Political Parties Must Learn How to Learn

By Thomas, Paul G. | Winnipeg Free Press, June 2, 2017 | Go to article overview

Political Parties Must Learn How to Learn


Thomas, Paul G., Winnipeg Free Press


Last weekend, the Conservative Party of Canada chose Andrew Scheer from among 13 candidates to be its new leader. There is also a race underway for the leadership of the national New Democratic Party, involving six official candidates. Meanwhile, in Manitoba, both the Liberals and the NDP are engaged in the search for new leaders.

All of the parties staging leadership contests are currently in opposition. In casting leadership votes, delegates are mainly concerned with finding someone who can win, or at least improve the party's fortunes at the next election.

The assumption is that once a new leader is chosen, everything else will fall into place: membership numbers will increase, atrophied constituency associations will be revived, new political talent will emerge, money will be raised and new policy ideas will be found.

In this era of personalized politics and the marketing of political brands, leadership clearly matters a great deal to short-term political success. However, parties are meant to serve the wider purpose of helping to set directions for the societies they serve and for this purpose they need to become "learning organizations" that are prepared and willing to govern with foresight.

Like other organizations within society, political parties operate in more complicated, dynamic and unpredictable environments. Ancient ideological traditions and long-standing policy positions often do not match the requirements of the present day, let alone anticipated future societal conditions.

Parties aspire to govern societies, but they are often poorly governed themselves. A number of incentives and constraints make it difficult for them to become learning organizations.

Often there is a conflict between the requirements for short-term political success and the need to respond creatively to the long-term needs of societies. Parties devote more energy, time and money to communications strategies and political tactics than to policy development, and often what works best in terms of electoral success is only incrementally different from past positions.

Political parties have a real difficulty with acknowledging their mistakes. Instead of learning, the predominant dynamic of political competition involves the governing party striving to avoid mistakes and "spinning" its accomplishments, while the opposition parties concentrate on naming, blaming and shaming their political rivals for mistakes and misdeeds.

This adversarial process is meant to identify the "truth" and lead to greater accountability, but often it simplifies and distorts the real issues involved with modern governing. …

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