Flipping the Line: The conservative coalition constantly changes. That's fine.
FPTP isn't a problem. It means you can shed portions of the right furthest from, or most offensive to, the mainstream.
The Line welcomes angry rebuttals and responses to our work. The best will be featured in our ongoing series, Flipping the Line. Last week, Stewart Prest wrote about the political divides running through the heart of Canada’s conservative parties. Today, Ken Boessenkool, a long-time conservative campaign strategist, replies.
In an interesting piece on what he considers a terminal malaise within Canadian Conservative parties, Stewart Prest lays the blame in part on our democratic system and in part on conservatives being a little slow on policy.
So, what accounts for this malaise? Ultimately, it’s a product of the unyielding math of the first-past-the-post electoral system, combined with a measure of political inertia in face of changing political realities.
Let’s start with a central truth of politics: democratic reform is for losers. People who can’t win under the current rules always think they can do so under better rules.
But for conservatives, our current rules are as good as they are likely to get. Our first-past-the-post democratic system allows political parties to construct stable national coalitions that can win stable national majority governments with much less than 50 per cent of the vote — in many cases with less than 40 percent of the vote.
This is a feature, not a bug.
First past the post allows conservatives to build a political coalition on the centre right, without having to incorporate all of the folks to the right of the centre. As is so often the case, the founder of the Conservative Party of Canada provided the roadmap for how this should be done.
In 2003 Stephen Harper explained how the modern conservative party must be a fusion of traditional or Burkean conservatism (embodied in the best of modern social conservatives) with classical liberalism (embodied in the best of modern economic conservatives) into something Sean Speer and I called Ordered Liberty. Harper went to on to give three practical pieces of advice on how to translate that fusion of ideologies into a governing coalition.
First, the set of issues on which to build the coalition must be chosen carefully and unite people across various traditions and across the founding ideologies. Under Stephen Harper this meant social conservatives had to accept a party that was aggressively pro-family without being aggressively pro-life; and economic conservatives had to accept a party that was pro-market without being anti-government.
Second, conservatives had to accept that gains would be incremental. Radical solutions were out, incremental gains were in. Conservatives, Harper said, should be “satisfied if the agenda is moving in the right direction, even if slowly,” something that tends to be more difficult for social than economic conservatives.
Finally, Harper was explicit that his path meant “there will be changes to the composition of the conservative coalition. We may not have all the same people we had in the past.” For Harper, that meant shedding the “liberal corporatist agenda” which then defined Paul Martin. It also meant being willing to ditch Red Tories like Joe Clark.
Harper believed the conservative coalition need not be static. It needs to continually change. After the financial crisis, Harper had stern words for libertarians in a speech to a Manning conference. He opened by defending what his government had done in response to the financial crisis, “We are as Conservatives, responding to a massive failure in the market, using the public role of government to act.” He then took direct aim at libertarians: “It cannot just be about freedom. It must be about policies to help ensure freedom will lead to good choices, to responsible choices in the economy, to prosperous choices with wider benefits to all of us.”
In these three pieces of advice, Harper put expediency over purity in the pursuit of electoral success. He understood, as some conservatives today do not, that the purpose of a political party is to win elections.
Which brings me back to Prest’s charge that Conservatives are a little slow on policy. This misunderstands the central challenge to being a conservative leader. You see, Conservatives are conservatives because, unlike Liberals, they want to get elected to do things, not to be things. They are like New Democrats in this way.
So while the most pressing challenge for Liberals is “Who?” (are you a Martin Liberal or a Chrétien Liberal?) the most pressing thing for Conservatives is “What?” (are you a go-carbon-tax conservative or a no-carbon-tax conservative?).
The messy path getting to that “What?” is not a sign of terminal malaise. Sure, it can be chaotic, but it is far from catastrophic.
Take the conservative response to climate change. In late 2017 the Ontario Progressive Conservatives put forward a plan that accepted a price on carbon and proposed to use the revenues to cut income taxes, increase transfers to the poor and introduce a new generous refundable child-care tax credit. This generated widespread support within the party and across the province (go look at the Twitter feeds of any Ontario MPP in December 2017). Had this policy prevailed, the party would have won a large majority.
A few months later, for reasons that had nothing to do with carbon pricing, the party had a new leader who opposed the carbon tax. The caucus and party vigorously supported the new leader who went on to win a large majority.
A similar thing has played out federally. Two elections within two years. One in which the Conservatives opposed carbon pricing and another in which they proposed to price carbon. The results are virtually indistinguishable.
Contrary to Prest’s argument, this very big, very public disagreement did not rent either Conservative party in two. Was it chaotic? Sure. Was it catastrophic? Hardly.
Now take the Conservative response to the pandemic. In Ontario, the premier instituted the longest and tightest lockdown, eventually put in place a vaccine passport and kicked MPPs out of his caucus for refusing to get vaccinated. The premier’s message to religious kooks, conspiracy theorists and radical libertarians on the wrong side of this issue could not be more clear: you’re not welcome here. Today, for Ford, winning the next election is well within reach.
Meanwhile, two western Conservative premiers who have pandered to the vaccine hesitant crowd are facing historically low levels of support in two traditionally Conservative provinces. And the one party that put anti-vaxx at the centre of their federal electoral strategy, People’s Party of Canada (PPC), got five per cent of the vote and no seats.
The message to Erin O’Toole could not be more clear, or more obvious: A bit of chaos now to avoid catastrophe down the road.
Kicking anti-vaxxers to the political curb has probably shrunk Premier Ford’s political coalition (by some subset of the 5.5 per cent that the federal PPC got in Ontario). So Ford and the bright folks around him (looking at you, Labour Minister Monte McNaughton) have been doing the hard work of building a stronger base of support with working-class Ontarians. Nearly every day you can find Minister McNaughton fraternizing with private-sector labour leaders and making life easier for people who shower in the evening, rather than in the morning. And then a couple weeks ago came Ford’s big policy gambit — raising the Ontario minimum wage to $15.00, a complete flip of his earlier flop on this issue.
Now I personally think low income wage subsidies are far superior to a higher minimum wage, as do a rather large number of economic conservatives within the party. I don’t doubt we’ll have a bit of a chaotic argument about that in due course. But the Ford strategists are putting expediency ahead of purity in the pursuit of another majority government. And both sides of that debate will happily let him do so.
Building a winning conservative coalition under first past the post means you can shed portions of the right furthest from, or most offensive to, the mainstream. Stephen Harper shed the corporatist (and later libertarian) agendas of the conservative past and built a family friendly (and later good government) agenda of the conservative future. Successful conservatives today should shed the radical anti-vaxx agenda offensive to the vast majority of conservative voters and take on a working class and climate change agenda of the conservative mainstream. Failure to do so is a matter of leadership and decision-making, not due to any immutable facts of Canadian political divides.
The first-past-the-post electoral system forces conservative to build broad, mainstream parties that not only need to decide who to invite into the tent, but also who to kick out of it. That process can seem chaotic but it need not be, and usually isn’t, catastrophic.
It’s hard work. But Canada, and the values conservatives hold dear, are worth it.
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