The Conservatives have an excellent chance of winning the next federal election. But for that to happen, Leader Erin O’Toole should heed the wisdom of Tony Blair.
Britain’s former Labour prime minister penned the foreword to a new report issued this week by the institute that bears his name. The report seeks to understand and reverse the steady decline in support for the Labour Party.
Mr. Blair maintains that Labour is suffering from the same malaise that kept it out of power from 1979 until 1997: Labour was then, and has once again been, captured by its extreme wing.
“Two-thirds of the British electorate who have switched from Labour define themselves as near the political centre,” Mr. Blair wrote.
“Labour has a cultural problem with many working-class voters, a credibility problem with the middle ground, and is seen as being for everyone other than the hard-working families who feel their taxes aren’t spent on their priorities.”
His solutions: Labour must “push the far left back to the margins” and “reject the ‘wokeism’ of a small though vocal minority,” while embracing the new technologies that are reshaping the traditional economy and aggressively recruiting younger candidates.
What is true of the progressive Labour Party in Britain can also be applied to the Conservative Party of Canada. Labour was captured by its radical wing after the 1979 election; conservatives split into the populist Reform party and the Progressive Conservative rump in 1993. In both cases, the parties were frozen out of power election after election.
Mr. Blair’s pragmatic New Labour returned to power in 1997. Stephen Harper united the factions and governed from 2006 as a pragmatic conservative. But what should have been an expected rotation of power in Canada in the 2015 election became something much worse for the Conservatives, when the party flirted with racial and religious intolerance – by condemning “barbaric cultural practices” and the like – which alienated suburban centrist voters, many of them immigrants or the children of immigrants.
We have watched Erin O’Toole try to pivot, albeit with mixed success, from appealing to social conservatives during the leadership campaign to a more centrist and inclusive stance during the election.
To reinforce that centrist image, the party released a video this week that prominently features younger and/or ethnically diverse MPs, including Raquel Dancho, Melissa Lantsman and Tim Uppal.
That video did not feature MP Leslyn Lewis, even though she is a rare example of a black Conservative politician. Nor is Ms. Lewis in the shadow cabinet. That’s because she is the darling of social conservatives.
Ms. Lewis plans to oppose a Liberal campaign commitment to eliminate charitable status for organizations such as crisis pregnancy centres, which may counsel against abortion. She also champions the rights of the unvaccinated, and can be expected to oppose passage of legislation that would ban conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth.
Ms. Lewis and her supporters are to the conservative movement what the radical left is to progressives: ideological extremists who alienate the centrist voters who elect governments. Mr. O’Toole keeps them at arm’s length. But there are enough of them in caucus that he won’t disown them completely.
That doesn’t mean that anyone who is a social conservative deserves exclusion. Calgary MP Tom Kmiec voted against a previous version of the bill banning conversion therapy. He has earned the praise of Campaign Life Coalition, a leading anti-abortion group.
In a conversation, Friday, with editor-at-large Sean Speer of the Hub, Mr. Kmiec, who is 40, spoke about the importance of the environment to younger conservatives and of the role of government in protecting and reinforcing communities. “We’re still conservatives” he said, but “I think there is a changing of the guard going on.” The conservative coalition must be broad enough to include both Mr. Kmiec and Conservative MP Eric Duncan, who is gay.
The return of inflation, the prospect of rising interest rates, the uneven nature of the economic recovery, challenge a Liberal government that is starting to get long in the tooth.
All Mr. O’Toole has to do is follow Tony Blair’s advice: appeal to the centre, understand the new economy, recruit the young and keep the extremists at bay.
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