It’s been nearly seven decades and 17 elections since Windsor-Tecumseh last sent a Progressive Conservative to the Ontario legislature.
Just four years ago, the NDP candidate coasted to an easy win, with a 31-point margin over his PC rival. There was a similarly sized lopsided victory in the June 2 vote – but it was the Tory that romped to a 16-point win this time.
The same pattern held in the nearby riding of Essex, and seven other ridings across Ontario, where NDP-held seats flipped to the Tories, often with enormous swings in their favour, as this chart shows.
For Monte McNaughton, Labour Minister since 2019 in Doug Ford’s first-term cabinet, that dynamic is proof that his party is reaping the benefits from a pivot to focusing on blue-collar concerns, including endorsements from private-sector unions.
In his election night speech, Mr. McNaughton gave a call out to blue-collar workers; as he put it, those who “shower at the end of the day.”
“We’ve certainly attracted those kind of workers into our coalition,” he said.
The party’s newfound focus on blue-collar concerns helped it to flip several ridings from the NDP. Both the Tories and NDP say that signals a realignment in Ontario politics.
That focus was noticeably absent at the start of the Ford government’s first term in 2018, when it cancelled plans by its Liberal predecessor to increase the hourly minimum wage to $15. And the provincial Tories moved slowly to introduce paid sick days during the pandemic.
But the government’s tone and policies shifted noticeably last fall, starting with a move to reduce the barriers immigrants face in getting their credentials accepted in Canada. A broad package of labour-friendly reforms – the unsubtly-named Working for Workers Act – followed that. The next month, the Tories capped off the pivot with the announcement that the minimum wage would rise to $15 an hour in 2022. In the runup to the election, the PCs also proposed new rights for gig workers, and expanded tax credits for low-income workers.
Progressive critics have dismissed many of those moves as half-measures that are designed to head off full-blown reforms, particularly in the case of gig workers. Mr. McNaughton’s counterpoint: There’s more to come.
There are signs of changing voting patterns in Mr. McNaughton’s southwest riding of Lambton-Kent-Middlesex, sandwiched between Sarnia and London. In 2018, Mr. McNaughton won handily with 55 per cent of the vote, a 22-point margin over his NDP rival.
Four years later, his proportion of the vote (in a low-turnout election) edged up to 59 per cent. But his margin of victory, again over an NDP candidate, almost doubled to 40 per cent. That happened in spite of upstart right-wing parties gaining 8 per cent of the vote in 2022 in Lambton-Kent-Middlesex.
There’s no way to know for certain if that slice of the electorate previously supported the Tories. But the results do show that Mr. McNaughton was able to easily outdistance the NDP, even with a sizable number of voters opting for less centrist conservative parties. His shift to the centre was helped along by one key endorsement: Jason Henry, Chief of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation – and a candidate for the NDP in the 2021 federal election.
Mr. McNaughton says bringing working-class voters into the Tory fold was key to that victory. He says his belief about the need to woo such voters has its roots in the aisles of the hardware store that his family operated in the area, where he rubbed elbows with tradespeople constantly. “Most of my best friends were in the trades,” he says of his youth.
Greg Lyle, president of Innovative Research Group, says it is too soon to conclude that the Progressive Conservatives have succeeded in adding blue-collar voters to their coalition – although there are some intriguing early indications.
Mr. Lyle’s polling indicates the Tories have made progress among a group of voters he calls “thrifty moderates,” who are fiscal conservatives that still see a role for activist government. Saskatchewan New Democrats that pioneered medicare while balancing the budget would be an example, he says. In 2018, the Tories, NDP and Liberals were essentially tied for support among thrifty moderates. But in 2022, the PCs had opened up a clear lead, with the NDP dropping to a distant third place.
The pollster says a series of local factors could explain the flipped ridings: announcements of new manufacturing plants in the Windsor area, for instance. In Timmins – which saw the largest swing between the NDP and the Tories – the PC candidate was the city’s popular mayor.
The effect of a historically low turnout, just 43 per cent, is another unknown, although the decline in the NDP vote in ridings such as Timmins and Windsor-Tecumseh was much larger than the drop in turnout.
But it is possible that the swings in Windsor-Tecumseh, Timmins and other ridings are the start of a realignment in Ontario politics, Mr. Lyle says. “They could be little pockets of the future.”
NDP strategist Brad Lavigne is unequivocal, however, saying he is convinced that a realignment is under way. In his view, Liberal support has fragmented in the last two elections, with progressive voters migrating to the NDP and blue-collar voters jumping to the Tories. The flip side to the increased Tory margins in southwest Ontario is increased NDP margins on June 2 in core urban ridings in Ottawa and Toronto.
Mr. Lavigne says Mr. Ford has clearly succeeded in forging a new coalition for the Progressive Conservatives. Prying those new voters away from the Tories will be a key question in the race to replace outgoing NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, he says.
However, Mr. Lavigne (who was the campaign manager for the federal NDP’s breakthrough in 2011, when the party formed the Official Opposition) said he does not believe that Mr. Ford’s success is a template for the federal Conservatives. Chief Henry also gives a sense of the limits of Mr. Ford’s coalition: he says the social conservatism of the federal Tories means he remains a supporter of progressive politics.
But Mr. McNaughton believes the formula of tailoring policies to the needs of working-class families is a path that others can follow. “This is where leading conservative parties need to be.”
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