A 'power base' can be seen as networking – one step up. Anyone entering politics should have a network from business or community work. Building a power base is extending that network.
The importance of building from a place where you are comfortable is underlined by Sharon Carstairs. Even with all her political experience beginning at age six when she accompanied her father on campaigns, see what she describes as her “natural constituencies.”
“I became a member of the Liberal Party at 16 – at that time the earliest you could join – and was active in campus politics until I was 42. I did mostly backroom things. I actively sought and won the support of women and young Liberals. I had been a high school teacher for 20 years and a woman all of my life so they were natural constituencies for me.”
The Right Honourable Kim Campbell had quite a different approach to her party’s political base in building her support, as she explains in her autobiography Time and Chance:
“…because I didn’t come up through a party organization, my primary point of reference has always been the voter, not the party. I found this gave me a different perspective on the nature and uses of political power than the sort of people I met.”
And the seasoned former Cabinet minister and councillor from B.C., Penny Priddy explains how Alexa McDonough, leader of the national NDP from 1995 to 2002, became for her a role model because of the relentless way with which she built her power base:
“... she was this lone New Democrat for so long, yet she kept her values, her hope, worked at building networks, got elected, became party leader, got people, not just women to support her. She was out there so long in the wilderness. Politics takes charisma, but also determination, dog with a bone determination, to keep hope and values alive… if she did that, what I have to do is easy.”
And, as a finale to creating a power base and to the sub-section on cultivating strategic thinking, here are two stories from Vancouver that illustrate the relation between a strong personal political power base (or, as it is called in many cases, people power) and victory.
The first story is from Marguerite Mitchell, Member of Parliament for Vancouver-East from 1979 to 1993, who has provided Equal Voice with the chapter entitled Taking on the Liberals: Becoming a Politician, from her upcoming memoir.
In this excerpt, Mitchell first recalls how she became interested in politics in the early 70s, soon became involved in the DDP, and was startled when, in 1977, members of her party asked her to contest the nomination. They wanted an early start to defeat the popular Liberal lawyer Art Lee. What is particularly instructive is how she had to build two power bases, one to win the nomination, the other to win the election.
Winning the nomination.
The party members who had approached Mitchell “thought my community work, especially in the Chinese community, had made me well known and respected as a prospective candidate.” One of her prominent party colleagues strengthened her presence in the Italian community, another wrote a letter of support, while campaign organizers lined up members to visit and events to attend. The race was fierce. Her opponent Jeff Holter was a long-time party member, well known by the party establishment. She was surprised and hurt that rumours were being spread by her opponents to undermine her credibility. “My speech at the [nomination] meeting was less policy focussed than Jeff’s, but I made many community references and a strong statement of what we needed in Vancouver East. It was tight, but I won.”
Winning the election.
Two years went by between the nomination campaign and the 1979 federal election. In the meantime the NDP government was defeated in B.C. and the incumbent candidate had a lot of support. Here is a brief outline of how Marguerite Mitchell built her power base this time:
- As manager of three recently combined Community Resource
Boards, she challenged Premier Vander by saying she would quit
if he restored the Vancouver Resource Board. He laughed, she got
- She started a column in the local Highland Echo, and also
received excellent coverage from community papers and cable TV.
- She constantly reminded her campaign committee that material
needed to be translated, in particular for the large Chinese community.
- She canvassed regularly door-to-door and attended party
events in all the ridings to become better known.
- She 'killed with kindness' supporters of her former rival in order
to overcome lingering rivalries in the party, “a good though painful
- She determined the main issue was unemployment and focused
her material and activities on that.
- With the help of an ex-seaman, she was put on the union mailing lists.
- She won the endorsement of a large Italian club by “reminding folks at Italian banquets that our government [Premier David Barrett’s]had contributed to their centre. I was learning crass politics.”
- She managed to get support from some members of the NDP Women’s Rights Committee though she had not been active in feminist circles and was shocked when they seated her in a circle of hostile questioners.
- She was able to build on her credibility, having been involved in community work long before becoming a politician.
- She learned to navigate the internal political conflicts in the Chinese community and gain support from some members of the Sikh community.
- She never missed an event, wrote many press releases and multiplied the photo ops as both provincial and federal campaigns overlapped.
- Her election slogan on T-shirts was “A woman’s place is in the House of Commons.”
Marguerite Mitchell won by a margin of 1366 ballots polling 13,557 votes. Though more women than ever were nominated by the NDP in 1979, only she and Pauline Jewett were elected.
The second story is taken from an article by Elaine Brière, a freelance photographer, writer and filmmaker, in Our Times Magazine, Canada’s Independent Labour Magazine. It was published shortly after Libby Davies was re-elected to the House of Commons in June 2004. This article explains the very special kind of people power that enabled Libby Davies to be re-elected. It is a case study on the importance of being truly connected to your riding’s constituency.
Libby Davies represents the citizens of Vancouver East Side, known as DES, the poorest urban riding in Canada. Hopelessness is something she fights against daily. People on methadone trying to beat their addiction to heroin line up outside the Carnegie Community Centre in her riding on the corner of Hastings and Main in downtown Vancouver. Since 1993, there has been an average of 147 drug-related deaths in DES every year, an ongoing tragedy that has caused Vancouver's mayor to declare it a crisis of international proportions.
During the recent federal election, Davies was challenged by Mason Loh, a well-connected lawyer who ran a well-oiled, well-financed campaign. He was representing the development and business community that wants to replace old hotels and rooming houses. He also advocated a law-and-order approach to the drug problems in the riding and played on people's fears that harm-reduction initiatives would increase drug use in the area. Libby Davies supported the harm-reduction initiatives, as did many city councillors and even members of the police force.
Just two weeks before the election call, Loh switched from the Canadian Alliance to the Liberals. Furthermore, he lived outside the riding. But by the end of the campaign it was clear that what allowed Davies to meet Loh's challenge and keep her seat in Parliament was people power. The young and hip worked cheerfully on her campaign alongside the aged and the not so hip. Volunteers dropped off food to keep other workers fed and came in from anti-poverty organizations and unions. Davies' campaign gave people a way to fight back – a way to feel some power. It was as if the international drama of globalization and marginalization was being fought from that one, small, Hastings Street campaign office.
To reach this disenfranchised community, Davies rented a vacant storefront in the heart of the DES. On advance polling days, lawyers swore in, by affidavit, people whose personal identification had been lost or stolen.
"People in this part of town generally don't vote," a volunteer explained. "They're so poor and marginalized, they just don't connect with something like elections. It seems foreign to them. So, when they do get sworn in and go over and vote, it's empowering. It connects them, if only briefly, to the outside world – and that's good."