With the next Tory leader to be decided this August, the party faces a real conundrum: is it still possible to win both the leadership race and the next election? The conservative base has always been to the right of the median voter, but a decade ago there was still enough overlap that a skilled leader could satisfy the base as well as be moderate enough for swing voters. In the last decade however, the median voter has moved to the left, while the median conservative voter has moved to the right. This means the gap between your typical Tory voter and average Canadian voter overall has grown so wide that I am not sure it is possible anymore to do both. A moderate like Michael Chong could appeal to your median voter, but as we saw in 2017, there is no way someone like him could win the Tory nomination as leader. This means that the types who could win are those too far out of the mainstream to win nationally. I will describe below why I think this has happened and what the party needs to do to fix this long term. At this point, I am more or less resigned to the fact that it will be several years before the Tories return to power. Of course I could be wrong, but I believe the Tory problems are serious enough that it will take time to fix them and in order to do that, Tories need to stop being in denial of reality.
- Millennials have come of age. A decade ago, about half of millennials were not old enough to vote, but now even some of those from Generation Z are old enough to vote. Often young people’s political orientations are set by events that happen as they come of age. Double digit inflation, 18% interest rates, and debt crises all happened as Generation X came of age. Since the status quote was not working, they decided change was needed. For Millennials, it was the Great Recession which created a whole bunch of difficulties that led to this group questioning the neo-liberal consensus and whether free markets really worked. Unlike their parents, many of this group can only dream of home ownership by age 30, and many are stuck in low paying jobs and unable to move up. In addition, concerns about rising inequality and climate change has made many question if the current economic system even works. While socialism is not the answer, many tend to focus on the flaws of the current system and to believe that the grass is greener on the other side.
- As mentioned in an earlier blog, Canada is the most educated country on earth, and educated people tend to be more willing to try new things rather than just stick with what they are comfortable with. In the 80’s it was the educated who voted with the right, while the less educated voted to the left. Today it is the exact opposite and I attribute that to the more educated pinpointing flaws in the system and being willing to experiment with something different, while those less educated prefer to stick to what they know.
- Urbanization: like all countries, we are becoming more urban and with those in the cities being more likely to lean left, the advantage grows simply based on where voters predominately live.
- More diversity. It has been shown throughout the world that people living in diverse areas tend to vote for more progressive parties than those living in more ethnically homogeneous communities. Canada has a higher immigration rate than almost anywhere else so change is happening faster than in other countries. This means that parties that appeal to those who embrace diversity have a brighter future than those who don’t.
In the past, this was not an issue, as when the public moved left in the 60’s, all parties shifted left so that overall the political landscape didn’t change much. The same thing happened in the 80’s and 90’s when the public swung right. However now, unlike the past, you have seen a divergence with centrist and left wing voters moving left, while right wing voters become more right wing. As such, Liberals and NDP parties have adjusted by moving left, while the Tories are put in a difficult spot. If they move closer to the center to adjust for voter shifts, they will lose their base, while a move to the right puts them at odds with mainstream voters. Ekos polling on immigration and climate change had tracked attitudes on this and over the last decade the divergence has been quite striking with the Tories saying we have too many non whites and that climate change is a hoax, while the other parties disagree with this point of view.
The reason I think the Tory base has become more right wing is due to the fast pace of change. Much of their hardcore base consists of white males without a post secondary degree. This group historically has a lot of clout and they used to do quite well economically. But that is no longer the case. And as they loss their privilege, rather than adjusting, this group becomes angry and bitter. As such, they are clinging to their guns and religion, as Obama stated back in 2008. When people are angry at changes in society, they are prone to go to extremes, which is what is happening here. In many countries this demographic is large enough that they are actually able to win. In addition the collapse of oil prices and Alberta’s strong drop in the standard of living has made this especially acute there – this is why you are seeing a growing divide between Alberta and Saskatchewan on the one side and the remaining eight provinces on the other.
With the above in mind one can see that the Tories have a serious problem and they need to realize that there is no easy fix. That doesn’t mean giving up on winning the next election, but it also doesn’t mean going for broke either. It means accepting that unless Trudeau messes up badly (which he has shown pre-crisis to be prone to do), that the Tories really need to focus on how to bridge the gap between their base and the median voter. More importantly, they need to ensure that when they do likely lose, that they are still strong enough to win the next round. One possibility is to be vague as possible during their leadership election, only to bring out the specifics later so that the new leader can pivot the party more toward the center without looking like a flip flopper. That appears to be the path that Mackey and O’Toole are going. However, I am not sure that will work as while Canadians may not be paying close attention, the Liberals are and they will be sure to remind voters come next election. A better way is for whomever wins to tell the party how things are, as I get the impression that the vast majority of Tories are in denial. Many actually believe their views are in line with mainstream voters when they are not. Others assume an economic collapse is coming soon and then voters will come to their senses. Or they just blame the media. But it is not the media’s fault the Tories are unpopular, it is the fact that people don’t like what they are selling. And while Canada has some huge economic challenges ahead, we are still years away from being where countries like Greece and Argentina are and we will never be like Venezuela so those predicting a total economic collapse will have to wait a long time. Instead, the next Tory leader should speak to concerns that all Canadians have and offer positive solutions. This will help non Tory voters be a lot more comfortable with the party, while the base can hopefully find a more positive way to deal with their anxieties.
Admittedly there is no easy solution here, but if the party doesn’t wake up and smell the coffee (that was the publication title that Lord Ashcroft
wrote for Labour in the UK after their recent drubbing and I believe it applies to the Tories here), then they will continue to lose. As I have learned in life, if there is a problem, you cannot fix it until you identify it and then it takes time and patience. So far the Tories haven’t even made it to the first stage. I still want an alternative to the Liberals, but I am quite concerned that too few on the right are aware of how bad a situation they are in.