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Mark Johnson: The Right needs more than the working class to win

Commentary

What’s the path to victory? Notwithstanding recent polling that shows them leading the Trudeau government, this question grips the federal Conservative Party after three successive defeats.  

Among Canadian conservatives, a theory is setting in that posits that electoral success is to be found by becoming a movement of the working class. After all, working-class folks have been left behind by the modern economy, as well as ignored, disrespected, and disdained by the champagne socialists of Canada’s political class. These voters seem more open than in the past to conservative ideas and voices.

Former Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton has been the Conservative politician most closely associated with this newfound attention paid to working-class Canadians in particular and the so-called “political realignment” in general. He made this focus explicit during his time in office, stating at different times that “the future of Conservatism lies with the working class.”

The future of conservatism certainly includes the working class. But success will only be found if it encompasses more than a single segment of voters. To focus conservatism on a single demographic group, or to provide that group with disproportionate influence on the movement’s policy and politics, may yield some small short-term gains by expanding its voting coalition and countering the perceptions that conservatism is primarily concerned with business interests or the wealthy. Ultimately, however, this would come with long-term costs in the form of declining public support and diminished electoral prospects. The future of conservatism, in other words, must lie in a broad-based, multi-class coalition.

Who is ‘working class’ in the 21st century?

Traditionally, people who were paid by the hour, who did physical work that required less formal education, and who earned less than their university-educated counterparts were classified as working class. The working class sold their labour in discrete amounts of time in return for a wage. Blue collar, not white collar. Maybe they were unionized or maybe not. As one wag said, “The middle class shower before work. The working class shower after work.” 

In today’s economy, however, are the demarcations education, income, the type of work, or your position within the management structure? Is this group defined strictly by economic status? Or is it defined culturally by shared attributes and values? Is a unionized autoworker with a high school diploma who earns more than an office worker with a university degree still considered working class? What cultural and political commonality exists between immigrant women who work for minimum wage in retail and the highly paid white male electricians and home builders? Defining “working class” in the 21st century is as futile as defining “good art.”

An example of such challenge is that even scholarly efforts to define the working class struggle with these challenges. A 2022 paper by the Cardus Institute which defined working class jobs as those that typically don’t require post-secondary credentials found that more than half of Canadians in such jobs actually had post-secondary experience or qualifications.

The impossibility of defining membership in the class makes it just too nebulous for any coherent political program. Try as hard as you can but it’s not a delineated and identifiable group with distinct but common attributes. It’s a polyglot. Therefore, it defies the basic marketing requirements of shared tastes, segmentation, and targetability. 

Even the label “working class” is a dated one and somewhat pejorative with its connotations of manual work, unionism, labour-management tension, and its rank on the social ladder below middle class but above low income. Does anyone still view themselves as working class in preference to middle class? I hazard to guess that the only people who still use the term are politicians.  

A small and shrinking pool

There’s another reason why it’s a fool’s errand for conservatives to rely exclusively on that segment of Canada for its electoral success. Simply put, there are not enough of those folks left out there.  

In 1997, 34 percent of employees worked under a collective agreement. By 2021 that number had declined to 31 percent. And in the private sector, the unionization rate fell from 19 percent in 1997 to just 13.8 percent in 2021. In other words, only one in seven employees in the private sector today is unionized and that number is dropping.

Viewed through the education lens, it’s the same story. Canadians are becoming more educated and less likely to be considered as working class. Between 2016 and 2021, the percentage of working adults who had a bachelor’s degree or higher climbed more than four percentage points to 33 percent. In 2019, 73 percent of Canadians aged 25 to 34 had completed postsecondary schooling compared with 59 percent in 2000. That is a dramatic jump.

Conservatism cannot rely on the working class alone to bring it into power when the demographic is shrinking every year.

Go for the bigger market

Should Conservatives appeal to blue-collar men and women? Absolutely. But they also need to appeal to IT workers, office workers, urban professionals, soccer moms, and aspirational immigrants in the long and quiet struggle for a better life. 

IT workers—the highly educated, highly mobile, highly ethnic, high-income, entrepreneurial, footloose knowledge workers of the 21st century—should be one of the target markets. But having worked with them closely for years, I can attest that they certainly do not view themselves as working class, neither financially, politically, culturally, nor attitudinally. 

Conservatism must be made to appeal to a larger expanse of the cultural and political spectrum, from the lower income segments up through to the managerial and professional classes. Creating a political program for a small group of like-minded voters is easy, but boutique policies that micro-target groups will only yield micro-results. It’s much harder to appeal to a larger, more diverse marketplace. It requires a program based on common interests and values over a larger population. Some dilution of conservative orthodoxy may be needed. Ideologically driven conservatives will find it particularly hard to accept the compromises that may come with developing a program that aspires to be a 50 percent plus 1 movement. Yet these are compromises that must ultimately be made.

Conservatives attempting to become the party of the proletariat is folly. It will lash them to a voting bloc that is impossible to define and target, that is small and getting smaller. It ignores the vast majority of voters. Does the future of conservatism lie with the working class? No. But the future of the working class should lie with conservatism. Conservatism should be a political movement that attracts all strata of society. Only then will it be successful. 

Ginny Roth: Small-donor political fundraising is good for democracy

Commentary

American conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg set off a small online skirmish this past August when he said in a CNN interview: “…small donors are one of the biggest problems for democracy, for the GOP. Because…large donors actually have a strategic view about moderation, who can win, who can’t. Small donors really are just venting their spleen with their credit card.” It’s not just Goldberg bemoaning the influence of small-donor fundraising strategy on our body politic. Canadian writer Justin Ling published a paper this year with the Public Policy Forum attributing our troubling political polarization, in part, to the same phenomenon. 

