Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Brian Topp Spins BC NDP's Election Loss in "Leaked" Report

Former campaign manager Brian Topp should have never got the job 
Brian Topp
Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column

Tuesday September 24, 2013

By Bill Tieleman  

"The hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning."
- Adlai E. Stevenson, two-time U.S. presidential candidate.
The biggest conclusion one can draw from the leaked report of B.C. New Democratic Party election campaign manager Brian Topp is that he never should have got the job.
Last week Topp's 42-page confidential document for the BC NDP was somehow obtained by not one but two major newspapers and an influential Ottawa political blog just after leader Adrian Dix announced his resignation last week.
Reading the report makes it clear that Topp is undertaking the biggest salvage job since the Costa Concordia cruise ship was removed from the rocks off Italy's coast, trying to re-float his damaged political consulting career.
Topp attempts to subtly yet inexorably paint Dix as sinking the campaign almost singlehandedly, but the reality is that Topp -- not Dix -- was actually running it.
And while Dix -- whom I supported for leader -- took responsibility by quitting, the Topp spin merely "deeply" regrets some mistakes in "hindsight."
Yet those errors were fatal, and many of Topp's recommendations are little more than Political Campaigning 101 fundamentals.
For example: "The next campaign must contrast the choices and remind voters of the government's record in clear, compelling and straightforward language from the first day of the campaign."
Or: "Our proposals were framed as spending commitments rather than as outcomes that meant something to the lives of families."
No kidding!
But wasn't Topp hired because he was a veteran campaign manager and strategist who knows all this stuff? Did he need to lose a "can't miss" election to rediscover the basics?
And if Topp disagreed with the premise of the campaign and the leader's approach that were well known months before, why did he take the assignment?
Questionable company
That Topp even was allowed to continue as campaign manager after announcing in February he had formed the public affairs company Kool Topp & Guy with Christy Clark's disgraced former chief of staff Ken Boessenkool and BC Liberal Party advisor Don Guy was the NDP's and Dix's biggest election mistake.
Boessenkool resigned after an "incident of concern" involving a female staffer in a Victoria bar; and Guy, a longtime Ontario Liberal strategist, spoke behind closed doors at the provincial Liberal convention in 2012 on how to defeat the NDP. He later joined Christy Clark's election team.
Boessenkool famously remarked that Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's greatest achievement in office was to kill a national child care program, while Guy was embroiled in an Ontario public inquiry into the cancellation of two natural gas power plants at a cost of over $585 million to taxpayers. Interesting company for Topp to keep, let along partner with.
When Guy flew into B.C. to do communications and research for Clark's successful election campaign, it meant that two owners of the same firm were fighting on opposite sides of the ballot, while the third owner cheered on his former boss Clark -- knowing either way one of his partners would win.
But the NDP was apparently too nervous to find another manager without Topp's baggage before the election, even though it should have.
Lazy polling
It was Topp who astonishingly rejected the mainstay of modern political campaigns: polling key swing ridings daily during the election to determine trends. I broke this news in The Tyee after the election.
Since then I've learned the NDP undertook significant swing riding polling during the 2009, 2005 and even the disastrous 2001 election campaigns -- but not in 2013.
Meanwhile, the Liberals were doing daily tracking polls in 25 key ridings, giving them instant feedback on messaging, NDP vulnerability and where to allocate resources.
But the NDP continued believing they were well ahead and bound for glory, until 8:30 p.m. on election night, when the easy victory turned into an historic defeat.
And yet Topp's report doesn't even mention the lack of swing riding polling, let alone why it was rejected as a tool for the first time in over a decade.
Nor does it explain the reasons behind a late campaign switch in pollsters from Environics to Strategic Communications.
Both did province-wide polling similar to public polls conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion and Ipsos that wrongly showed the NDP ahead through the whole campaign, though StratCom's numbers had it a much tighter race and even put the Liberals slightly ahead by a point five days out before the NDP regained the lead.
Topp's report instead obliquely says: "Critics of our campaign have had a lot to say about what they think they know about our tracking polling during the campaign. In hindsight, there were more fundamental issues with the way we researched this campaign that should not be repeated."
(Ironically, the only time Dix got a boost in the party's own polling was after the televised debate -- which not coincidentally was the only time Dix launched a withering attack on Premier Christy Clark. While some retroactively argue Dix lost the debate, several polls, public and the NDP's formerly private poll, show clearly that Dix bested Clark.)
Removed from BC
Topp also picked and directed the "war room" staff of political operatives who prosecuted the campaign, including fellow Jack Layton veterans Brad Lavigne and Anne McGrath from Ontario.
And as campaign manager, Topp also chose Toronto ad agency Open to produce the BC NDP's lacklustre election ads. Open created federal NDP election ads in 2011, when the party vaulted into second place, with Topp a senior advisor to Layton.
Topp also declined to come to B.C. early to get started on the campaign, instead participating remotely from Toronto before flying in a few weeks before the writ dropped.
And again the NDP wrongly acquiesced, presumably thinking British Columbia couldn't be that different from Ontario or a national campaign. It is.
The decision to roll out the NDP platform planks in the hostile territory of senior BC Liberal cabinet ministers -- where there were bad optics and limited supporters -- was another Topp choice, though one that he grudgingly acknowledges in the report, albeit with a dismissive reference.
"We paid a price for our plan to campaign in senior ministers' ridings (my idea, for those who are looking for the specific witch to burn on this issue)," Topp says.
As I've written at length, Dix made plenty of mistakes -- demanding long in advance a campaign that didn't go negative, switching positions mid-election to oppose the Kinder Morgan pipeline -- and took ultimate responsibility for it by resigning his leadership last week.
But Dix wasn't driving the campaign bus, writing the ad copy, advancing the tour stops and running the war room!
A tough job, but...
Ultimately in a campaign every leader, no matter how strongly held their views, has to defer to the campaign manager.
That was no different in 1996 when I was communications director to NDP premier Glen Clark in the upset election win over BC Liberal leader Gordon Campbell. Glen Clark had clear ideas about that challenging election but campaign manager Hans Brown called the shots.
So it's admittedly a very tough job filled with difficult decisions and huge consequences where just one mistake can cost an election.
Topp is a talented man who has been around political campaigns for decades, as well as almost becoming leader of the federal New Democrats, coming second to Tom Mulcair in 2012.
And having known Topp for over 35 years, I take no pleasure in drawing my conclusions.
That Topp failed in a critical election for BC New Democrats was tragic; that he take responsibility for certain "errors of strategy" but avoids doing so for other critical decisions avoids is disturbing.


