How Canada’s Conservatives Can Bounce Back

Three rules for avoiding the mistakes of defeated political parties

Canada's outgoing prime minister, Stephen Harper, delivers his concession speech. (Mark Blinch / Reuters)

“Say it louder.” That’s the almost-universal impulse of defeated political parties: “The voters didn’t like what we had to say? Say it louder!”

You lost by nominating Hubert Humphrey? Nominate George McGovern!

The pattern continues into our own time. It explains much of Republican politics since 2008, and almost every choice made by Britain’s Labour Party since the retirement of Tony Blair.

Say-it-louder politics seldom (if ever) works. That never matters. As parties shrink, their support intensifies—like a glass of orange juice in the sun, evaporating and concentrating at the same time. Which is why parties are seldom content to lose just one election. Oftentimes, it can take three defeats before hard-core partisans begrudgingly allow change.

Canada’s Conservative Party will be more strongly tempted than most defeated parties by the say-it-louder option. Its defeat in the country’s general election earlier this month was due above all else to the slowdown of the Canadian economy since 2014. Canada suffered less than most developed countries from the U.S.-led financial crisis of 2008, but it is being hit harder than most by this year’s made-in-China commodity-price recession. On October 27, for example, Royal Dutch Shell announced the cancellation of a big oil-sands project in Carmon Creek, Alberta—a casualty both of declining oil prices and America’s shelving of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. As oil has tumbled back to the prices of the early 2000s, so has the Canadian dollar, squeezing the purchasing power of all Canadians in a highly trade-dependent economy. The Canadian unemployment rate ticked up above 7 percent in September.

It could plausibly be argued, then, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was felled more by the business cycle than by its actions or those of its opponents.

Plausibly—but insufficiently.

Let’s take a closer look at why the Conservatives lost. The party’s raw vote total dropped by only 231,905, as John Geddes notes in Maclean’s. What changed between the 2011 election (when the Conservatives won 39.6 percent of votes cast) and the 2015 election (when the Liberals won 39.5 percent) was the size of the electorate, which increased by 2.8 million. Almost all of this additional turnout translated into additional votes for the Liberals, who won 4.1 million more votes in 2015 than they had in 2011. These new Liberal voters were as likely to be old as young. They paid scant attention to the much-publicized accusations that Harper had turned into some kind of un-Canadian dictator. What they did believe was that the Liberals would do a better job protecting the middle class and creating jobs than the Conservatives.

While Canada has had a relatively benign economic experience since 2008, the emphasis has to be on the “relatively.” While the Canadian middle class has fared comparatively well, the emphasis has to be on the “comparatively.” In less excruciating form, Canada faces the same social challenge that bedevils every other advanced democracy: the tendency for the rewards of economic growth to concentrate in the top income brackets. Harper’s opponents successfully made this issue the ballot question, and the Harper government could not offer a compelling answer.

The question won’t go away. The answer offered by the successful Liberals—more redistributive taxes, more deficit-financed government spending—is unlikely to work. The big idea of Canada’s next prime minister, the Liberal Party’s Justin Trudeau, echoed the thesis of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Osawatomie, Kansas, speech of 2011: that a sustained increase in government spending on infrastructure can accelerate economic growth over the long term. It’s possible to write an equation on a blackboard demonstrating this. But it’s very doubtful that modern governments have the capacity to do it—to choose investments based only on economic returns, not on political considerations. Canadian history is an industrial graveyard of proofs to the contrary, from the redundant transcontinental railways built by Liberal governments in the early 20th century; through the failed attempt by the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau, Justin Trudeau’s father, to build an automobile industry in the high-unemployment zone of New Brunswick in the 1970s; to the National Energy Program of the final Trudeau government of the 1980s—the worst policy debacle in Canada’s post-World War II economic history.

Canadians are prone to placing excessive confidence in their governments, but they do learn their lessons. The elder Trudeau’s statist turn in the early 1980s ended in a Liberal wipeout at the polls in 1984. Will his son have more success economically or politically? Almost certainly not. But taxes will likely be higher, government spending less controlled, and the misuse of public funds for political ends more conspicuous. When Canadians vote next, the moment will be ripe for the right kind of conservative with the right kind of message—if and only if Canadian Conservatives can eschew the temptation to say it louder.

Specifically, that means avoiding two mistakes that have dragged down conservative parties elsewhere, and one mistake uniquely dangerous to Canada’s right-of-center parties.