Indeed, small-donor fundraising is an increasingly powerful force in Canadian politics, not only because it’s proven to be an effective strategy for those who excel at it, but because changing rules and norms at the federal level have made it a political necessity. But Goldberg, Ling, and other critics are wrong. Not only is the small-donor approach far preferable to the clearly less democratic alternative of our recent past (and sometimes present) where wealthy donors exchange money for influence, but its relationship to principled politics makes it a better bulwark against corruption than any ethical rule or guideline. 

In Canada, we can analyze different fundraising cultures in real time because we’ve got both. First, let’s consider the federal dynamic. An elite-driven fundraising strategy, which targets corporate donations, major donations from wealthy individuals, or both, was the driving force in federal Canadian politics until very recently. It wasn’t so long ago that Canada’s corporate power brokers had ready access to whatever major political party was in power—the Liberals at the peak of this period—and in exchange, those same major donors would fund the party’s next election campaign. It’s not that regular people didn’t donate to political parties, it’s just that their donations made very little difference. Parties courted wealthy donors, and it was understood that if you won power, you would make it a priority to return those donor’s phone calls. Canadians mostly put up with this. After all, institutional trust was high, and a returned phone didn’t necessarily result in a favour paid. But after years of grift, the sponsorship scandal was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and as conservative populists channeled anti-Laurentian sentiment into a new political movement, the Liberals struggled to adapt. 

Stephen Harper understood that Conservatives would need to draw a line in the sand to match a new demand for ethical behaviour between politicians and those who sought to influence them. His government brought in various democratic reforms, including a Federal Accountability Act, which, from a policy perspective, continues to make it harder for elected officials to dole out access in exchange for favours.

But that wasn’t all. The Conservatives understood that changing laws and regulations wouldn’t be enough. Canadian politics needed a culture shift. The Chrétien Liberals (responding to political pressure) had recently changed fundraising rules to prohibit corporate and union donations at the federal level, but political parties were still thinking about fundraising in terms of “stakeholder relations” (i.e., what private interest is likely to donate the maximum amount allowable in order to get close to my party and a potential future government?). Harper’s fundraising strategy set out to change that by trying to raise smaller amounts of money from way more people. In charting a two-step path to a majority government, Conservatives learned to play a volume game. It’s not that some wealthy Canadians wouldn’t donate the maximum amount, but fundraising success ultimately came from thousands and thousands of small donations from regular Canadians, in Goldberg’s words “venting their spleens”.

Harper’s success became Trudeau’s, who understood he couldn’t leap from third party to government without mimicking the Conservative party’s modernization efforts. In fact, by the time they beat Harper’s Conservatives, the Liberals were beating the Tories at their own game, taking small donations digital. A decade late, Pierre Poilievre has outmatched them all, bringing together principled policy commitments, compelling communication, and digital engagement in a potent fundraising offence, blowing other parties out of the water.

The federal shift in fundraising culture was not inevitable. Indeed, Canada’s biggest province took a darker path. While Harper was bringing in democratic reform, Ontario Liberals were learning that big labour had as much money to throw around as big business did. The Working Families Coalition, a group of Ontario’s public sector unions, contributed millions not just to Ontario Liberal party war room budgets but on third-party advertising campaigns too, helping first to defeat Ernie Eves and then to keep the Liberals in power for a decade. During that time, public sector unions negotiated the best compensation and benefit deals they had had in years.

By the end of McGuinty’s tenure, even he was growing concerned about the province’s finances, so while some union donations continued to flow, the Liberal cabinet was instructed to meet tough fundraising targets, not by appealing to regular people, but by hosting events with big donors. Eventually, embroiled in a cash-for-access scandal during Kathleen Wynne’s tenure as premier, the government was forced to change Ontario law, banning corporate and union donations. This could have been an important turning point. 

Unfortunately, the Ontario PC leader at the time, Patrick Brown, opted to take advantage of a “loophole” in the new legislation, keeping up the old fundraising strategy instead of taking the opportunity to break the PC party of its addiction to big donations. A couple of years later, after forming government, the Ontario PCs leaned further into the past, increasing donation limits, and allowing MPPs to attend their own fundraisers once again.

Now, the provincial government is facing down its own version of a cash-for-access scandal, and as the Ontario Liberals try to rebuild, leadership frontrunner Bonnie Crombie is bragging to members about her fundraising chops—not because she has a compelling, ideological vision for Ontario which motivates individuals to scrape together some of their hard-earned cash and donate, but because developers and other corporate interests think she has the best chance of winning and want to make sure that their business interests are protected under a future Liberal government.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could prefer the latter political culture to the former, especially if one’s interest is in enhancing democracy. Jonah Goldberg is an otherwise very thoughtful pundit, so I can only attribute his misguided comments to a pattern I’ve observed among similarly wise commentors of a certain age. These critics legitimately lament lost institutional trust and the decaying ethics and intellect of the elite, but instead of questioning what elites did to lose trust, they lash out at the people who won’t grant it.

Justin Ling, and some others who have since commented on his report, tend to recommend a per-vote-subsidy in lieu of a return to big donor strategies. This approach is certainly preferable, but taxing Canadians more to fund political causes they don’t believe in seems like a rash measure given the federal status quo works so well. Critics of small-donor fundraising don’t trust little old ladies and their credit cards to determine whose political success ought to be funded. But if our next prime minister is going to feel he owes something to someone, wouldn’t you prefer it be Agnes from Thunder Bay? Even if she is venting her spleen?