Sean Speer: Win for what? The cause of social mobility would resonate with voters

Nearly 70 percent of Canadians anticipate that today’s children will be worse off than their parents
Jean Charest poses for pictures with supporters Thursday, March 24, 2022 as he launches the Quebec part of his campaign for the Consevative Party leadership in Laval, Quebec. Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press.

At this stage in the Conservative Party’s leadership race, we’re starting to see the different candidates cohere around their respective campaign narratives. This political and policy positioning can tell us a lot about who the candidates are, what they stand for, and how they would lead the party. 

I’ve previously written about Pierre Poilievre’s gatekeepers narrative including how it might manifest itself as a public policy agenda as well as its potential political fecundity. At its core, though, the gatekeepers narrative is fundamentally values-based. It seeks to animate Conservative Party members with a diagnosis of Canada’s economy and society rooted in conservative ideas. 

The second major candidate, Jean Charest, has chosen a different approach. His overarching narrative, Built to Win, eschews a values-based appeal and instead relies on a pragmatic political case that he’s best placed to lead the party in the next general election. In simpler terms, it puts electability over ideology. 

Charest’s campaign is effectively encouraging Conservative members to set aside fundamental issues of ideology and values and instead make a political calculus about which leadership candidate can have the broadest appeal to Canadians. Implicit in this message is that Poilievre’s rougher ideological edges may turn off some swing voters and that his own moderate politics and temperament are more likely to reach them. 

There are two problems, it seems to me, with this assumption. The first is that although it’s a common view that Conservatives need to shift to the political centre to grow their support, it’s not entirely obvious that that’s the right diagnosis or solution to the party’s recent trend of electoral losses. The idea that there’s a bunch of Canadians who voted for the Liberal Party in 2019 and 2021 and remain open to the Conservative Party seems somewhat implausible. 

Perhaps it’s possible that the policy outcomes of the new parliamentary agreement with the New Democrats will be so fiscally profligate and economically damaging that they will shake loose a critical mass of the elusive “fiscally conservative yet socially liberal” voters that we always hear about. But at present there just aren’t enough Scott Brisons or Christy Clarks to sustain a new centrist version of the Conservative Party. 

There are, however, signs that one of the reasons that the party lost in the last election was the rise of the People’s Party, whose vote totals in 21 ridings were larger than the margins by which the Conservative candidates lost.1“The PPC failed to win any seats in the Sept. 20 election, but gathered 5.1 per cent of the popular vote — up from 1.6 per cent in the 2019 federal election.” This includes 12 ridings in Ontario, five in British Columbia, two in Alberta, one in Quebec, and one in Newfoundland. 

It may not be a perfect one-for-one—there’s evidence, for instance, that People’s Party voters were pulled from across the spectrum based on the politics of vaccines—but it seems clear that these political developments harmed the Conservative Party.2“In short, PPC voters were not simply typical Conservative supporters leaning furthest to the right on a range of issues that include government spending, taxation, climate change and immigration. They were, on average, a unique cluster of voters who have rejected the overwhelming public consensus on the need to be vaccinated to contain the spread of COVID-19.” At a minimum, it suggests that Poilievre’s message of freedom may be more politically salient than a message of mere moderation. 

But, in any case, this question about how to grow the Conservative Party’s general election support isn’t the main problem with Charest’s narrative. That is the presumption that Conservative Party members are going to be responsive to a value-neutral message about electability. 

It’s far from obvious that such a transactional message will resonate with Conservatives who, if the party’s three previous leadership races are dispositive, will want to support a candidate who shares their values and priorities. The risk, therefore, is that the idea of Built to Win leaves many Conservatives feeling unsatisfied and unmotivated. 

Charest’s electability message needs to be matched with a political narrative rooted in conservative ideas. He needs his own alternative to Poilievre’s gatekeepers message if he’s going to connect with Conservative Party members. 

It can’t be manufactured or made up. A candidate needs to be personally committed to his or her campaign narrative or it’s bound to fall apart. Conservative members in particular, and Canadians in general, can discern insincerity. 

The good news for Charest is that his campaign launch speech may have presented a path forward. In those remarks, he argued that those of us who are born in Canada or came here through immigration have effectively won the lottery. The basic idea is that the country is home to a set of ideas and institutions that enable people to live out their values and aspirations with a reasonable shot at success however one defines it. 

Charest’s underlying point is that those foundational conditions that make Canada the equivalent of a winning lottery ticket need to be protected, sustained, and strengthened. Yet they have eroded over time due to various factors including the Trudeau government’s inattention to economic growth and dynamism. 

This narrative resonates with me as someone who has deeply benefited from the culture of intergenerational mobility and spirit of egalitarianism within Canadian society. I happen to think that it’s a powerful message that’s well rooted in conservative ideas and the conservative worldview. I’ve previously made the case, for instance, that Conservatives should prioritize intergenerational mobility as the basis of a “cause-driven conservatism.”

There’s evidence that such policy attention is increasingly needed. Although Canada’s record on social mobility is generally positive—we’re regularly in the upper tier of OECD countries—the mobility picture differs among places and groups, and there’s even new evidence that overall social mobility is declining.3“Canadians born into high-income families tend to grow into high-income adults, and those born into low-income families tend to remain low income, Statistics Canada says. Middle-class Canadians have the greatest economic mobility.” People are sensing it too. Polling tells us that more than six in 10 Canadians are pessimistic about the future of the next generation. A 2017 survey showed that nearly 70 percent anticipate that today’s children will be worse off than their parents.

This feeling that middle-class progress has stalled is, according to Ipsos Public Affairs CEO Darrell Bricker, driving a lot of the frustration that we’re seeing expressed in our politics.4Ontario 360 Transition Briefings 2022: The Issues That Will Drive The Next Ontario Election It manifests itself in thwarted aspirations about homeownership, growing concerns about job precarity and financial instability, and just a general sense that the Canadian equivalent of the “American Dream” is being lost. The Canadian lottery ticket, in other words, doesn’t come with the same odds as it used to. 

There’s a huge opportunity therefore to organize a policy narrative and accompanying policy agenda around the idea of boosting social mobility and renewing middle-class progress. As a matter of public policy, it would necessarily manifest itself across a wide number of policy areas including the economy, child care and other family policies, housing, education, criminal justice, immigration, mental health and addiction, and so forth. It could, in other words, knit together a set of seemingly disparate policies in the pursuit of an overarching cause that itself is a values-based expression. 

In terms of an overarching narrative, the idea of strengthening the Canadian lottery ticket and in turn renewing middle-class progress could appeal to Conservatives, particularly to the extent that it emphasizes an amalgam of economic freedom and a pro-family vision. It would also resonate, however, with the suburban swing voters who Bricker points out are increasingly pessimistic about their own futures and the futures of their children. 

The key point here though is that Built to Win is a necessary yet insufficient narrative. It fails the basic “why” question: Win for what? The cause of social mobility should be Charest’s answer.   

Sign up for FREE and receive The Hub’s email newsletter.

You'll get our daily newsletter featuring The Hub’s thought-provoking insights and analysis of Canadian policy issues and in-depth interviews with the world’s sharpest minds and thinkers.