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How to build support, win, and make it stick

When Tommy Douglas was premier of Saskatchewan, he told people who came to lobby him that he’d like to do what they wanted. But if they wanted the change to last, they needed to make the people want it, too.  

There are two critical lessons to take away from Tommy’s wisdom. 

First: political power truly comes from the people. Anything one government does could be undone if people vote for a new government with a different plan. 

Second: just because you are part of electing a government that is ‘like-minded’ doesn’t mean they can do everything you think they should. 

Put another way, progressive governments can’t do good things without help from allies in progressive movements rallying effective public support.

That’s why it’s important, on the eve of a federal election, that social democrats working in both civil movement and political parties give thought to Ed Broadbent’s Principles of Social Democracy, particularly the third principle about “the transformative potential of electing social democratic governments responsive to robust social movements.”

Lasting societal change can only come about through harnessing the creativity and power of social movements and ensuring progressives are elected so that they can govern for the common good. Social democrats, therefore, work tirelessly for change in and outside of election periods.

To make changes that are good for people, you have to win.  

But on the flip side of the coin — when you win, you can’t make changes that voters don’t want or you won’t stay elected. 

And people don’t always agree on the common good, especially after decades of being told by conservative forces that “small government and lower taxes are the answer to all your problems.”

As social democrats, we have to fight those assumptions every day to bring people’s attention to what the real problem is, who has really been benefiting from the governments we’ve had, and how we can do it differently. 

Political parties can’t tell the whole story alone. 

So if you’re a person who believes we can do better things for more people when we work together, you also need to help build social movements that spark the public’s imagination and inspire them to believe the solutions you are championing are necessary, possible and better than the alternatives. 

The right way to start is to ask questions before giving answers.

What isn’t working for people? Who is hurt? Who benefits? How do we connect people who are hurt or angry with each other so they know they aren’t alone? What happens when we work together to make it better? How do we bring many more people along to see the difference those changes will make in their lives and in our communities? How do we get our cause to a tipping point? 

These are the questions any good organizer asks and knows to keep asking as they build a movement around a cause. But these are also questions campaigners need to ask to ensure their message is reaching voters.

It all starts with people’s very personal experience of the problem. 

  • Losing out on bid after bid for your first condo? That’s because you’re competing with big-money buyers scooping up real estate to make more money. 
  • Haven’t had a raise in years? That’s because decades of wage suppression by right-wing governments and corporate giants have been keeping you back. 
  • Feeling the burden of higher and more health care costs? That’s because government budgets get squeezed and less and less is covered while prescription drug costs rise. 
  • Find yourself sitting in a heatwave with fire smoke polluting the air you breathe? That’s because Canada’s government isn’t doing enough to fight climate change and is letting emissions rise when they said they’d get them down. 
  • Appalled and ashamed at how little of the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action have been acted on and how many Indigenous communities are still being harmed? You’re not alone and it has to change. 
  • Wonder why the richest got $78 billion richer in a pandemic? Look no further than successive Liberal and Conservative governments that keep giving billionaires a free ride. 

Most people will be much more interested in our solutions if we define the problems in a way that puts them at the centre of it.

As social democrats, we need to work tirelessly for that partnership Ed Broadbent laid out — and Tommy Douglas demanded — between campaigning to win and campaigning for change. 

That’s how we build support for our causes over time. That’s how we get it done. And that’s how we make it stick. 

It’s about winning governments and making more things better for more people by making a difference that lasts. 

Because as social democrats we know: there’s nothing we can’t fix if we do it together.