The Conservatives & The 2020s: What Comes Next?

Brendan Sheppard, Queens University.

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Doug Ford defeated Kathleen Wynne. Jason Kenney defeated Rachel Notley. It seemed, for a while, that Canada’s Conservative movement had found a recipe for success. But Andrew Scheer could not defeat Justin Trudeau – so there are tough questions to ask.

When the Conservative Party of Canada replaced Stephen Harper, they were doing just that: replacing him. Mr. Scheer was “Stephen Harper with a smile”. The message seemed to be that what Mr. Harper had delivered was still in demand, and just needed a new face, one not saddled by ten years of scandal baggage and ill-will.

Now the push for change feels a bit more urgent. Mr. Scheer was met with a trio of perfectly timed Liberal scandals, and still failed to beat the incumbent. The Conservatives underperformed their own polls. They misjudged the Ontario electorate while padding their numbers in the prairies, where they had much less to gain. They were handed the ingredients for victory and failed to bake the cake. Was the recipe wrong,or are people just tired of chocolate?

As an aside, no one gets tired of chocolate cake. Likewise, I doubt that we need to write an obituary for the appeal of conservatism, but it might be time for some modernization.

If the question is “why did the Conservatives lose?” then there are a few answers being tossed around, and a few respondents stepping forward to champion their solutions. Some focus the blame on Andrew Scheer as a leader, rather than on the campaign he ran and the policies he endorsed. Unfortunately, Andrew Scheer was not devoid of scandal, and he failed to bring elicit excitement for the Conservative party in places where that excitement was desperately needed, like Quebec. Could a more charismatic leader championing the same positions and policies as Mr. Scheer be more successful in a general election? For that matter, are a party’s electoral failures and successes a result of the policies they put forward? Or are elections determined more by whom swing voters think they can trust and whom they haven’t been disappointed by lately?

We likely won’t know for certain any time soon, and we certainly can’t test any hypotheses before the next election. For now, a more immediate contest is on the horizon, which could have a far more tangible effect on the tone of Canadian politics for a while to come.

The Conservative party faces a series of dilemmas as it chooses its next leader. Theparty must pick a side on several dichotomous issues which could alienate large swathes of potential voters. On energy and climate, social conservatism, western alienation – there are battle lines being drawn for the upcoming leadership race, and they are reminiscent of those which have cropped up in conservative movements across the globe. On each of these issues the Conservative party appears to be trapped between, on one side, a vocal base they rely on for fundraising and support, and on the other, centrist voters whom they will need to attract in order to win.

No political party can be viable in Canada today without convincing voters that they have a plan for dealing with climate change. There are too many Canadians feeling and seeing its effects for a party to win without addressing the issue. Unfortunately, the Conservative party has struggled to convince Canadians that they take climate change seriously. In this endeavour they have been handicapped by associations with the oil industry, the climate change skepticism of foreign conservative figures and organizations, and a desire not to alienate the climate-change deniers by presenting a policy that is too overt in addressing climate change. Climate change becomes more dire and its political implications more pressing by the year. It is not an issue with ‘two sides’ about whether or when we need a solution, but politicians have chosen to treat it that way, and the Conservatives are finding out they placed their bets on the wrong horse. The next leader of the Conservative party will have to make a choice, between a genuine plan for climate change or a continued reliance on ignorance and apathy.

One of the primary tactics used against the Conservative party in the last election was to stoke fears about Andrew Scheer’s social conservatism, dredging up debates on hot-button issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. While support from social conservatives helped him in the leadership race, Mr. Scheer’s attempts in the general election to distance himself from social conservative stances garnered criticism from the social conservative wing of the party, who spearheaded efforts to have him removed. The discussion of social conservative issues has already taken centre stage in the race to find his replacement, as exemplified by the comments of one leadership hopeful and the vehement condemnation that they evoked.

In 2019, the Liberals won the most seats without winning a plurality of votes because of the dense concentration of Conservative support in the prairies, and the lack of it elsewhere in the country. Expected Conservative support in Ontario was also distinctly absent, while in Quebec the Conservatives struggled in the shadow of a Bloc Quebecois surge. The renaissance of the Bloc helped to place Quebec and its issues at the forefront of the electoral debates (two thirds of which were held in French – an advantage to Quebecois concerns). The west, feeling unrepresented by a Liberal government with no representation from east of Manitoba through to the Pacific coast, seems to be taking inspiration from Quebec. Sentiments of western alienation are becoming talks of western separation. Thus, the Conservative party is caught in the middle. Do they elect a western leader so they can continue to present themselves as the party of the west? Or do the Conservatives risk allowing an upstart movement, like the Wexit party, to supplant their exclusive claim to western representation while they are preoccupied trying to broaden their appeal in Ontario and Quebec? Without increased support in Ontario and Quebec, the Conservatives will not win the next election, as they cannot do any better in the prairies than they already have. However, the potential rise to prominence of a fringe party more effective than the People’s Party is a concern that the next leader will have to address.

The new Conservative leader will be forced to take stances that alienate portions of their party. The opponents whom they defeat will have taken their own, staking themselves as champions for separate causeswith whom the winner will have to make peace to keep the party together. The Conservatives are united, but diverse, and maintaining that unity will be difficult on its own. For the Conservatives to regain real hopes of governing, they will also need to increase their diverse appeal to include centrist voters, who might choose the Conservatives if not for the party’s espousal of policies exclusively tailored to small portions of their base. The winners of the Conservative leadership race may decide whether the party is viable when the next election cycle begins, but the losers may decide whether the once-united Conservative party is divided again.

In an era increasingly defined by extreme polarization between the political lefts and rights, I want desperately to see a Conservative party for which I could imagine myself voting. If the Conservative party can become a viable alternative to the Liberals, it will force the other parties to start taking their roles more seriously. A little more competition would be healthy for a political atmosphere that feels so tired and lost.

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