Joe said...

Very nice column.

I read the leaked 1st draft which was quite fair/rough & tumble, hmm...

So nice to read again the whine that "The populist right in its various forms all around the democratic world (right-wing “Liberal”, Conservative, Republican, right-wing nationalist and regionalist, etc.) has developed a playbook centred on the politics of personal destruction – on relentless, well-funded personal attacks on progressive opponents, designed to suppress the votes of the progressive majority, and to engineer an artificial plurality for regressive right-wing policies and politicians that would never command public support on their merits." So I guess the politics of accountability scare the Left...

Or perhaps because many BCLibs knew Dix had a past most outside of politics didn't know Dix atoned for... Dix was the wrong man for the BCNDP in 2011. Bill Tieleman or Lana Popham or Mike Farnworth (in order of this BCLiiberal fan's healthy fears) was right in 2011 and will be right in 2014.

Anonymous said...

Well written, and courageous in its' blunt truth. Yes, Topp is to fault. Also, Dix proved he didn't have the right thinking skills for the job. I'd also point out Carole James for her inept handling of the platform committee. She doesn't strike me as smart, and I suspect she is a religious wingnut with some unproven connections to the BCLiberals. Moe Sihota was right to resign, he has more baggage than a YVR carousel. Sue Hammell, and her family, has had undue influence on the party, and she and her interest group liberalism should be removed. There is so much old blood to suck out; the party doesn't need reform, it needs revolution. Where's a barbarian to burn Rome?

