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.
6 thoughts on “Tory leadership Conundrum”
I like your writing and most often agree with you but please – have a heart for readers and paragraph more. It’s very hard on the eyes to read such a solid block of text with few breaks.
The shift-key is your friend!
Actually did have breaks, but did on another computer and somehow not showing them. I will try to fix this.
Forgive the wall of text, but here’s what I think needs to happen: Harper needs to become persona non grata, and Peter MacKay deserves to lose and to exit public life for the very fact alone that without his betrayal, Harper wouldn’t have a career outside Preston Manning’s mail room. I say this as a Liberal supporter: even I want the CPC to embrace sunny-ways politics before it’s too late. Harper needs to go, and the alt-right, the so-cons completely flushed. Not just quieted but exiled altogether. His and Kenney’s GOP-inspired, Reform Party influence upon Canadian public discourse is as toxic to the country as Trump and the Tea Party have been to the U.S. The Tories’ rhetoric and policy positions are driven almost entirely by GOP strategists and the online conspiracy base, which is juvenile and feral and has a dangerous and bizarre personal fixation upon Trudeau and his family in the way that Trump does for Obama and Hillary Clinton. Carbon pricing is a market-based, small-c conservative climate policy. But Trudeau supports it, therefore it’s bad, and not only bad but a communist sellout of sovereignty to George Soros and the lizard people. It’s ridiculous and it needs to stop.
For me it’s not about winning elections, though I hope the Grits continue to do so but have already begun wondering myself what Trudeau will do in his post-prime ministerial career whenever that time may come. It’s about the derangement with which Harper’s organization is currently poisoning the populace. Granted, there are shrill partisans across the spectrum, but it appears that only the present incarnation of the CPC wears it as a badge of pride, while simultaneously attempting to downplay it in polite company. Politics, even conservative politics, shouldn’t have to be mean or abusive, but that’s the style the brain trust employs. There are respectable, compassionate people like Hugh Segal and Charles Adler, who have been shamed as sellouts for not being nasty to the “undeserving” or swallowing the poison pill of abject hatred for PMJT. Even Ford has risen to the occasion as of late. He has praised Freeland and Trudeau and says he wants to work constructively with them to get Ontario through the corona crisis. Unfortunately, in today’s conservative parlance, that’s the equivalent of crossing the floor and signing on with Gerald Butts. Some former Ford supporters have taken to calling him “Doug McGuilty” just because he doesn’t loathe Trudeau the way they do.
I recall how PMJT had to wear a bulletproof vest at one of his campaign events, while the reply columns to official party and candidate webpages are infested with threats to his life and unrepeatable tripe about his marriage, his sexual orientation, libelous allegations of unspeakable things done to children at the school where he taught, American copycat memes linking him to QAnon and the Clinton foundation, etc. Not a peep is uttered by anyone in the leadership race to condemn any of it, because they don’t want to lose votes. It remains to be seen whether his eventual departure as LPC leader tamps any of this down. I predict not. Neither Obama nor Clinton are in politics anymore but it hasn’t stopped the Republicans from invoking their names as hate fuel. Trudeau fils unfortunately has a last name that riles up the base like some kind of twisted Pavlovian incantation. Pierre has been dead some twenty years and out of office for nearly forty. Yet they blame Justin for things his father said or did (or didn’t) that he had nothing to do with, as a child. To make matters worse, they blame… Margaret for Justin’s existence? Are they going to blame Hadrien for the carbon tax just like their American cousins blame Chelsea and the baby Mezvinskys for the death of Vince Foster?
