One of the most interesting stories of this first leg of Election 2021 is the Conservative Party’s strategy to court voters they have historically feuded against: union workers. More importantly, the CPC clearly views this as a key part of widening their appeal—and voter base.
The set-up has been in the works long before the campaign started. For example, while it didn’t gain any significant attention, then newly-minted CPC leader Erin O’Toole released a video for Labour Day after winning the CPC leadership in the summer of 2020. His subsequent speech before the Canadian Club of Toronto lamenting the decline of private sector union membership also raised a few political eyebrows.
But there was a definite purpose behind these actions: a conscious effort to widen its current pool of voters.
The CPC’s utter domination in Alberta and Saskatchewan, while impressive in its own right, is clearly insufficient to win elections. The same goes for its modest performances in Quebec and British Columbia. To beat the Liberals, it knows it needs to break through Ontario, whose 121 seats give a decisive advantage to the party most able to cater to the needs of a very diverse electorate.
Pivot towards the centre
With the right firmly in its grasp, the CPC needs to pivot towards the centre and win over people that usually vote for the LPC and the NDP. Ontario’s right history with the labour union provides the perfect platform for O’Toole’s ambitions.
Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s relationship with unions was antagonistic, to say the least. It made the CPC inaudible to union workers for more than a decade, to the benefit of the LPC.
The O’Toole-led CPC is clearly making an effort to also lean into the centre to try to win over people that usually vote for the LPC and, in particular, the NDP. Indeed, Erin O’Toole represents a riding just east of Oshawa that would have been populated in years past by GM autoworkers. O’Toole’s father represented the same riding as an Ontario MPP years earlier. And the CPC leader knows first-hand that unionized workers don’t automatically vote for the NDP or Liberals just because union bosses say it is the right thing to do.
Again, the Harper years hurt the CPC’s relationship with union. But Canada has changed a great deal since 2015: various trade deals (some negotiated under extreme duress) weakened several industries (automobile, aluminum, agriculture). Environmental assessment processes stunt the development of major projects. And a global pandemic caused world economies to stumble.
In an election aiming to determine Canada’s immediate next steps, everyday workers are anxious about the future. Various European centre-right parties have managed to capitalize on workers’ frustration vis-à-vis a borderless, fully integrated global economy that infringes on their rights and mute their voices. Pollsters point out that a good number of Bernie Sanders voters in the U.S. also had an ear for populist policies espoused by Donald Trump. In today’s dynamic political environments, political leaders rely on the old norms of the political spectrum at their peril.
The CPC platform doesn’t contain provisions to slash public servants. It also does not indicate a hasty return to fiscal balance. However, it does call for restructuring corporations to ensure employee pensions are at the top of the protected list, and even pledges to force federally regulated employers with over a thousand employees or $100 million in annual revenue to include worker representation in their boards of directors. Both policies could easily be featured in an NDP platform.
Perhaps this approach reflects the reality that today’s workers are concerned about cost of living, affordability, being able to properly care for their families and knowing their employers are looking out for their best interests. It isn’t always about right or left with voters anymore, and to categorize Canadians accordingly misses the trends behind the numbers.
Will these efforts translate into meaningful gains? Ultimately, the CPC’s strategy will be judged by the results it achieves. If it manages to snag 5% from the Liberals and the NDP, we could be welcoming a new government. But if it fails to make gains in Ontario, it is likely to remain in its current opposition purgatory.
NATIONAL and its team of public affairs experts will continue to keep a close eye on this narrative that could shape the next few weeks of the campaign.
——— Tiéoulé Traoré is a former Director, Government Relations at NATIONAL Public Relations