Unknown said...

A UVic polisci prof once told me that until you lived in BC for 10 years, you can't understand BC Politics.

Topp came here from outside and ran an outsider campaign, not a BC one.

Another point was Dix was hampered by a questionable win in the leadership race. Many members in Surrey were also members of the BC Liberal Party. The Party will be hampered by this in the next race unless they change the rules to verify memberships.

Vanstar said...

Bill, let's face some facts here. You strongly supported Dix, who in the 1990's gave you a nice fat contract to be the Premier's communication director, a job you tag-teamed with Geoff Meggs. When leadership time came up, you, Geoff and Geoff's wife, Jan O'Brien, worked tirelessly for Dix. You shilled for Dix endlessly in 24 and right here.

Yet Dix was a terrible candidate. The Liberals jumped with joy when Dix was selected as they knew they could beat him. You and your faction basically guaranteed the Liberals another four years.

Now Dix is gone, Sihota is gone, O'Brien is gone and Meggs is trying the pundit thing. In my estimation, the NDP should get rid of you as fast as they can, because you're part of the Glen Clark curse that is the reason you've lost four elections in a row. The fact is, what you've been peddling for so long just didn't sell.

Voters remember, Bill.

Bill Tieleman said...

A few fact-checks for Vanstar - Glen Clark hired me as communications director in the Premier's office - not Adrian Dix - from February through June 1996, when I left. The salary was a fraction of today's rate, BTW.

Geoff Meggs was my successor in 1996.

I supported Dix openly here and elsewhere - no secret.

Moe Sihota and I don't get along and I broke the story on this blog that he was being paid as NDP president.

I have no official role with the BC NDP but I am obviously a supporter - big surprise. Dix was a good candidate in everyone's eyes when he had a big lead - the campaign undid that and he has to take significant responsibility for his performance and decisions. That's why he is leaving the leadership of the party.

But Vanstar, you have completely ignored the content of this column - the role of campaign manager Brian Topp. That is telling.

Christopher said...

The NDP didn't absorb a single lesson from the pathetic James election failure , not a damn one ! . I have continuously supported NDP , thirty plus years . The NDP will have pull a rabbit out of their ass before gaining the privilege of my vote .

Vanstar said...

Bill, I was commenting on your role in the NDP's defeat. You played a big part in getting the leadership for Dix. You played a big part in getting rid of Carole James and you have benefited from NDP patronage.

Perhaps instead of telling us how bad the Liberals are, you could tell us what the NDP is going to do about economic development and how you will do things better. Your message isn't working very well-four elections lost, two spectacularly.

Time to retire, Bill. The door is open to the Glen Clarkers to leave for good. The last election should be enough evidence. Time for some new ideas from the NDP.

Anonymous said...

Bill's story checks out:

February 28th, 1996:

Statutory Authority: Public Service
Bill Tieleman be appointed Director of Communications, Office of the Premier.

Ministry Responsible:
Statutory Authority: Public Service
Effective 96 JUN 30: the appointment of Bill Tieleman as Director of Communications, Office of the Premier is rescinded

Also interesting. Seens Bill here was the receipient of a bit of political patronage...


Statutory Authority: Labour Relations Code
The following be appointed to the Labour Relations Board as
members for a two year term commencing on November 16, 1995: John
Langley, Marie Decaire, Neil Bradbury, Bill Tieleman, Ron
Schmidt, D. Kevin Kelly, Gordon Gray, Marcia Smith, Cathy Smith,
Susan Gomez, Ron McEachern, Franz Scherubl.

Ministry Responsible: LABOUR
Statutory Authority: Labour Relations Code
The following are appointed as members of the Labour Relations Board for terms to expire as noted: Until 98 SEP 30: Raj Chouhan, Lynn Hancock, Gary Kobayashi, Jerry New, Jan O'Brien, David Rice, Bill Tieleman, Vern Carter, Linda McKenna, Tom Orr.:

Anonymous said...

