Ken Boessenkool: Pick a Conservative leader who can win
Facing a quasi-formal coalition between the Liberals and the NDP, the Conservatives are at a serious disadvantage. Deal with it.
By: Ken Boessenkool
In 2011, Stephen Harper’s election rally cry was “You can have a Liberal, NDP, Bloc coalition… or you can have a strong, stable, national majority conservative government.” 2011 was the first election in which Stephen Harper used the word “majority” in a successful electoral pitch. He had clawed his way to a majority by first winning, and successfully governing with, two consecutive minority governments.
Given the events of this past week the next Conservative leader may not have that luxury. The Liberal deal with the NDP does not give them a majority coalition government, but it gives them the next best thing – as assurance that the NDP will not defeat them on a confidence motion for up to three years.
When Quebecers learn that their beloved Bloc has been completely left out in the cold, that will affect their strategic votes in the next election.
(Which both parties to this deal undoubtedly had in the back of their minds – the best way to a majority for the Liberals is through Quebec and the NDP still have the sweet, sweet memory of the late Jack Layton sweeping Quebec seats into their column.)
Much ink has already been spilled on the fact that this deal was an enormous win for the Liberals, who go from having a tricky minority to the next best thing to a majority coalition government. And that this was a nothing-burger for the NDP, who got a bunch of retreaded Liberal promises with a wee public dental program tacked on.
Much less ink has been spilled on what this means for the Conservatives, but I think the implications for them — and the current Conservative leadership race — are profound. I think that the current deal means that while Liberals can continue to win, and govern, with minority governments, Conservatives can only hope to govern with majority governments.
The choice on offer in the coming election(s) will be either a strong, stable, national Liberal minority government or a strong, stable, national Conservative majority government.
In terms of vote shares, a Liberal Prime Minister can win with increasingly smaller popular vote shares. Which we have already been seeing, with Liberals getting 39.5, 33.1 and 32.6 percent of the popular vote in the 2015, 2019 and 2021 elections, respectively.
But we can only have a Conservative Prime Minister if the Conservatives win an increasingly larger popular vote. And this is on top of the regional disadvantage that Conservatives already experience when it comes to vote shares. In the past three elections the Conservatives have won 31.9, 34.3 and 33.7 percent — and yet could not form government.
So while it is reasonable to assume that Liberals can form strong, stable, national minority governments with vote shares barely touching 30 per cent of the popular vote, Conservatives will only be able to form a majority government with the vote shares near, if not above, 40 per cent.
Conservatives can either whine about that fact, or deal with it.
Dealing with it means that we should be looking for a leader who can build the broadest electoral coalition possible — a leader with the broadest appeal across voter demographics and regions.
It also means that Conservatives need to speak to the most important issues of accessible Conservative voters.
One of those issues is climate change. As an impressively large collection of polling work commissioned by Clean Prosperity has demonstrated, accessible Conservative voters in the critical 905 region around Toronto will not vote Conservative if the party doesn’t have a credible climate plan. And even in western Canada, a credible climate plan helps Conservatives win marginal seats (in, say, downtown Calgary and Edmonton) while only shaving small margins of victory in seats they already win with well over 50 per cent of the vote (in, say, rural Saskatchewan).
Conservatives also need to bring forward conservative solutions to non-traditionally conservative problems. What is a conservative approach to child care? What is a conservative approach to addressing low wage work? What is a conservative approach to industrial policy?
Conservatives need to do more than just rail about balanced budgets, lower taxes, free trade and smaller government (though they should do these things), they need to provide conservative solutions to today’s most pressing problems.
And so when Conservatives consider who to vote for in the coming leadership race, two of the principle questions they should ask are: Which leader can win 40 per cent to form a majority? And the corollary: Which leader is promoting policies that can get our vote from the low thirties to the low forties?
Conservatives need policies and a leader who can expand their coalition and grow their vote. Because if Conservatives just focus on issues that make conservatives feel good, Canada will be governed for a very long time by the two parties — possibly joined by the Bloc — who this week did a deal to make Canada a much less conservative country.
And that, if you’re a conservative (and a Conservative) like me, is a bad thing.
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