A Contender for best political book on leadership conventions

As Conservatives await the results of the ballots mailed in from party members across Canada, most political observers would agree that conventions are not quite as exciting or dramatic as they used to be. One of the best Canadian political books of all-time – and likely the best on leadership conventions – masterfully chronicled the race. Contenders was co-authored by a journalist (Patrick Martin), an academic (George Perlin), and a pollster – the legendary Allan Gregg.

The Progressive Conservatives had a succession of nail-biting leadership conventions between 1967 and 1983 where the outcome was far from clear before the voting started. In 1967, the party dumped former prime minister John Diefenbaker, desperately (and sadly) trying to hang on, with the real battle place between Nova Scotia premier Robert Stanfield, Manitoba premier Duff Roblin, and former Justice minister, BC’s E.Davie Fulton. Other than Kim Campbell, Fulton’s campaign was the most significant waged by a British Columbian in living memory, and he was backed by two future leaders – Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney. Stanfield won on the fifth ballot against Roblin and led the party through three unsuccessful election campaigns against Pierre Trudeau.

After Stanfield’s third loss, there was another convention where the outcome was far from clear. Quebec’s Claude Wagner was in a position of strength, while Brian Mulroney – then 37 years old and an unelected party insider, made a fully funded full-court press. Wagner and Mulroney were 1-2 on the first ballot, but lurking behind in third place with less than 12% of the votes was a 36 year old MP from Alberta, Joe Clark. Clark jumped to second place on the next ballot and won on the 4th ballot thanks to support from Mulroney voters.

Contenders picks up the story in January 1983 in the office of the manager of the Winnipeg Convention Centre. Joe Clark was surrounded by his key advisors while he awaited the results of a leadership review vote, essentially, a referendum on his leadership.

Clark had led the PC’s to an electoral win in 1979, albeit a minority. It was the PC’s first win in sixteen years. However, the Clark PC’s lost the popular vote by five points and failed to make enough headway in Quebec to win a majority. Nevertheless, they were in office and could govern with the cooperation of six Creditiste MPs from Quebec. The Liberals were in disarray. Pierre Trudeau announced he was retiring and a leadership race began. Like any rookie government, Clark’s administration was unsteady. Finance Minister John Crosbie brought in an unpopular budget that included a significant hike to the gas tax. Clark’s team underestimated the Liberals’ appetite for power. Behind the scenes, Liberal MPs were rallied for a confidence vote to force a do-over election. The PC’s failed to secure the Creditistes. Then-NDP MP Bob Rae moved a motion of non-confidence and the government shockingly fell on December 13, 1979. Clark went to Rideau Hall to ask for an election – which he would decisively lose to Pierre Trudeau, returning to take the helm of the Liberals one last time.

It was a crushing blow for Clark who was barely 40 years old by this time. He would have felt that he had a lot of politics left in his tank. As Contenders describes, he had modernized the party organization and fundraising apparatus and made significant efforts to build the party in Quebec, thus far, without electoral success. He had most of caucus on side but the stench of defeat lingered within the party. In 1981, the party held its first post-election leadership review where 66.1% of the delegates voted against holding a leadership convention, allowing Clark to continue as leader. He did, but it was hardly a resounding win.

We now rejoin Clark in the backroom of the 1983 leadership review in Winnipeg where he is awaiting the results, the 1980 electoral defeat, and tepid leadership endorsement of 1981 on everyone’s mind. The threshold of success this time was to be above 67%. Fewer than 66% would leave Clark no choice to call a convention (though he, technically, only needed 50%+1). As Contenders describes, “What they had not considered was if the vote should fall in between”. It did – 66.9% voted against a leadership convention. It was a maddening result for the Clark forces.

Chapter 1 describes the conversation around the room as Clark considers his future – soldier on as leader and withstand ongoing challenges to his leadership or ask the party executive to call a full-blown leadership convention and win his own job back, thereby securing his position. At that time, the Trudeau Liberals were deeply unpopular, but PC members feared the return of Liberal John Turner. Turner was very much ‘1a’ to Trudeau’s ‘#1’ in the first two terms of the Trudeau government. Out of politics, it was a only a matter of time before Turner returned, and he was popular. Many PC members were uncertain, or simply didn’t believe, that Clark could beat Turner.

A striking aspect of the scene described in Chapter 1 is youth. Not only was Clark a young man, he was surrounded by peers in their 30s and 40s. The threat to his leadership, Brian Mulroney, who organized fiercely behind the scenes for a leadership convention, was also of the same generation. It was a vigorous time in politics fought by those who had been in the trenches together and against each other since university days.

