Rob Leone: Conservatives face a monumental challenge to stay relevant

Conservatives like to talk about the conflict, but they struggle to provide a satisfying resolution
Local residents look at Conservative leader Stephen Harper's campaign bus as he makes a campaign stop at a suburban home in Richmond Hill, Ontario, on August 7, 2015. Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press.

Ken Boessenkool recently reflected in The Hub on the need for Conservatives to appeal to their finer sensibilities in terms of the policy suite they offer to each of the movement’s different camps, while avoiding the other elements that turn off many others to the cause.

While I share these thoughts, I would also like to go a few steps further. Here are a collection of lessons from years of being an academic, a party activist and even becoming an elected provincial conservative.

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Challenge 1: Leader vs Followers

In a blog post earlier this year, I made the claim that the Conservative Party itself was ungovernable. In that post, I claimed that the Conservative Party elects a leader, and the very next minute, that leader is expected to follow the followers — followers who will ruthlessly guillotine the leader for non-victory while themselves escaping any blame for the cataclysmic failure.

It is a Conservative form of Marxism, where the proletariat collection of members control the bourgeois party elites. It is the most perverse form of organization, and honest questions never arise to analyze whether it is working.

Until Conservatives figure out that this backward organization is untenable, the party will never move forward. A leader needs to have the opportunity to lead. He or she needs to be true to self, believe in the policies being advanced, and have the latitude to figure out where to go.

Instead, our leaders want to fight an election on a particular policy agenda and scorn arises because it isn’t doctrinaire enough. This brings conflict, and rather than members seeing themselves as a dominant part of the conflict, they simply maintain that the leader wasn’t listening. It happens every time a Conservative leader loses.

Challenge 2: Solutions in search of problems

Let’s have a chat about the Conservative Party’s penchant for standing policy documents. This was brought to my attention again last week when members of the Conservative Party voted for their national policy committee.

Imagine writing a policy document for a political party years before an election. In fact, some of the Conservative Party of Canada’s standing policy provisions were written two decades removed from today.

It’s never great fighting the policy battles of yesterday when confronted with an election where voters are preoccupied about the here and now. But, there we have it: every time there’s a policy conference, there’s an avalanche of controversies over policy initiatives that would never make an election platform.

To make matters worse, members will insist that those standing policies are followed. Failure to adhere to yesterday’s standing policy book is seen as an indictment of today’s leadership. Nobody seems to see a problem with this.

This pet peeve is an example of the second major challenge: Conservatives tend to have a policy solution without defining a policy problem. It’s just too easy to brand conservatives as grandpa’s party just by the very nature of its institutional set up.

Surely the suggestion of blowing up the policy process will be seen as radical and controversial inside the tent. However, unless conservatives are talking to people about what they’re concerned about right now, then how will voters ever be convinced that their life will be better under a Conservative government?.

I might well support liberalizing gun laws and know it is important for the base, but it’s not even on the agenda for all but the hardest core of voters. This is a solution for a non-defined problem and while it appeals to a small subset of voters that by and large already vote Conservative, it is not speaking to average voters concerned about their more important life problems who are not voting Conservative.

Policy ideas need to be attached it to a current problem. If Canadians do not see the problem the same way, then it shouldn’t be a priority. This should be an ironclad rule, but one conservatives never seem to follow.

Challenge 3: Every good story must have a happy ending

If an election were like telling a story, we need to talk about the characters, the setting, the conflict, and the resolution when building the plot. Conservatives seem to like to talk about the characters and the conflict, but they struggle to provide a satisfying resolution to that conflict that calms, soothes and gives people hope.

Fear is a great motivating factor for people. Fear of reckless spending. Fear of nanny statism. Fear of governments making decision that ordinary folks should make on their own. Fear speaks to conflict, highlighting the fact that the opponents’ policies and ideas would be bad. That appears to be where conservatives end their narrative.

Hope speaks to a view of life four or ten years from now. How will Canada be better? How will we measure our collective prosperity? How do we turn that small, pocketbook thinking into a grander vision of tomorrow?

Unless a campaign talks about that and sounds authentic about its vision, it will continue to fall off the edge of the election cliff.

Challenge 4: Urban Canada needs a reason to vote Conservative

Have you ever been in a conversation where the person you’re speaking to is talking but not listening? That’s what Conservatives sound like.

There’s an echo chamber in the party that tends to have a loud voice, but it doesn’t reflect what ordinary people are worried about.

I’m a 40-something, educated, dual-income earning, upper-middle class, homeowner in Ontario. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to a vast swath of people, but it increasingly defines the people who live in vote-rich suburban parts of the country. To my dismay, most people like me don’t vote Conservative. Life is good for the most part. However, even though life is good, it’s not like such people don’t have their concerns.

Here are a few based on conversations I have recently had that are not so Covid-specific:

  • Worry about kids getting jobs
  • Don’t know how kids are going to afford homes
  • Work-life balance stress
  • How to care for mom and dad if they were to get ill
  • Personal and family mental health and well-being
  • No time to do anything because we’re shuttling kids to a million things again
  • Traffic and congestion
  • Distress over treatment of Indigenous people
  • Noisy neighbours

The funny thing is that proposing solutions to these urban problems do not have to come at the expense of the rural base. Worrying about kids getting jobs is as much a rural problem as it is an urban one. Affording homes in urban Canada requires a plan to build more homes in urban Canada.

The sorts of things on this list will not appear on the most important issues on a poll. They come out in conversations we should be having with ordinary people.

These are things that if you can tackle them in a neat package of real solutions, it signals to people that there is hope for a better future for them and their children.

Erin O’Toole can win the election if he starts focusing on the things that matter to people, but he and the party need to address its shortcomings before that becomes possible. Time is running out.

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Rob, I fully agree with your comment that any Conservative Leader needs to articulate a vision, offer hope and a plan for the future. Erin O’Toole totally fails on this count, and Stephen Harper wasn’t much better (I attribute his ‘wins’ to the AdScam Liberals, and their subsequent pathetic leadership choices, Dion and Ignatieff, disqualifying themselves more than anything else.)

However, I believe you are wrong about stated principles and policies being a millstone around the neck of a leader. Perhaps if a ‘Conservative’ leader can’t campaign on at least some of the many policy proposals that thousands of Conservatives from across the nation have managed to reach and maintain a consensus about, then that leader may not be a conservative – he may just be the guy who barely managed to win a half-baked leadership race during a so-called pandemic.

The ‘bread and butter’ issues you list are good, and there are conservative answers for these. Let’s hope the next leader of the party takes your advice and speaks to these. I have no hope for the liberal-minded incumbent.

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