The Conservative Party of Canada is at a dangerous tipping point. Despite the best efforts of leader Erin O’Toole, the party lost seats in suburban ridings in last week’s election.
The Conservatives are at risk of entering an ideological spiral in which they become disconnected from the communities in which more than two thirds of Canadians live, even as rural MPs dominate an increasingly out-of-touch caucus. The Tories are on the brink of rendering themselves unelectable.
They had a bad night in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland. In Steveston-Richmond East, Richmond Centre and Cloverdale-Langley City, incumbent Conservatives went down to defeat at the hands of Liberals. They lost Port Moody-Coquitlam to the NDP.
In Greater Toronto, the Conservatives could celebrate taking King-Vaughan away from the Grits. But they mourned the loss of incumbents in Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill and Markham-Unionville.
The news isn’t entirely grim. An analysis by The Globe and Mail’s Chen Wang revealed that, while the Conservative share of the popular vote declined in Greater Vancouver between the 2019 and 2021 elections, the party’s share of the popular vote increased in the Greater Toronto regions of Peel, Durham and Halton.
Nonetheless, this fact remains: The Grits took 50 ridings in Greater Toronto. The Tories took six. That’s the election right there.
In Alberta, the Conservatives had Calgary Skyview, Edmonton Centre and Edmonton Griesbach taken away from them, by the Liberals in the first two cases and by the NDP in the third.
The few gains the Conservatives registered were in more rural ridings or smaller urban centres, such as Nova Scotia’s Cumberland-Colchester and South Shore-St. Margarets, and Ontario’s Peterborough-Kawartha.
The urbanization of the Liberal Party and ruralization of the Conservative Party has been steadily increasing since the 1960s, as authors Jack Lucas of the University of Calgary and Dave Armstrong and Zack Taylor of the University of Western Ontario point out in a new research paper.
“Canadians are currently experiencing the most profound urban-rural divide in support for the major political parties in the country’s history,” the authors conclude.
The Liberals win elections even when they lose the popular vote by profiting from suburban vote splits, while Conservatives rack up massive majorities in rural seats.
As Darrell Bricker, chief executive of the polling firm Ipsos Public Affairs, and I wrote in The Big Shift: The Seismic Change in Canadian Politics, Business, and Culture and What It Means for Our Future, a governing Conservative coalition consists of rural and suburban voters, leaving city centres to the progressives. But if the Conservative Party doesn’t win the suburbs around Toronto and Vancouver, that coalition can’t exist.
Both parties suffer as the rural-urban rift grows. The Liberals lose access to MPs who share the values and perspectives of rural folk. But the Conservatives lose much more: an intimate connection to the needs and wants of suburban voters, and with it the hope of winning elections.
As the Conservative Party is increasingly frozen out of suburbia, it risks becoming captive to gun owners, evangelicals, climate-change skeptics, anti-vaxxers and other right-wing activists who have a strong rural base, but whose values are anathema to most suburbanites.
The Tories also risk becoming captive to rural MPs who are absolutely safe in their seats, who know they will never be in cabinet, and who care less about winning government than about their own influence within the party.
One of the most telling aspects of the 2021 campaign was the damage the Conservatives inflicted on themselves by refusing to insist their candidates be vaccinated, and by proposing to loosen firearm restrictions. Both issues have some rural appeal; neither played well in the suburbs.
As they conduct their postmortem on the election loss, the Conservatives need to remember one fact above all others: Just as they can and should discount the strongly progressive elites who dominate the downtowns of big cities, because they are too few in number to decide elections, so, too, they can and should discount strongly conservative rural voters, who are also too few in number to decide elections.
The suburbs are where the votes are. Every time the Conservatives lose a suburban seat, their connection to that all-important constituency weakens. Every time that connection weakens, the chance of victory recedes.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the Conservatives lost their Quebec City riding of Beauport-Limoilou to the Bloc Québécois. That was in 2019, not this year. This version has been corrected.
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