Monday, April 25, 2011

Federal election history 23 and 24, 1957 and 1958: here comes the future

John English, the biographer of Lester Pearson, has written that though Pearson and John Diefenbaker were near contemporaries, Pearson shrugged off the conventional pieties of his upbringing and accomodated himself to modernity -- a late-twentieth century guy, in effect, even though he died in 1972.

True. But John Diefenbaker, for all his small-town traditionalism and antique loyalties, had something of the future in him too.  His political career is the model that successful Canadian successors have followed more than Pearson's.

Diefenbaker was unpopular in the House of Commons, had difficulty working with others, and was not trusted by the party faithful.  Didn't matter.  Diefenbaker grasped that by building an extra-parliamentary following, he did not have to have insider support.  He took over the party leadership much the way Paul Martin would later: by locking up all the votes before anyone else got started.  And not having been supported by the party and the caucus, he was more than any of his predecessors inclined to ignore them both.

Lacking a party or parliamentary base proved to be a blessing.  Diefenbaker was among the first  national party leaders to turn campaign organizing over to professionals drawn from advertising and the media, (Hello Dalton Camp),  who soon determined that the most important thing about policy was that it had to fit the slogan.

In the election of 1957, going up against the complacent assumption of everyone that the Liberal majority was destined to last forever, Diefenbaker managed only a minority win (112 seats of 265, and with a smaller share of the popular vote than the Liberals, who had 105.

1958 was the real election of the future, when Diefenbaker remade the political landscape on a campaign wholly focussed on the leader. He won 208 of 265, with a mass of MPs who had come in on his coattails, and was free to do anything he liked for five years, free from opposition, but also free from constraint by cabinet ministers, backbenchers, party organizers... and anyone else.

It didn't work out that well for the country, the party or Diefenbaker's historical reputation.  But it is the model every aspiring prime minister since has been apprenticed to.
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