There are two kinds of political parties in Canada:
- Ideological ones, which, broadly and generally, fail; and
- Big tent parties which, equally broadly and generally, succeed.
years generations the federal Liberals and the Ontario Progressive Conservatives were the absolute masters of “big tent” politics in their respective spheres and they were, essentially, the “natural governing parties” in those spheres because they had captured almost all of the centre and enough of the centre-left and centre-right to hold on to power even without the support of the right of centre or left of centre voters.
In my opinion, Canadian voter ideology follows the standard bell curve model:
There is a “hard left,” real, Marxists and a “hard right,” too. But the Left and Right in Canadian politics are both small, in my opinion. Most Canadians, 70% of us at a guess, are somewhere in the political centre, the mushy middle … call it what you will. It even looks like a “big tent.”
Most of us “lean” somewhat left or somewhat right and the aim of “big tent” politics is to capture 40±% of us: a bit of the left of centre, most of the centre-left, almost all of the centre (leans left) and some of the centre (leans right), too, or the same on the right of the spectrum. That’s what Prime Minister Harper’s Conservatives did in 2011 and it’s what Prime Minister Trudeau’s Liberals did in 2015.
If Conservative want to win again, in 2019 ~ indeed, if Conservatives want to win again, period ~ we must recapture the centre.
2015 was not a repudiation of the Conservatives. Over 5.6 million Canadians voted for CPC candidates, the Conservatives captured 30+% of the popular vote and that translated into 99 seats. That’s not a resounding defeat.
But the Liberals got the magic 40±%, they took nearly ten percentage points, 1,00,000 votes, “away” from the CPC and turned that into a solid majority. The voters they took were from the centre ~ they already had most of those who leaned somewhat left, they needed, and found, a million voters who leaned somewhat right: normally CPC voters.
In the army, when making battle plans, one of the things we do is to identify the “vital ground” or “key terrain.” There is vital ground in politics, too, and in Canada, it is in the suburbs around Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa and Quebec City. It is also in the smaller cities and towns like Kelowna, Red Deer, Swift Current, Brandon, Pembroke, Levis, Summerside, Sussex, Sydney and Corner Brook.
Conservatives have a traditional advantage in rural and small-town Canada, and it’s one we must not take for granted. Rural voters, especially, are disproportionately “heavy:” rural voters get more seats than they deserve on an arithmetic basis because we recognize that an MP has more difficulty in serving a rural constituency than (s)he does an urban one. The suburbs, however, are “rich” in seats and that is where we need to focus our attention.
Suburbanites are a diverse lot but they are, generally:
- Married with children;
- Over 30;
- Employed, often both parents work;
- Homeowners vs renters;
- Worried about ~
- Pocket-book issues, and
- Their children’s futures;
- Frequently “ethnic.”
We, Conservatives, did a great job of appealing to them in the 2006-2011 period but we lost a lot of them in 2015.
For a start, all the good, great work that e.g. Jason Kenney (and others) did in “ethnic” communities (I described him, on Army.ca, as “the bloody energizer bunny“) was damaged when the campaign sent (clearly uncomfortable) Chris Alexander and Dr Kellie Leitch out to preach against “barbaric cultural practices.” Some observers saw it, at the time, as a crude slap in the face to some immigrant communities and I am persuaded that it did cost votes … a lot of them, in all immigrant communities. The first ties we need to re-establish are with the “ethnic” communities and we can start by not being “anti” any identifiable group.
Yes, there are “barbaric practices,” but they are not tied to any one specific “culture” and they can and should be dealt with through the existing criminal code and through 911 … both work.
The rest of our campaign was attractive to suburbanites, but …
It may have been too finely tuned. The “boutique tax cuts” were not as attractive as Justin Trudeau’s simplistic promises to “help” the (undefined) middle class. The lesson might be that the style of the message and of the messenger both matter
Secondly, we still confuse Conservative with the religious right. The religious right is one (small) slice of the broad conservative base, part of our “big tent.” It used to be part of the Liberal base, too, but Prime Minister Trudeau effectively expelled them from his party when he said: “pro-choice or no dice.” There is no longer any place in the Liberal Party like pro-life people like long-time Scarborough Southwest Liberal MP Tom Wappel. There is no room in the NDP’s inn, either. In fact, if beliefs are most important for candidates and voters about the only “mainstream” place left is the Conservative Party of Canada. But, while Canada has, more or less, backed into a legal “abortion is a right” position, most Canadians (by a ratio of 2:1, I think) support the notion that abortion is a matter to be decided by a woman and her physician. The religious right wants to revisit and reopen that issue … and they should be allowed to talk about it but the Conservative Party of Canada should take the position that it, abortion, is a “settled” matter in Canadian law, which is, essentially, the position Prime Minister Harper took and enforced in his cabinet. The same thing applies to gay rights. Some religious right folks might want to roll back the clock to the 1960s, but the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled and the matter is, also, “settled.”
Finally, we need to be free traders. We still have a resource-based economy which is at the mercy of constantly fluctuating commodity prices. We need to keep selling resources but we also want to export more good and services. Many of our “ethnic” communities are filled with well educated, entrepreneurial people who own or work in small business. The Conservatives should be the champions of small business in Canada and of Main Street, rather than Bay Street. We need to press for more and freer trade, even accepting that we must, usually, “give” something in order to “get” something else in return. This is not always a popular position, but it is the right one and we can and should make the case that free trade creates good Canadian jobs for ourselves and our children.
Those are “big tent” policies: fiscal prudence, social moderation and free trade. The Conservative Party of Canada needs to be a true “big tent” party once again if we want to win the 2019 general election.