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Lessons from Canada’s Left-drifting Conservatives


JUSTIN Trudeau, in an all-too-common fit of narcissistic egotism that he knew better than anyone else, even his advisers, called a snap election two years ahead of time. He longed for a parliamentary majority which would give him the political muscle to pursue his extreme form of liberal politics. As in so many other instances, Trudeau’s ego outmanoeuvred his ability. Canada doesn’t love Trudeau quite as much as Trudeau loves Trudeau. After a gruelling election he ended up pretty much where he started, leader of a minority government.

As the campaign progressed and Trudeau mismanaged his lacklustre campaign, there was speculation that the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) might gain a majority: they won a majority of the votes but not of the seats. Although failing to win his majority, Trudeau insists that he won ‘a clear mandate to govern’. Trudeau is determined to continue with those policies which failed to gain him a working majority. In his victory speech he said: ‘What we’ve seen tonight is that millions of Canadians have chosen a progressive plan.’

The question arising from the Canadian election, which has important implications for the UK, is why did the Conservatives fail?

At a news conference the day after the election CPC leader Erin O’Toole spoke as though the result wasn’t too bad and that his failure to gain a majority was the creation of a platform for eventual triumph. ‘We are building towards victory next time,’ O’Toole said, adding that a further election could occur within 18 months.

Admitting that things did not go exactly to plan, O’Toole said  he had already initiated a post-election review to examine what went wrong for his party. Perhaps he should listen to Daniel Béland, a political science professor at McGill University in Montreal. Béland blamed O’Toole’s electoral failure on his move toward the centre, calling it ‘a source of contention within the party’.

O’Toole became CPC leader last year with a pledge to ‘take back Canada’ from the progressive policies promoted by Trudeau’s Liberal Party. Despite his personal socially progressive voting record, O‘Toole promoted himself as a ‘true-blue Conservative’. However after gaining the leadership of the party he immediately started working to push the CPC toward the political centre ground, ignoring the fact that the political centre is continuously moving in a leftward direction.

O’Toole’s strategy, which included disavowing positions held important by his party’s base on climate change, guns and balanced budgets, was designed to appeal to a broader cross-section of voters in a country that tends to be even more liberal than the UK.

Whether moderate Canadians believed O’Toole’s claims of progressive conservativism and whether he was alienating traditional conservatives became central questions in the campaign. Whether or not he convinced moderate Canadians that he is leader of a centrist CPC is questionable. What is beyond question is his failure to persuade moderates to vote for a liberal Conservative Party when they could vote for an actual Liberal party. This is borne out by O’Toole’s failure to increase his party’s vote-share in and around liberal Toronto, Canada’s largest city. The same failure was seen further west: according to political scientist Simon Prest, Vancouver is ‘just about off limits for Conservative candidates’.

Meanwhile a politician who narrowly lost the leadership of the CPC in 2017 and who now leads a populist right-wing party that opposes vaccines and lockdowns bled support from O’Toole’s Conservatives. Maxime Bernier and the People’s Party of Canada (PPC) didn’t win any seats in Parliament but support for his party cost the Conservatives an estimated ten seats.

The PPC gained more than 820,000 votes and increased their percentage of the vote from 1.6 in 2019 to 5.1 in 2021. The PPC vote increased in every province in Canada, the only party to achieve this. Support for the PPC came not only from traditional conservatives but from voters across the political and social spectrum who united behind Bernier’s vehement disagreement with vaccine mandates, vaccine passports and lockdowns.

The warning for the UK is that the Conservative Party of Canada, at least by pattern and tradition, is akin to the UK’s Conservative Party and we see the same direction of travel on this side of the Atlantic. What we’re witnessing is that the Conservative Party in Canada has shifted so much to the left in an attempt to make itself more electable that it is becoming less and less conservative, failing to appeal to the centre whilst at the same time losing support on the right.

If those on the right could agree to work together it could be possible to eventually have a truly conservative party presenting conservative social and economic policies. This would take time and bruising political battles, but surely it is better than our present continuous leftward drift. Attempting to curry favour with voters by moving in a supposedly progressive direction failed the CPC in Canada’s recent election, it will fail the UK’s Conservative Party at our next general election.

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Dr Campbell Campbell-Jack
Dr Campbell Campbell-Jack
Campbell is a retired Presbyterian minister who lives in Stirlingshire. He blogs at A Grain of Sand.

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