Vae victis. Woe, as the Romans said, to the vanquished.
That Andrew Scheer would have to resign as Conservative leader was probably inevitable, from the moment the results were known on election night. Canadian political parties are not kind to leaders in defeat, the price of the extraordinary power vested in them at other times.
It is not just the right decision, then, but the only one, not just for the party’s sake but for his. The alternative would have been another six months of brutal political infighting, of which the expediently timed revelation of Mr. Scheer’s use of party funds to pay for his children’s education was only a foretaste. Had there been any chance of surviving the leadership review, he might have risked it. That there was not became evident less from the loud attacks of his critics than from the silence of his supporters.
It wasn’t just that he lost, of course, but the way he lost: condemned in a winnable race by his own failings as a communicator, especially with regard to what should have been obvious vulnerabilities on social issues and his biography, coupled with the complacent campaign of warmed-over Harperism he signed off on.
But Mr. Scheer’s leadership, uninspiring as it was, wasn’t the only, or even the worst, contributor to the party’s defeat. Neither will his departure, in itself, fix the Conservatives’ deep and long-standing problems, especially the party’s continuing inability to break out of its existing demographic base – rural, elderly, male, white, less educated and, above all, Western.
The best that can be said is that it will clear the way for the party to focus on these, to debate its future direction, in the course of the coming leadership campaign, rather than dwell on Mr. Scheer’s personal strengths and weaknesses. But that assumes the party seizes the opportunity.
The temptation will be to do instead as the Liberals did, after suffering the worst defeat in the party’s history, and glom onto a saviour – someone who can win by the force of their own personality or name recognition, sparing the party the necessity to change or grow or rethink much of anything. That is a luxury the Liberals, with their long history of electoral success, can better afford than the Tories, with their long history of electoral non-success.
That, indeed, is part of the problem. Repeated defeats have instilled in the Conservatives an abiding insecurity, a conviction that the electoral odds are stacked against them – that, as more than one Conservative has told me over the years, Canada is fundamentally a Liberal country. As such, they insist, the party cannot hope to persuade the public of the virtues of an alternative, conservative governing philosophy. Either conservatism must be jettisoned, therefore, in favour of centrist mush, or it must be imposed, as it were, by force – or, in the Harperite formulation, both.
The first and most important step, then, is for Conservatives to develop some elemental self-confidence; to accept that they are in the persuasion game, and that the answer to electoral failure is not to ditch their principles but to find a way to make them more presentable to larger numbers of people. That’s not just a matter of messaging, but of applying conservative principles – limited government, markets, individual rights – to issues and concerns of relevance to today’s voters: the sorts of issues, like the environment, or inequality, that Conservatives have tended to duck.
Put that way, it sounds obvious. But the party will be unwilling to part with its base on these issues, perhaps out of fear that the base will part with the party, in favour of the still-kicking People’s Party or some other populist vehicle. I really don’t think the party needs to purge its social-conservative wing, as some have advocated. But social conservatives, like other elements of the party’s coalition, will have to understand the necessity of proportion, and respect for others’ opinions, and tone.
Politics, it is said, is a battle for the centre. But what most voters mean by moderation is not ideology but temperament. You can offer the most radical program you like, within reason, so long as you look like you have thought carefully about it, could be persuaded out of it by facts and argument, and grasp the necessity of persuading others by the same means.
Radicalism is not the enemy – medicare was a radical idea, as was free trade. Extremism is. The one is about ideas, the other about temperament. Donald Trump, to take an example at random, is hardly a radical ideologue; indeed, he has no convictions of any kind. But he is an extremist.
Success in politics, as in business or art, goes not to the party that simply gives people what they want, but that makes them want what it is giving them. It’s not about moving to the middle, but moving the middle to you.