What is telling is why Dix relied on Brian Topp and why people like Tieleman who were so close to Dix, did not see the trouble coming, esp. Bill here who is supposed to be an expert on communications for "progressive" causes (read: left wing) such as the NDP.

The NDP now certainly is not the NDP of the 1980s.

and Bill just how long are you going to relive the glory days of the HST referendum?

Bill Tieleman said...

Thanks for the research backing me up, Anon 17:25 - good you have my back! ;-)

But sadly - and unlike most BC Liberal patronage appointments - my Labour Relations Board post in the 1990s paid me nothing! :-(

And more sadly still, NDP "patronage" to me means giving them money - not getting it.

Bill Tieleman said...

Anon 17:35 - why Dix relied on Topp is not something I can explain but he would not have been my first choice as campaign manager before all this - no BC experience and recent run as federal leadership candidate being two good reasons.

The 1980s NDP were never in power - not sure what point you are trying to make or maybe just a typo intending 1990s! ;-)

The glory of the HST referendum will last a very long time my friend, get used to it! And tell the BC Chamber of Commerce!

Vanstar said...

Tsk, tsk, Bill, you were well paid when you had your job as communications director. Dix was Chief of Staff when you got that job.You certainly used your communications skills to make him leader.

Every single NDPer who had anything to do with Glen Clark has to go. It's time to move on to a revitalised party that is not so comfortable in opposition. All British Columbians would benefit from that.

Blaming the guy from out of town is lame. There is huge blame to go around and for the NDP to ever really amount to anything, they are really going to need to look in the mirror. Things like diving up the spoils and writing policy before election day. Campaigning in Liberal safe seats. No economic development policy. Really this mob has to do something different.

Every NDPer thinks that all Liberals are somehow of idiot IQ and therefore does nothing to find anything out regarding how their enemy does things. Well, were I to lose three in the bag elections in a row, I'd be lookin' and what whupped me but not the NDP.

It was all Tropp's fault!

scotty on denman said...

I find it hard to imagine partisan positions will be much different in 2017 than they were in 2013: BC Liberal dys-management will depress their popularity while hope, expectation and relief will be expressed by NDP popularity. The Opposition will have to do almost nothing to arrive again at that election campaign starting gate favoured to win. We've watched the BC Liberals write their own death warrant before and we've witnessed what's turned out to be NDP premature electoral ejaculation, too, when, after sharing a smoke, the hustings hustler steals off with the slumbering socialists' wallet.

We've also heard how it will be different next time, "We'll be ready to win," the NDP will typically say as patient policy quilters serenely chant dirges or hum Bert B's "I'll Never Fall In Love Again." While strategically prudent in a fixed four-year term, careful prep is not enough to win on its own; it also requires tactical aggressiveness, constant and consistent, between, not just during election campaigns. The last two leaders have given us neither.

But this is what I have criticized about fixed terms before: it makes both for scheming governments and, unfortunately for the NDP, lazy Oppositions, which I believe is what was intended by neo-right authors. In contrast, before we got these mistaken laws (in the sense the electorate mistook fixed-term proponents' declaration that fixed terms prevent politicians from "playing politics" with variable election dates) all parliamentary members had to be ready to fight an election at the drop of the hat; Oppositions had to be ready to take over at a moment's notice (the neo-right was so enraged by Jean Chretien catching the hapless Stockwell Day flat-footed they swore never to let that happen again by bringing in fixed-election dates).

The new NDP leader has to ensure regressive government policy eggs are addled, not just once but repeatedly throughout the next term to ensure they aren't replaced before the next election. The NDP's problem is getting voters to believe such aggressiveness will extend beyond the term and into the campaign. It was presumed that would happen after the issue of non-aggressiveness dogged Carole James out of office. The NDP lost when voters realized Dix's team had plainly missed (or dismissed) this point; by association it looked like the party was as unprepared in other areas of governing. It wouldn't have mattered who was campaign manager nor how policied-up the party was: without tactical engagement up to and into the contest, the NDP was doomed.

