As the Conservatives mourn their latest election loss, the 24th they have suffered in the past 37 elections, the party can console itself that it is not short of advice. Dump the leader! Keep the leader! Broaden the base! Build on the one you have! Lean to the left! Lean to the right! Stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight!
For his part, Erin O’Toole seems to attribute the loss mostly to failings of strategy and tactics. He has appointed defeated Alberta MP James Cumming to chair a review of “what went wrong” with the campaign, as if it were all just a matter of buying too many ads on TV and not enough on Facebook, or what have you.
Strategy and tactics are not irrelevant. Among the many, many faults of first past the post is that it encourages parties to win not as many votes as they can, but as few as they must, targeting their energies on a couple dozen knife-edge ridings and largely ignoring the rest. A few thousand votes either way can thus mark the difference between government and opposition, as indeed they did this time.
But in the broad strokes it still comes down to this: are people buying what you’re selling? Or: are you selling them something worth buying – a program that is distinctive, relevant, appealing and, if at all possible, right?
On this score, the Cumming review could report back today. The problem, it might say, is simple: “We don’t know what we stand for. Where we do, we’re afraid to let the public in on it. In many cases that is with good reason. On most of the issues that are relevant to the public, we either have nothing to say, or we say the same thing as the Liberals, or we are wildly offside with both popular and expert opinion.”
These strike me as far more important considerations than whether the platform moved too far to the “middle,” or stayed too far to the “right.” People in politics talk about these as if they were fixed and immutable reference points, like the Greenwich meridian. They are not.
Politics is not just about occupying the middle ground, but defining where the middle is. Pull enough of the public your way, and that becomes the new middle. Balanced budgets were heresy for a long time. Then they were orthodoxy. Just now they are heresy again, but I have no doubt they will be orthodoxy before long – provided somebody makes the argument.
In any event, the proposition the Conservatives placed before the people in this election was less a move to the middle than a move to the muddle. There was no attempt to ground the proposals in any coherent set of principles, conservative or otherwise. Instead the public was presented with a bewildering series of contradictions: between the platform and established party doctrine, on everything from deficits to taxes to free trade; between the platform and the leader, who repudiated key sections of it under pressure; between the leader and the base, and indeed between the leader and himself – the tough-talking “Take Back Canada” candidate who seduced the party in last year’s leadership race, versus the squidgy “I Take It Back” candidate into which he transformed himself the moment he was elected.
This is how you get a platform that proposes both to mandate worker representation on company boards and legalize assault rifles, with a ban on puppy mills in the bargain.
The point has been made that, having remade himself at least twice already, Mr. O’Toole is now suffering something of an authenticity deficit, which a shift back to the right, in a bid to mollify the party’s disaffected base, could only make worse.
But the same is true of the party. Leaders such as Mr. O’Toole are invariably symptoms of a party that has lost its way. The lurch to the left in the latest Conservative platform was hardly new: the party has been steaming steadily leftward for most of the past 20 years. (Compare the platforms from 2004 or even 2006 with more recent instalments: the difference is striking.)
It’s just that most of the concessions have been made by the party’s economic conservatives, who are closest to the mainstream but least sure of themselves. Privatization, reform of social services, deregulation, never mind balanced budgets: no one in the conservative movement even talks about these any more.
That leaves a residue of hardcore cultural conservatives, who are furthest from the mainstream but most sure of themselves. Result: a platform that has little distinctive to offer on the sorts of bread-and-butter issues that might appeal to centrist voters, but lots to remind them why they aren’t Conservatives and don’t much like them.
Of course, part of the reason the party has had so little to say about policy is that it, like other Canadian political parties, has been so wholly subsumed in the leader. When the leader is the party and the party is the leader, then policy is whatever the leader says it is at any given moment. Tuesday’s party caucus meeting, with its historic vote to arm itself with the power to dismiss the leader at any time, is a step toward redressing this.
But the party itself has some deep thinking to do. For more than a hundred years, the Conservatives have been, as it is said, the spare wheel of Canadian politics, elected only after the public has grown sufficiently fed up with the Liberals. If they aspire to be something more, they need first to consider why they are something other: why they are not Liberals, assuming this is explained by fundamental differences over policy and not the other way around.
What are the core beliefs they share that are not shared by the Liberals? Where is the overlap between what they believe and what the public can be convinced of? How can they expand that overlap, whether by better explaining existing policies or adopting new ones, consistent with their core beliefs, but applied to new problems, of concern to the sorts of voters they have not reached before?
On the other hand, which of the beliefs to which they have clung until now are out of date, or cannot be sold to the public, or are simply wrong (or, when it comes to the party’s mulish opposition to carbon pricing, all three?)
If the Conservatives were to take this up with some vigour, they might be surprised at the result. They might find they could get a hearing for distinctly conservative, even radical proposals for improving Canada’s economic growth, if they were combined with sensible, market-oriented environmentalism and substantive proposals for addressing inequality.
In this way they might define a new middle. Instead of moving to the middle, they might move the middle to them.
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