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Sean Speer: The working class isn’t who you think it is

Commentary

If in the context of the 2015 federal election Canadian politics became fixated on “the middle class and those hoping to join it,” then the new and emerging fixation seems to be the working class. Everyone is talking about it these days. 

New Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre has spoken early in his leadership about “fight[ing] for the working class.” The New Democrats have similarly recommitted themselves to being a “credible champion for working-class people.” And the Trudeau government recently announced inflation relief measures targeting low-income and working-class households. 

These political developments caused one left-wing economist to ask: “Will defining “working class” be the 2020s version of defining the “middle class?”

A new paper (co-authored by Renze Nauta, Sosina Bezu, and me) published by the Cardus Institute aims to answer this question. It uses a definition of the working class—namely, someone who works in a non-management, professional, or technical job that generally doesn’t require post-secondary education—to understand who comprises Canada’s working class, what jobs they do, and how they’ve done over the past 20 years or so. Our basic goal is to ensure that the growing political interest in the working class is rooted in facts rather than nostalgia. 

What do we find? Today’s working class is more female than male, more likely to be an immigrant or racial minority, much more likely to be in service-sector jobs than “blue-collar” jobs, and frequently has more educational experience or credentials than is typically required for its jobs. 

Let’s start with its overall size. While Canada’s working class is shrinking (its share of the working population has fallen from 42 percent in 2000 to 34 percent today), it’s still the largest share of workers in the Canadian economy. There were 6.5 million working-class Canadians in 2021. If they were a singular voting bloc, they would have won the popular vote in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.

Of these working-class Canadians, for most of the past 20 years, more than half have been women. Women (35 percent) are also more likely than male workers (33 percent) to be in working-class jobs. The same goes for immigrants or visible minorities. Just under half of visible minorities in the Canadian workforce are in working-class occupations compared to 39 percent for non-visible minorities. 

There’s been a major shift in the type of jobs that working-class Canadians do. The old image of blue-collar men on the manufacturing assembly line is no longer representative. Today nearly half of the working class is in sales and service jobs such as retail clerk, food counter attendant, or personal support worker. This is up from just over 30 percent in 1990 and is more than double the labour market as a whole. As one American policy scholar has described these trends: the modern working class has gone from “making stuff” to “serving and caring for people.” 

One of our major findings is that even though we define working class based on occupations that generally don’t require post-secondary experience or credentials, 53 percent of working-class Canadians (excluding full-time students) actually have post-secondary certificates, diplomas, or degrees. This may reflect various factors including individual preferences, foreign credential issues, a skills mismatch, or even employer discrimination. The upshot though is a prima facie case of large-scale underemployment that carries opportunity costs for individuals and the economy as a whole. 

These costs could be quite significant. Consider, for instance, that working-class Canadians earn, on average, 42 percent less per hour than those in non-working-class jobs. More than 60 percent of the working class earns less than $800 per week compared to just 20 percent for members of the management, professional, or technical classes. 

These insights from the data are crucial for politicians in pursuit of the working class. Although it’s a positive development that we’re seeing greater attention paid to this undervalued group of voters, the political class needs to meet them where actually they live and work. 

This means discarding outdated stereotypes of a working class mostly comprised of male, blue-collar, often unionized workers in the goods-producing economy and replacing it with a modern picture of the working class mostly comprised of women and visible minorities with some post-secondary credentials working in service-sector jobs. Think of a home-care worker instead of a General Motors factory worker. 

The policy consequences of this shift in our understanding of the modern working class are significant. The interests, concerns, and aspirations of a female personal supporter worker necessarily differs from those of a male worker in the manufacturing sector. A modern working-class agenda must account for these differences. It will need, for instance, to speak concretely about issues like health and dental benefits, labour standards, housing, childcare, and immigration. 

It’s too early to tell whether the newfound fixation on working-class Canadians will be a durable feature of our politics. That will ultimately depend on if the political parties are able to translate their political overtures into concrete policies responsive to the needs of the modern working class. Those efforts will need to rely on facts rather than nostalgia to guide them. 

Sean Speer: What Jason Kenney’s critics on the Left and Right get wrong

Commentary

This week marks Jason Kenney’s last as United Conservative Party leader and in turn Alberta premier. Party members will choose his successor next week on October 6. 

Kenney’s inevitable, if not immediate, exit from politics after more than a quarter century is a natural moment for reflection on his accomplishments, lessons, and legacy. 

I traveled to Red Deer last week to interview him at the Canada Strong and Free Network’s regional conference. Our on-stage exchange was before about 250 conference attendees as well as journalists from alternative and traditional media outlets. 

I didn’t speak to the premier or his staff about the interview in advance. As I said in my opening comments, this was the conversation that I wanted to have with Jason Kenney. 