1) Don’t obsess over political process

The British parliamentary system has proven an awkward fit for a federation spread across half a continent. Canadians have long fretted over reforms to the system, and conservative Canadians more than most. The Reform Party revolt that shattered the Conservative coalition in the 1990s was focused on process issues above all: instituting more direct democracy, weakening the grip of party whips on backbench members of parliament, electing rather than appointing members of the Canadian Senate, and so on. The Reform strain still runs strong in the reunited Conservative Party of the 2000s.

These issues are not unimportant, but they are not supremely important. Over-involvement with them did real harm to the Harper government. When the prime minister failed to gain provincial consent to move toward an elected Senate, he asked the Canadian Supreme Court whether he could abolish the Senate outright. Unsurprisingly, the high court told him that abolition would require a constitutional amendment. Frustrated by these rebuffs, Harper simply refused to make any new appointments to the body, accumulating 22 vacancies that will now be filled by his Liberal successor. The Senate may be an anachronism, but it is always potentially powerful: All bills passed by the House of Commons must also pass the Senate to become law. Since incumbent governments fill the Senate with their partisans, it typically takes a new government a long time to gain a majority in the upper house to match its majority in the lower. This imposes some brake on the otherwise overwhelming power of a majority government. By leaving so many vacancies for Justin Trudeau to fill immediately, Harper inadvertently accelerated Trudeau’s timetable to unchecked power. This was Harper’s mistake, but the distaste for the Senate that inspired the mistake originates in the DNA of his own party faction.

Pierre Trudeau bequeathed Canada a new constitution that is defective in many important ways, yet also very difficult to amend. It’s one of many blots on Trudeau’s record. It’s also a political fact that politicians must accommodate. A future Conservative prime minister could perhaps advance some parts of the old Reform agenda. Provinces that want elected senators could be invited to organize votes for the job on the assurance that the prime minister would appoint the winner—an experiment tried under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and due for revival. But that future Conservative prime minister must get elected first, and the Reform agenda will contribute only marginally to that end. Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour likes to say that in politics, “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Constitutional reform is not Canada’s main thing.

Beyond this note of caution, two more universal pieces of advice:

2) Don’t veer to ideological extremes

Voters are not longing for “true” conservatism—or “true” socialism or “true” liberalism or really “true” anything. Active partisans care about ideological consistency. Less engaged voters do not. Instead, they care about results: economic growth, rising wages, adequate public services, public safety against threats foreign and domestic. They care about values: respect for work, family, and country. They are open to many, many routes to achieve those ends. The attacks on Harper from some Canadian conservative writers—for philosophical inconsistency, for cautious incrementalism, for aversion to political risk—are the attacks always made against successful politicians, because this is what successful politicians do and must do.

Party activists yearn to “return to principle” because they participate in politics for reasons of self-fulfillment. They integrate issues into larger patterns of political belief, and their political beliefs in turn are crucial to their conception of themselves. Politics endows their lives with meaning and purpose. In other words: Activists are starkly different kinds of people than less active voters, whose consent is crucial to gaining political power. A lifelong political practitioner once advised me, “To ask the typical voter to name his or her most important political issue is like asking them to name their favorite prime number. Their minds just don’t function that way.”

Party activists pay the bills, do the work, and keep the faith. They are indispensable. But they are not sufficient—and it’s the job of political professionals to keep their activists’ eyes on the prize of electoral success and an achievable agenda.

3) Don’t substitute biography for policy

Nominating a military veteran in 2004 did not convert U.S. Democrats into the tough-on-security party. Nominating women or ethnic minorities does not, in itself, redress right-of-center parties’ deficiencies with those groups. It can help at the margins, but only just. Canada’s Conservatives won majorities and pluralities among voters beyond their core constituency in 2011 because a) they campaigned hard for those votes and b) they could demonstrate that voting Conservative would tangibly enhance those voters’ prosperity and security. That’s the job that needs to be done again in 2019. Biography helps a little. Attention and respect help more. Policy helps most of all.

At the same time, it’s very important to not pay too much attention to your political opponents’ policy advice about how to reach the additional constituencies you need to reach. Harper’s opposition to Muslim women wearing the niqab at citizenship ceremonies was as popular with voters of all backgrounds as it was detested by Canadian media elites. Ditto, if more narrowly so, for his caution on admitting Syrian refugees to the country.

The political flaw in the Conservatives’ stance on the niqab was not that they had the wrong position, but that they seemed to have the wrong priorities. Over-responding to bien-pensant media opinion favoring all multicultural practices distracted and diverted Conservative attention from the economic, tax, and wage issues that were far and away the top concerns of Canadian voters in 2015. Political communication is about persuasion, not self-expression. Remember that, and then trust in the superior power of conservative ideas over time—and your non-conservative opponents’ inevitable errors.