For months now, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has been talking about the need to “secure the future” for Canada. But if a pair of recent polls are even close to being right, he might want to start thinking about how he can secure his own political party’s future. After a June Abacus poll showed the federal Liberals with a 10-point lead on the Conservatives, Ipsos came out with an even more stunning result: a 12-point Liberal lead. Ipsos shows the Conservative Party of Canada polling at just 26 per cent nationally.
As The Writ’s Eric Grenier noted, that figure is almost unfathomably bad for a federal conservative party in Canada. “Not even Arthur Meighen in 1921, R.B. Bennett in 1935 or John Bracken in 1945 ever fell that low.” And while it’s being driven by weakness in Ontario (thanks, Doug Ford!) and a total collapse in the Maritimes and British Columbia, it’s even showing up in the Alberta numbers as well. Both the Abacus and Ipsos polls put O’Toole’s party under 40 per cent in Alberta, with the Trudeau-led Liberals within spitting distance provincewide and very much in a position to win seats — and maybe a bunch of them — in Edmonton and Calgary.
But the worst data point for Erin O’Toole in this buffet of bad news might be the one about voters over the age of 55, a demographic that has traditionally been rock-solid for the Conservative Party of Canada. After a year of listening to conservative-led provincial governments who sounded more interested in reopening their economies than protecting the lives of those most vulnerable to COVID-19, it seems boomers have had a change of heart. According to the Ipsos poll, the Liberals now command 40 per cent of their support compared to the Conservatives with just 29 per cent. As 338Canada.com founder and poll analyst Philippe Fournier tweeted, “This is perhaps the most worrying subsample for the Conservatives. They simply can’t afford to lose older voters.”
At this point, it seems certain O’Toole’s Conservatives are going to lose the next election. If they want to be able to contest the one after that, they’re going to need to do more than find a new leader or throw a coat of metaphorical paint on their political brand. They’re going to need to fundamentally reassess what they’re offering to Canadians and why voters seem to be turning their backs on it in growing numbers.
That has to begin with an understanding that simply loathing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau isn’t actually a strategy, much less a winning one. They may hate him with the fire of a thousand suns, but Canadians remain far more amenable, with 42 per cent picking him in the Ipsos poll as the best prime minister (O’Toole and the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh tied at 23 per cent).
If the Conservatives want to get out of the political weeds, they’re also going to have to give up their growing addiction to Trump-like (or Trump-lite) politics. Anger and resentment may be the fuel that fires the engine in the Conservative Party of Canada right now, but it’s not getting the party where it wants to go. And while conspiracy theories about inflation, climate change and the “Great Reset” may resonate with parts of their base, the CPC’s willingness to flirt with them is alienating huge parts of the electorate that they need to actually win elections.
In fairness to Erin O’Toole and his predecessor, the Conservatives’ internal selection process practically requires leadership hopefuls to pander to the fringes. The combination of a ranked ballot (one in which people select both a first choice and a second, third and even fourth preference) and equally weighted ridings has produced two consecutive leadership races in which the eventual winner had to cater to the furthest reaches of its party’s fringe to win. Andrew Scheer couldn’t have won without the support of social conservatives like Bradley Trost and Pierre Lemieux, while Erin O’Toole’s victory in 2020 was clearly underwritten by Derek Sloan’s voters.
If the “modern, centrist” Conservative Party of Canada that Erin O’Toole has promised Canadians is ever going to emerge, it needs to dispense with a leadership race structure that so clearly rewards fringe voices and voters. But it also needs to dispense with at least some of those voters entirely. The anti-mask, anti-science, anti-decency portion of the Conservatives’ base is actively harming their ability to connect with more moderate Canadians, especially in the Greater Toronto Area, Vancouver suburbs and other vote-rich markets. Amputating that cancerous wing of their party could allow them to grow in other areas. Trading the noisy five-ish per cent on the CPC’s far-right for the 10 or more that might be available in the political centre is a risk worth taking.
If they don’t take that risk, they face an even bigger one: being reduced to third place in Parliament. If it’s any consolation, the Liberal Party of Canada went down this road as recently as 2011, and they found the courage to reinvent themselves by embracing deficit spending (and effectively outflanking the NDP) in the 2015 election. If the seemingly inevitable 2021 election goes as badly for Conservatives as recent polls suggest, they’ll be faced with the unpleasant irony of having to learn from Justin Trudeau. Talk about adding insult to injury.