It was a wide-ranging discussion that covered immigration and identity, the rise of so-called “woke politics”, his government’s policy record, the state of Canadian conservatism, and his own mark on Canadian life. 

Kenney demonstrated his strong command of conservative ideas and public policy as well as his deep attachment to Canadian institutions and values. He also displayed a bit of personal reflection about his maturation from a self-described “ideological firebrand” to seeing his conservatism as a disposition more than a dogma. 

There were plenty of interesting insights. His observations about the intersection between immigration, culture, and national identity were especially sagacious. As one of the most successful federal immigration ministers in modern Canadian history and someone who has been lauded by conservatives across the Anglosphere as a model on these issues, Kenney certainly has a lot of experience and knowledge to draw from. 

His chief point was that a successful immigration policy must combine a firm commitment to cultural and religious pluralism, economic inclusion, and a shared sense of citizenship. These elements are ultimately critical for attracting immigrants, enabling their integration within the economy and society, and maintaining broad public support. 

Kenney’s comments about the growing agitation within Canadian conservatism were also notable. He described a shift from the “friendly populism” of Ralph Klein to a “populism with a snarl” in the present political moment. He cited the role of social media as well as the growing detachment of legacy media and the rise of alternative media as key factors in this trend. The upshot was his warning that conservatism must avoid becoming a “caricature of a kind of nasty, angry populism that will lose consistently at the polls.”

As part of this particular exchange, Kenney issued a broadly-reported call for civility on both sides of the political spectrum. As he put it: “I know this is an old-fashioned sentiment, but I actually believe civility is a conservative value. And there is a growing sense of profound incivility. And it concerns me greatly.”

The polarized reaction to our conversation from the Left and Right speaks to Kenney’s point. His comments have been criticized by both sides in a way that seems detached from his ideas or record. The real caricature, in other words, is Kenney himself in the minds of his critics. 

The Left’s hostility reflects a common trend in which it rhetorically asks, “Where are all the reasonable conservatives?” while treating a completely conventional, centre-right politician like Kenney as if he’s some radical ideologue because he lowered taxes, cut spending, and believes kids should learn facts in school. The predictable protests and outrage are frankly a bit tiresome. They generally amount to expressions of intolerance made oxymoronically in the name of tolerance. 

The negativity from the Right is a bit more surprising. The Kenney government may not have been perfect from a conservative point of view but that seems like an odd measuring stick for conservatives who, if anything, ought to be committed to a basic realism. Conservatism, after all, is about seeing the world as it is as opposed to through a utopian lens. 

As I’ve written elsewhere, Kenney’s record is, by any reasonable measure, one of significant conservative reform. His government lowered taxes, cut regulations, reduced spending and balanced the budget, expanded school choice and introduced a new, sensible curriculum, and significantly expanded private health-care delivery. These are ideas and reforms that many of the premier’s right-wing critics previously championed for years. They can’t seem to take “yes” for an answer. 

Consider a thought experiment: if you removed Kenney’s name and just put his government’s record to conservatives in hypothetical terms, how do you think they’d respond? I’d bet that they’d be overwhelmingly positive. And for good reason. As I wrote for The Hub in the immediate aftermath of the premier’s resignation: “[this] was the country’s most ambitious centre-right provincial government since the Harris government’s Common-Sense Revolution in Ontario more than a quarter-century ago.”

The main point of tension of course was the government’s pandemic response. My sense is that this essentially involved two groups of Alberta conservatives. The first had legitimate yet debatable criticisms of the government’s messaging and policy choices. It comes down to questions of information asymmetry, trade-offs, and the benefits of hindsight. One suspects that Kenney might even agree with some of these points. 

The second group became less reachable over the course of the pandemic. Their opposition to the government’s pandemic policies hardened into an angry obstinance that came to trump facts or debate. Some were understandably agitated by the costs and consequences of extraordinary government restrictions including the loss of family businesses, the temporary closure of places of worship, and the inability to be with aging or dying relatives. Others succumbed to conspiracy theories about the World Economic Forum, Bill Gates, and the vaccines. The point though is that this second group, which ultimately played a key role in the UCP leadership review, became increasingly and irrevocably alienated from the premier and his leadership.  

The political problem, as one of Kenney’s chief critics explained to me at the conference, is that this left him inauspiciously wedged between those on his Left who favoured more stringent COVID restrictions and those on his Right who wanted none. It became an unsustainable political position that ultimately cost the premier his job. 

There’s no point in relitigating these questions as Kenney’s tenure officially comes to an end. But as he gets set to exit public life, it’s worth recognizing his immense contribution to the country in general and Canadian conservatism in particular. He has left a profound mark as a key architect of the modern Conservative Party and its nearly decade in office, and more recently as the founding leader of the United Conservative Party and a reform-oriented premier. As I said in my concluding remarks, the next generation of conservatives will invariably stand on his shoulders.