The iffy position of the Conservatives was one of my takeaways from last year’s federal election. Not only had they lost ground electorally, but there was also “an ominous speck on the horizon.”
Specifically, the first signs of base alienation were evident. With a five percent vote share – twice that of the Greens – the new People’s Party had started to eat into core Conservative support. And that had the potential to inflict lethal damage.
If you remember the 1990s and the way in which Reform destroyed the venerable Progressive Conservatives, the danger becomes obvious.
Under Brian Mulroney’s leadership, the Progressive Conservatives won back-to-back majorities in 1984 and 1988. Then the upstart Reform Party ate their lunch. Alienated by what was perceived as the Mulroney government’s abandonment of conservative principles, a large chunk of the hitherto reliable Progressive Conservative vote in Western Canada and Ontario jumped ship to Reform.
The Progressive Conservatives were initially dismissive, even contemptuous, of that possibility. Reform supporters were often described as hicks, yahoos and religious nut jobs. They should just sit down, shut up and do as instructed by their betters.
Then in 1993, defections to Reform reduced the Progressive Conservatives to two seats. It was a humiliation from which they never recovered. Within a decade, the entity that had proudly traced its lineage back to Sir John A. Macdonald was merged into the newly-created Conservative Party as junior partner to Reform’s successor, the Canadian Alliance.
Although Red Tories and sympathetic commentators hate this junior status, it’s a fact. If you’re inclined to doubt that, look at the numbers.
In the election preceding the 2003 merger, the Canadian Alliance won 66 seats compared to the Progressive Conservatives’ 12, more than doubling the latter’s popular vote in the process. And in the recent 2021 election, more than half of the Conservative seats came from the traditional Reform heartland west of Ontario.
In modern Canada, federal Conservatives have almost no margin for error. Because Canada’s political disposition tilts centre-left, Conservative prospects depend on doing two things simultaneously – holding the base while peeling off additional centrist votes. And the math is such that any material base erosion will be fatal.
The largest chunk of this current base is a right-of-centre blend of social conservatives, libertarians and fiscal conservatives. Philosophically, it’s closer to the Reform/Canadian Alliance tradition than to the old Progressive Conservative one.
From time to time, there’s talk of jettisoning the Reform/Canadian Alliance contingent and thus setting the party free to chase the elusive centre. Emotional gratification aside, this would be numerically nonsensical, the political equivalent of suicide.
The same applies to the idea that you can take them for granted because they’ve nowhere else to go. They do, and they will. They’ve done it before.
While this base isn’t enough on its own, retaining its loyalty and enthusiasm is absolutely essential to any prospect of winning. Without it, the Conservatives would wither to inconsequential rump status. It’d be déjà vu all over again.
There’s a simple bottom line: The leader has to respect the base and the base has to trust the leader.
Erin O’Toole failed on both counts.
After running for the leadership as a man of the right, he promptly pivoted and froze out the people whose support he’d assiduously cultivated. Essentially, he played them for suckers on the premise that they’d be mollified by the electoral results, which he then didn’t deliver. So they evicted him.
Stephen Harper, in contrast, was trusted by the base. Even though he often strayed from conservative orthodoxy during his nine years in office, it was understood that the practical necessities of governing required this. If you’re right-of-centre in a centre-left polity, you learn to water your wine. Otherwise, you’ll go very thirsty.
History was a large part of what gave Harper so much leeway. Because of his Reform pedigree, the base saw him as “one of us.”
This doesn’t mean that the new leader needs to come from a similar background, although it would help. But it does suggest that chatter about the likes of Jean Charest is detached from reality.
Nor does a new leader have to be a social conservative or promise allegiance to the social conservative agenda. However, being indifferent, dismissive or hostile won’t cut it either.
Erin O’Toole was a mistake. The Conservatives now have a chance to do it over.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit. For interview requests, click here.
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