MACLEAN’S REPORTS

Stephen Lewis: the boy socialist who’s giving the old-line parties lessons in winning elections

JACK BATTEN December 14 1964

MACLEAN’S REPORTS

Stephen Lewis: the boy socialist who’s giving the old-line parties lessons in winning elections

JACK BATTEN December 14 1964

MACLEAN’S REPORTS

Stephen Lewis: the boy socialist who’s giving the old-line parties lessons in winning elections

WHEN THE NEW DEMOCRATIC Party won its upset victory in the federal by-election in Waterloo South (Ont.) last November 9, each of the two major parties managed to pass off the result as somehow a repudiation of the other major party’s recent policies. And at the same time both managed not to pass on credit to the real architects of the NDP win. That credit rightly belongs to a tenacious team of Ontario NDP workers and, more particularly, to Stephen Lewis, a young party official who is rapidly emerging as the team’s captain—and as one of the most successful back-room strategists in Canadian politics.

Lewis is a slender, intense, twenty-seven-year-old socialist who wears a look of vulnerable innocence that hardly suits the atmosphere of smoke-filled committee rooms. But in action he is a toughminded pro with all the hard political savvy that his record over the last eighteen months indicates. In

that time, Lewis and his NDP team have expertly engineered three remarkable victories. First came Lewis’s own election to the Ontario Legislature, by a comfortable 2,500-vote margin in the midst of the 1963 Tory provincial sweep. Next, a provincial by-election victory, in September 1964, in the once safely Tory riding of Toronto Riverdale (a victory that also overturned the bandwagon that the Liberal candidate, former evangelist and Toronto Daily Star editor Charles Templeton, expected to ride to the provincial party leadership). And then the surprise win in Waterloo South, a riding that had voted True Blue Tory in every election but two since the day Sir Wilfrid Laurier left office.

There’s nothing strikingly novel about the tactics that Lewis used to pull off these results. His success owes more to dogged dedication than to brilliant coups. Like all young politicians, Lewis has

read The Making of the President 1960, Theodore White's primer on how the Kennedys win elections, but the one lesson he took from the book (apart from the realization that the Kennedys win elections with the help of money the NDP doesn’t have) was something he found in a footnote. It said campaign workers, who are after all political amateurs and part-timers, function best when they are given a series of constantly and slyly receding goals. Ever since, Lewis has been perfectly willing to set goals that work his canvassers to the edge of stupor—and in at least three elections the NDP workers, all one thousand of them in Waterloo South, seem to thrive on the challenges.

Another rule Lewis sticks to faithfully is never to fight a campaign on pre-determined strategy. In Waterloo, he says, the Tories and Liberals relied on literature written by public relations men outside the riding. The NDP played the by-election by ear—and put together its strategy and literature as the campaign progressed. Late each night, Marjorie Pinney, considered something of a political genius by others on the NDP team, grilled a few key canvassers on their evening’s work to find out what the voters were really talking about. When the canvassers made their next poll, they were equipped with pamphlets designed to mean something to the voters, apart from more litter.

Lewis used his canvassers in Waterloo as informal opinion-takers. By the time canvassers had polled each voter four to six times over a nine-week period, Lewis could predict almost to a man how the riding would vote. On election day, Lewis’s team was dispatched to drive, escort and carry to the voting places slightly over twelve thousand people whom Lewis considered certain or very probable NDP supporters. The party that day registered 12,508 votes.

Lewis took his early political lessons at his father’s knee — his father is David Lewis, a former New Democratic MP and deputy leader. But, in the last ten years, Lewis’s lessons have come from grass-roots experience in campaigns. His only time off from politics came in 1960-61 when he taught high school and college classes in Ghana and Nigeria and helped arrange an airlift to carry African students to Canadian universities. Now he’s back at politics full-time, and, fresh from the Waterloo triumph, he’s launching a mild assault on the last holdout against party politics — municipal government. In this month’s elections in Scarborough, a Toronto suburb, the NDP is fielding three council candidates. After Lewis’s record, no one is daring to bet against him — least of all the voters.

JACK BATTEN