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Canada’s working class is on the march. The place where many of them see their political home is undergoing a profound realignment, and what’s more interesting than the destination is what’s driving them there.

It used to be that the NDP was the undisputed home of blue-collar workers. Election financing reform in 2003 weakened the party’s formal links to unions that were no longer permitted to make fat political donations, but the NDP’s connection to the workers those unions represented remained strong. That has quietly been shifting over the past 20 years in a way that mirrors patterns seen in other countries, but also has a distinctly Canadian twist.

A study last year in the Canadian Journal of Political Science took a close look at Canada’s working-class voters. Class-based voting patterns have traditionally gotten little attention in Canada because the perception was that regional, linguistic and religious patterns are more dominant. Based on their findings, the authors of this study argue that was “a fairly simplistic view”: class may not be the strongest thing driving Canadian voters, but it matters.

Their data came from the Canadian Election Study, a sprawling survey that’s tracked voter behaviour and attitudes on big economic, social and political issues in every election year since 1965.

Examining those results through to the 2019 federal election, researchers from the University of Quebec in Montreal, Wilfrid Laurier University and McMaster University found the NDP has drawn support from several other class groups in recent years, diluting its traditional working-class support. More to the point, since 2004, there was a “clear trend” in working-class voters migrating to the Conservatives, mostly at the expense of the Liberals. In 2019, Tory support among the working class reached “historic highs,” they found.

Even more interesting is what’s fuelling this rise in working-class conservatism. The study finds that moral traditionalism (such as believing society would be better off if fewer women worked outside the home) and negative feelings about immigration are “increasingly significant” factors in working-class alignment with the Conservatives.

However, the authors note that while anti-immigration views have broadly fuelled a working-class move toward right-leaning parties internationally, in Canada that connection is “comparatively weak” and overall support for immigration is high.

In the end, what the researchers saw from their bird’s-eye view is that working-class voters who have shifted to the Conservatives have been driven by cultural issues such as moral traditionalism and immigration. But those who have stayed with the NDP are more likely to be compelled by economic issues, especially their views on how much should be done to shrink the gap between the rich and poor.

So for those who fled to the Conservatives, it was about social issues, and for those who stayed with the New Democrats, it was the economy, stupid.

“Post-2000 marks a watershed, whereby culturally right-wing members of the working class gradually abandoned the Liberals and NDP for the Conservatives,” the researchers wrote. This growing phenomenon of working-class conservatism has been “largely hidden” in Canada, the authors write, because of the focus on the relationship between working-class voters and the NDP, or on the regional, linguistic and religious effects that were thought to be more relevant to where Canadians parked their political support.

But this conservative shift among Canada’s blue-collar workers is occurring at the precise moment when their issues and concerns have never been more relevant. The COVID-19 pandemic made all the invisible gears of society suddenly very visible, which made it obvious that they weren’t gears at all, but people – most of them working blue-collar jobs to keep the rest of the world functioning.

And now, affordability, what it takes to build a decent life and the corrosive results when people feel like they’re forced to give up on any idea of upward mobility or even treading water is an issue so visceral that it will swallow whole any politician or party who fails to give it proper attention.

The past few years have been one extended, evolving paroxysm of collective rage against that unfairness. This is a battle the working class is perfectly suited to fight, and any political party wishing to woo them back – or hold onto them – had better have concrete solutions on offer.

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