations. Parties that simply copy their opponents risk making themselves irrelevant. They are unlikely to woo the base of the other party and alienate their own supporters and voters hoping to real change. In election strategy jargon they call this contrasts, ways you can demonstrate favourable differences with your opponents. Each political party has core brands or associated values, trying to borrow someone else's will, at best, feel inauthentic.
The 2015 election offers an interesting case study in this regard. In the wake of the 2011 election both the Liberals and New Democrats had to decide how to approach the coming election, and both, for different reasons, needed to find a new leader. The NDP's membership made a choice to follow Jack Layton's model as a centre-left party, remain on the left on social issues, continue to advocate for key groups, but present a 'friendlier' fiscal and rhetorical framework. This is afterall part of the way Stephen Harper had managed to build his majority, his perceived stewardship of the economy and public purse. The Liberal Party, often thin on ideology, selected a new leader to try to win them the election, the charismatic Justin Trudeau. Trudeau is not the man you would pick if you thought you had to run a campaign similar to Harper to win an election. Someone like Ralph Goodale would fit much more in that model.
Leaving aside the platforms one can look at the campaign to see how the parties differentiated themselves. For four years the Conservatives banked on another election built on economic concerns, and so did the NDP. The election actually turned on Stephen Harper and essentially became a referendum on him. Justin Trudeau offered the stronger contrast with the Prime Minister.
Parties are poised to make a similar error again. Already the Conservatives are making noises that they need a "Sunny Ways" leader to take them into the future. Likewise in the NDP there are concerns that the Liberals flank to the left is what doomed them, so a shift leftward with a new leader is the answer to their problems. If Canadians decide to kick Justin Trudeau and the Liberals out of power in 2019 it will be if they find an alternative the like, not if each party presents their version of Liberal-Light or Trudeau-Light. Parties, generally, need to be true to themselves and offer an option, not play the "Me Too!" game.