The public faces of the party won’t own up to their complicity in amplifying such garbage as Rebel Media, Buffalo Chronicle etc. If the media is at fault for anything, it’s in not pressing them enough on it, if at all, or outright mainstreaming it, as the G&M did when they gave op-ed space to Ezra Levant, the equivalent of running an Alex Jones column in the New York Times. As long as the fringe extremists are given a voice at all, let alone free rein to steer policy and especially messaging, the CPC will continue to wear this ugly stain. They will continue to wear it until Harper and his Republicanized nasties are driven out and whoever replaces him exercises some quality control over not just what they say, but how they say it, and who they align themselves with. They need to be the party of Joe Clark once more, just like the GOP needs to become the party of Charlie Baker. They need to tell Harper, Flanagan, Kenney, Levant, etc. to get lost. Even if it causes a permanent split over to the PPC, Christian Heritage, or a neo-Reform Party, and they never form government again, the country will be better for it. Or if they do at some point, it won’t be with wannabe Trumpists and the religious right in their ranks. Where is that good old average Joe who can Make Conservatives Progressive Again?
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Agreed although tough to do and almost means throwing away next two elections, but agree Reform party elements need to be shamed out of existence. But also ordinary Canadians need to tell others including family and friends that holding such views is unCanadian and unacceptable. Yes we still believe in diversity of viewpoints but Reform party emerging on political scene was worst thing that happened in Canadian history. I don’t think though exiling Harper is really feasible, but wish it was but after winning three terms, many forget how much Canada has shifted to the left since thus whatever popularity Harper had at the time, he is loathed by Canadians today and I don’t see Canadians swinging back to Harper ideology anytime soon.
Much better, thanks so much.
The CPC makes a lot more sense when you realize that most of those at the top think the Reform Party was a screaming success and not the decade-and-a-half-long cluster*bleep* it really was. (The ones who don’t think this pretend that they do.)
The other belief they cling to is from the pro-life cause. The best thing is to control the apparatus, even if you don’t win. So grab those riding nominations and drive off the moderates or “sell-outs” as they call them, because eventually the public will toss the LPC out of office and then it won’t matter because there will be a wave of CPC into federal office without anyone having to talk about the stuff that might turn people off. Just get into government, then it will be time enough to do all the so-con things they want. Might take a while, two or three elections but hey, it’s better than getting a moderate conservative government.
That’s the real reason Scheer is so hilariously squishy about his beliefs and why Harper came down like an avalanche on those who stupidly let the cat out of the bag. They don’t want a bigger tent; they want a small tent with strategically smart people knowing when to shut up. Of course the base doesn’t get this, they’d rather get the red meat they need to hear on a regular basis.
So that’s why Erin O’Toole and Peter McKay say they’re willing to force an election this fall (with all kinds of conditions that won’t pan out) – they’re not dumb enough to think the CPC would win, but the base is, and they need to be kept on the boil. EOT and PMK are riding very cranky tigers but they don’t know what else to do.
A lot of the base spend too much time looking at success of right in US and assume it can be replicated here. Or wrongly assume most of Canada is as right wing as Alberta when it is not. Never mind even Alberta is not nearly as right wing as people think. It only votes heavily right wing federally as other parties are viewed as hostile to province. If Liberals and NDP were more pro-oil sands I think Calgary and especially Edmonton would be much more competitive. If Notley was leader of either party, she would win most of Edmonton and even some Calgary seats.
Reform party had a solid base of 20%, but was loathed by most outside of that never mind of those who weren’t eligible to vote in 90s (not born then, too young, or immigrated since), very few support Reform’s agenda. While I would venture to say majority of Reform voters from 90s are dead now so demographic shift is strongly against them. And back in 90s, Republicans in US were more reasonable so Reform ideas were more theoretical. This century we have seen their ideas in action in US and Canadians have said loud and clear we don’t want these.
That being said won’t be an election this fall as need BQ and NDP to bring government down while Liberals won’t call one despite temptation since if called and 2nd wave of COVID-19 comes, whomever triggered it will pay dearly. I think MacKay and O’Toole will be more moderate than Scheer once leader but their right wing ideas during leadership race will provide Liberals with lots of ammo for attack ads. Thus why I say Tories are in a rut. Cannot win leadership without giving Liberals lots of attack ad ammo and cannot win general election if right wing enough for leadership. So while nothing is certain, I would say there is a 90% or greater chance Liberals win next election. Question is whether it is a majority or minority. And even if Tories win plurality, they won’t form government as no allies in parliament so my prediction is next Tory government is at least a decade away quite possibly more.