Clark went for a full-blown convention, unleashing pent-up energy within the party that would culminate in the June 1983 leadership convention in Ottawa. Watching on TV from afar, it was my first awakening in terms of party politics. It was exciting, the personalities were strong, and the outcome far from certain.

Contenders leads the reader through each of the four ballots at the convention with flashbacks to the campaign trail, providing many vignettes of toil and struggle. The three main contenders – Clark, Mulroney, and John Crosbie – are covered in great detail. The secondary players – Michael Wilson, David Crombie, and, bizarrely as it seems now, Peter Pocklington, are also discussed. The role of Amway salesman as a political force is touched on. The race had it all!

It was a long campaign and momentum shifts take place. At one point, Mulroney’s campaign is in disarray while Clark nurtures a strong base of support and Crosbie gains momentum. Would Crosbie overtake Mulroney? As any political warrior can relate, key campaign moments change the narrative. Initiative taken, blunders made, obstacles that could not be surmounted, such as Crosbie’s inability to speak french.

Contenders takes us to the convention floor and the release of the first ballot results. With 2,991 votes cast, the winner needs almost 1,500 votes to win. Clark has a strong lead after the first ballot with 1,091 votes but he is a ways away from victory. Mulroney at 874 has breathing space over Crosbie at 639. It was a long way down to Michael Wilson at 144. As is often the case, optimism crashes on the windswept rocks of political reality and, as the authors write, “the vultures had gathered”. Wilson and Pocklington moved to maximize what was left of their political capital and walked the convention floor. It appeared they were walking to Crosbie. As noted, “Straining reporters, still ignorant of the decision the two had made, began screaming into their microphones, ‘they’re going to Crosbie!'”. But Pocklington and Wilson actually went to a “relieved” Mulroney. It was good television.

After the second ballot, it was apparent that it would not be Joe Clark’s day, though he still led, with a thin 64 vote lead over Mulroney. One of the more dramatic scenes was Newfoundland premier Brian Peckford, a Crosbie supporter, pleading with Clark to face reality. Clark stood firm and Crosbie was vanquished on the third ballot, which was now a 22-vote margin between Clark and Mulroney. Crosbie’s delegates wanted change, as did a majority of delegates, and Mulroney easily disposed of Clark on the fourth ballot by a margin of 1,584 to 1,325.

We elect leaders differently now. The outcome of the last Conservative leadership vote between Andrew Scheer and Maxime Bernier could not have been closer. However, it was just a matter of counting votes. There was no between-ballot jockeying. Is that a good thing? As much as I LOVE watching delegated conventions, whether it was the 1983 PC convention, the 1984 Liberal leadership, the 1986 BC Social Credit drama, or participating in the 1990 and 2006 Liberal races, it has its downsides too. A universal, preferential ballot for members, weighted by ridings, is not perfect but is a more democratic form of leadership selection. This is the manner in which the Conservatives are selecting their leader this weekend, and the one used in two previous BC Liberal races. It may lack drama, but drama alone should not decide how we choose leaders. A universal system draws upon skills that leaders need in a general election (and of course, you can find exceptions).

A benefit of hotly contested leadership races is the bonds that are formed among politically active members, particularly young people. The 1983 PC convention saw a generation of young politicos, particularly in Mulroney’s camp, move on to key roles in the ensuing years and decades, while maintaining a very tight network. The role of youth in the 1983 convention was influential as the authors describe the internal party coalitions that brought support to the respective candidates.

When it was published in 1983, the authors could not foresee the events that would take place. Brian Mulroney conclusively dispensed with John Turner in the 1984 election, winning the most lopsided majority in Canadian history and dominating Quebec – and won a second majority in 1988. Joe Clark became a highly respected Minister of External Affairs, and later, point man on constitutional negotiations. While there would have been no love lost between the two, they found a way to work together. Within the decade, Mulroney’s magic wore off and the PC’s decimated, eaten alive by the forces of regional alienation in Western Canada and Quebec. Joe Clark would return to the PC leadership for the 2000 election, winning an improbable seat, and helping keep the party alive – until Peter MacKay led it into a merger.

Contenders, like few other Canadian political books, not only describes what happened in the 1983 race, but how it happened, combining the disciplines of journalism, academia, and research. It informs us about what has happened since. Rarely do we see such insight from a Canadian political book that is informed by what it is actually like on the campaign trail. While it is now almost 40 years since that convention, and the publication of Contenders, it remains a Canadian classic, a reminder of a bygone time.