Photographer: David Kawai/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Artillery Row

The rediscovery of red Toryism

Could the Canadian Conservatives teach the Tories how to hold onto power?

Canada is going to the polls on the 20 September in a snap election called by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It’s his gamble to restore the majority he lost in 2019 and push forward with an agenda for Canada’s post-pandemic recovery. This also marks a break from the uneasy political truce that has existed for much of the pandemic.

The Liberals’ initial poll lead, which he managed to maintain over the past year, has now slumped, placing the Conservatives ahead and within striking distance of being the largest party. Trudeau might be about to get the treatment Theresa May received after calling a snap election in the middle of a national crisis — it even remains possible that he will lose power altogether.

After six years in government, Trudeau’s Liberals have lost the sheen they had when entering office in 2015. A string of corruption scandals and pictures of Trudeau wearing blackface in his youth put a dent in their reputation. Support for a carbon tax has generated resentment in the provinces and a prolonged fight in the courts. But over the past few weeks, Trudeau has come under increased pressure, causing a fall in his poll numbers.

Much like their British counterparts, the Canadian Conservatives have been long at ease with the welfare state

Despite being widely credited for guiding the country through the pandemic, serious problems have come to the surface. The Canadian recovery has slowed down, with GDP shrinking by 1.1 per cent in this year’s second quarter, inflation creeping above 3 per cent, and the deficit ballooned to C$314 billion in 2020/21. There has been significant opposition to Trudeau’s proposal to introduce a vaccine mandate for federal employees and workers in key industries on top of a mismanaged withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Even if Canadians feel that it might be time for a change or that Trudeau is no longer up to the job, the Conservatives cannot expect victory to fall into their lap. Under Stephen Harper, the Conservatives governed Canada for nine years. As Conservative leader from 2017 to 2020, Andrew Scheer largely stood by Harper’s free-market ideology, only making modest gains in the 2019 general election. 

After Scheer stood down as Conservative leader, the party faced a choice between Peter MacKay, a prominent moderate and former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party that merged with the Canadian Alliance in 2003 to form today’s Conservative Party, and Erin O’Toole, a veteran who promised “true blue leadership”. O’Toole ran an effective campaign that embraced digital campaigning, but he has been repositioning his party away from his predecessors since becoming Conservative leader.

O’Toole has adopted a socially moderate approach that accepts the legalisation of cannabis, supported same sex marriage, and stated that he is pro-choice. Even carbon pricing has been adopted by the Conservatives. These more liberal stances put him at odds with his more socially conservative predecessors, but it is in economic policy that O’Toole has been making some of his biggest departures from the past in a bid to win over working-class voters.

Centre-right politics across the anglosphere has been going through a realignment. Brexit and Donald Trump have triggered a shift in working-class support away from traditional left-wing parties and towards the right. Disillusionment with the impact of globalisation and the primacy of the knowledge economy has led to working-class Canadians feeling left behind and ignored. The failure of social democratic and liberal parties to address this crisis has created an opportunity for Conservatives like O’Toole to present an alternative.

Over the past year, O’Toole has been crafting an economic message that can win over working-class voters and reconcile conservatism with state intervention. O’Toole still believes that government should live within its means. But O’Toole has outlined proposals for a federal state that uses its power to directly empower Canadian workers and protect social institutions. This is nothing less than a reclaiming of the Canadian Red Tory heritage.

The Conservatives in Canada serve as a useful example of how a big-tent, centre-right party can succeed

Unveiling his platform last month, “Canada’s Recovery Plan — Secure the Future”, O’Toole set out a range of language and policy that presents a more progressive brand of conservatism. It declares that “It’s time for Conservatives to take inequality seriously” and “Canada is a community. Our goal is the common good of all Canadians”. The plan includes promises to put workers on the boards of big companies, encourage employee ownership, strengthen union rights and representation, offer more protections for gig economy workers, and investing more into infrastructure, training, and research.

That is not to say the Conservatives used to be a ruggedly libertarian force before O’Toole. Much like their British counterparts, they have been long at ease with the welfare state. It was Harper’s government that first introduced universal child allowances in 2006 with much success. But O’Toole wants to take welfare reform even further, pledging higher Employment Insurance benefits for provinces that go into recession. However, the definition of a recession would not be a fall in GDP, but a 0.5 per cent increase in unemployment over one quarter.

The task of winning over working-class voters away from the Liberals, as well as the more left-wing New Democratic Party, is made easier by the fact that O’Toole does not face a challenge from his right flank. Canada’s populist moment happened during the 1990s, splitting the centre-right vote for over a decade. When the two parties decided to “unite the right” in 2003, it put the Conservatives on a more sustainable footing. This experience is very different from Britain where the Conservatives have kept populist parties at arm’s length, but it still holds some interesting lessons.

The Conservatives in Canada serve as a useful example of how a big-tent, centre-right party can succeed. Alongside winning over working-class voters, O’Toole will need to hold onto suburban moderates, ethnic minorities, and the Québécois. This requires a delicate balancing of an electoral coalition where tensions between different groups of voters have to be managed and minimised but can never be entirely removed. It also means taking advantage of the political weather to build a coalition that can win a majority. O’Toole’s shift in his economic message indicates he is prepared to do just that.

There is no guarantee that O’Toole will have an opportunity to deliver on his plan for Canada. Trudeau could still regain momentum before election day, but it has placed the Canadian Conservatives on a new trajectory towards the revival of Red Toryism. As British Conservatives consider how to consolidate their gains with working-class voters whilst holding onto their middle-class strongholds, it is worth keeping a close eye on Canada. The result could show just how viable a communitarian and moderate centre-right can be in a world transformed by Covid.

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