Sean Speer: The Tories tried to take a page from Boris Johnson’s playbook. Here’s where they went wrong

, Sean Speer: The Tories tried to take a page from Boris Johnson’s playbook. Here’s where they went wrong, Nzuchi Times National News

While Conservatives are right to focus on reaching voters abandoned by the Liberals, the party’s election postmortem will need to revisit the best means of achieving this

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In light of last week’s disappointing election results, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has committed to a full postmortem to understand why the party failed to outperform its 2019 election outcomes.

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Such a review will presumably evaluate the campaign’s strategy and tactics (including efforts to “detoxify” the party), the strengths and weaknesses of the policy platform and the leader’s key messages in the final stretch of the election campaign.

One subject that the postmortem will need to cover is the lessons that O’Toole and his team derived from the British Conservative party’s 2019 election win and how a key misinterpretation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s electoral success may have ultimately contributed to their own failings.

Readers may remember that there was a lot of pre-election talk about how O’Toole’s team sought to internalize lessons from Johnson’s successful breach of the so-called “red wall” in the 2019 British election, in which the Conservatives managed to win a number of long-held Labour seats.

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This trend of Conservative parties reaching new and different working-class voters is something that this column has discussed in the past. It reflects a “political realignment” in the English-speaking world that has seen working-class voters shift rightward, as the left has abandoned traditional class-based politics in favour of uncompromising cultural progressivism.

O’Toole and the Conservative party were right to seize on this trend in their own campaign planning for two reasons. The first is that the party has been consistently stuck in a narrow band of popular support (roughly between 26 and 35 per cent) and needs to expand beyond its durable yet insufficient Conservative voter base. Raising the party’s low ceiling of support is critical to consistently competing for, and winning power in, federal elections.

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The second reason is the Liberal party’s leftward shift under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It started with modest deficits and has since led to unprecedented federal spending, Canadian flags flying at half-mast indefinitely and a general slump into a form of progressive politics that accentuates differences at the expense of a common national identity or purpose.

This represents both an opportunity and a threat for Conservatives. The threat is that it has eroded the New Democratic Party’s value proposition and reduced the potential for the type of vote splitting that contributed to the Conservative party’s majority government in 2011. Conservatives can no longer count on NDP electoral strength to inadvertently tip a large number of seats in their direction.

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The opportunity is that the Liberals’ retreat into left-wing economics and identity politics opens up uncontested space on the centre-right for Conservatives to reach a large number of voters beyond just their core voter base. In theory, there ought to be a sizable share of the population — including working-class voters — who didn’t so much leave the Liberal party, as the Liberal party has increasingly left them.

Some analyses have shown that these disaffected voters are distributed across dozens of ostensibly winnable ridings. The main question for O’Toole and his team, therefore, was: how could the Conservative party reach these voters and ultimately win these seats?

We now know their answer. It involved a combination of a general ideological moderation (including adopting an avowedly pro-choice position, accepting carbon taxes and de-emphasizing balanced budgets) and a set of specific policy promises (including worker representation on corporate boards, an automatic boost to employment insurance payouts in recessions and a pledge to “go after wealthy tax cheats”) that diverged from conservative orthodoxy.

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These left-leaning nods to non-traditionally Conservative voters were then counterbalanced by a bit of red meat for traditional Conservative voters, including repealing parts of the government’s recent gun-control law, protecting free speech on campuses and ending the media bailout.

The disappointing election results suggest that this imperfect amalgam of moderation and conservatism wasn’t quite the right response. It neither converted enough non-traditionally Conservative voters nor galvanized the core Conservative base. The party barely picked up any new seats in Central Canada and bled support on its right-wing flank to the People’s party, which saw its support more than double nationally.

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This failing was, in hindsight, intrinsic to the party’s effort to communicate separate messages and policies to these two voter groups. Sir John A. Macdonald may have gotten away with localized narratives in the whistle-stop train tours of the 19th century, but in today’s age of ubiquitous news and information, such a political strategy is highly fraught.

, Sean Speer: The Tories tried to take a page from Boris Johnson’s playbook. Here’s where they went wrong, Nzuchi Times National News

Both voter groups could effectively hear what O’Toole was saying to the other. The competing messages and policies contributed to a sense of incoherence, confusion and inauthenticity. As a result, too few non-traditionally Conservative voters were persuaded and too many core Conservative voters were turned off.

Although it wasn’t wrong for O’Toole and his team to try to emulate Johnson’s basic politics — particularly his gains with traditionally non-Conservative voters — they misinterpreted a key part of the British Conservative party’s successful strategy.

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Johnson wasn’t effective because he advanced one set of conservative messages and policies to his core Conservative voters and another set of moderate messages and policies to everyone else. He didn’t reach so-called ”red wall” voters merely by moderating his ideas and compromising on conservative first principles. This wasn’t an exercise in ideological and political trade-offs.

Johnson was effective precisely because he appealed to both core Conservative voters and non-traditionally Conservative voters with the same underlying message and policy: bringing finality to the Brexit referendum. It was an inherently conservative idea that galvanized the former and resonated with the latter.

By appealing to both core voters and a broader set of accessible voters with an overarching conservative message and policy, Johnson’s political strategy enabled the British Conservatives to add new voters and seats without depressing their base support. (The old school radicalism of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party leader, undoubtedly helped.)

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Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper instinctively understood this point when he led the creation of the modern Conservative party. His genius was to reject the fickle and unstable coalitional politics of legacy Conservative parties for a new party rooted in a pragmatic yet ideological foundation. While new and different voters needed to be brought into the party’s broad tent, a basic set of conservative assumptions had to serve as connective tissue linking core Conservative voters to swing, accessible voters across the country.

The question, then, for O’Toole and his team in the election postmortem is: what ideas or issues can motivate both the Conservative party’s base and reach the broader group of voters that they need to win the next election?

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Answering this question will have to be for future columns. But it is crucial for the future of Conservative politics in Canada. Areas of potential include elevating the party’s hawkishness towards China, a more direct challenge to rising federal spending, deficits and debt and calling out the excesses of so-called “wokeism” and what it means for social cohesion, national unity and individual rights.

The point is that while O’Toole and his team are right to be focused on reaching voters abandoned by the Liberal party and in turn growing the Conservative party’s overall support, the party’s election postmortem will need to revisit the best means of achieving this. The right lesson from Boris Johnson, though, is that it must ultimately lie in a broad-based conservative appeal.

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