Adrian B. said...

Obviously beyond risible to blame Tieleman for the NDP's loss when he had no formal role in the campaign whatsoever, and frankly seemed pretty marginalized from it which was one of many mistakes the party made in my opinion. Some are failing to recall here that Tieleman was a leading architect of the last successful campaign the NDP actually ran. If only his "message" had been listened to by the NDP in their four straight losses. Whatever advice and concerns Tieleman had about this campaign were probably ignored, and still would have been ignored even if he raised the decibel level, given the tin-ear of an operation dominated by talentless carpetbaggers more focused on padding their own resumes and profiting from a presumed election win than actually winning it. And I don't remember Tieleman claiming that the loss was primarily because of pompous mediocrities like Topp, but more due to failing again to animate the progressive base of the party, and failing to communicate an economic agenda that resonates with the public.

Trenchant analysis Bill, all needed to be said. It's going to take more than Topp leaking a list of mostly facile platitudes to the press to salvage his tarnished reputation and obfuscate gross incompetence and outright corruption. I think the solution to your puzzle of why the NDP did not do polling in swing ridings is actually revealed within Topp's nonanswer, which obviously looked like a direct shot at you. The NDP was drunk on its own bathwater and so drowning in hubris that they thought the normal rules didn't apply to them. Topp tries to claim that there were more fundamental issues than these at play, which is specious. To the contrary this was highly indicative of the flawed fundamentals of the campaign. It might have been possible to course-correct if the ship wasn't rudderless and blind as it steered straight into an iceberg. But it was impossible to sink the Titanic so full-steam ahead.

No doubt that Central was overcentralized, perhaps this has led to the perception that Dix was micromanaging everything. Not so clear, but even if Dix was driving the bus himself, he was still out on tour and while driving had to farm out the rest, to a small authoritarian clique of the wrong people.

While there are some non-elementary points in Topp's report that I think are quite correct, like the necessity of a "big dream", your thesis Bill is demonstrably proven when Topp makes such absurd claims as the "decisive mistake" was not overreaching even further on an abstruse scandal that demonstrably failed to resonate with the public. A peccadillo relative to most of the Liberal's crimes over the decade, notwithstanding the temporary political damage it inflicted. And hardly the way to deal with Dix's infamous memo. Another poor way is to repeat the Liberal's libelous narrative in this report that Dix committed a crime. Dix would have been charged with obstruction of justice if he had claimed he had "created a backdated memo" after the raid to "save Glen Clark's Premiership". Which is not what Justice Bennett said happened in her ruling. Topp outlandishly asserts that the party was too much in debt to push back against the memo-smear in 2011 so Dix cynically devised this positive approach merely to insulate himself from the negative attacks. Interesting how Dix has refuted this ( in response to a similar charge by Mike Smyth in the latter's op-ed which carelessly missed how Topp indeed falsely "admitted" this. That said, we should be suspicious of some of the other allegations that Topp makes in here. Will be curious to see how Topp's spin contrasts with the party's official report. Hoping that it is more serious than this self-serving whitewash.

Anonymous said...

"The 1980s NDP were never in power - not sure what point you are trying to make or maybe just a typo intending 1990s!"

Bill the point was that the NDP was far more stronger and more determined than the wimpy NDP of Adrian Dix's.

It has nothing to do with the NDP being in power back then. The NDP in the 1980s was very strong and were constantly going after the governments of the day. The NDP now seems to have a habit of liking to self destruct while it can't where it want to go while in the left lane.

As for the HST being gone, that's fine now, but it seems you're becoming an old warrior talking about the trenches over a stale beer between rounds of darts at the political hacks legion hall.

and doesn't matter if you were paid or not, those appointments are still patronage and political goodies.

Anonymous said...

Sadly the NDP have become irrelevant.
Regardless of whom is at fault for the election loss the NDP still cannot rid themselves of public service union interference and start all over again with a CLEAN sheet.
The NDP are still fighting the last election 'loss' and possibly still will be during the next election.
My goodness why cannot they just move on?