Stephen Harper January 26 2012| World Economic Forum | Creative Commons 2.0| cropped from original | license linked at bottom of article Stephen Harper January 26 2012| World Economic Forum | Creative Commons 2.0| cropped from original | license linked at bottom of article

The Canadian Tory party is moving further to the right and shoring up a reactionary base as political polarisation deepens, writes John Clarke

Since Canada’s Conservatives were driven from office by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in 2015, the party has floundered in a state of confusion. The political clarity and effectiveness that the Tories displayed before that, under the leadership of Stephen Harper, now seem a distant memory. Harper remains a major figure of the mainstream political right on the international stage, while those who have attempted to fill his shoes in the party leadership seem weak and ineffective by comparison. The Liberals have been able to cling to power for seven years, based mainly on the travails of their major rival.

It now seems extremely likely that the period in which Canada’s party of mainstream conservatism has been politically rudderless is coming to an end and a hard right course is about to be set. The Tories are presently engaged in a leadership race and a vigorously rightward direction (even by the standards of that party) is entirely assured if the clear frontrunner, Pierre Poilievre pulls off his anticipated victory.

Poilievre ‘lives and breathes low taxes, small government, is pro-pipeline anti-carbon tax and bends libertarian.’ At a recent leadership debate, he distanced himself from his more moderate rivals and told the audience that  “I am a true conservative. I stood for the same things all my life,” adding contemptuously, “I am not just putting on a blue shirt to cover up a red shirt, temporarily, in order to take over the party.”

The far right-led ‘trucker convoy’ that descended on the parliament buildings in Ottawa at the beginning of the year, generated political momentum for its organisers. A more low-key follow up action was recently mobilised and Poilievre took care, not just to express solidarity with their anti-vaxxer message, but to very deliberately parade through the streets with convoy supporters. Given the criminal charges facing their key organisers and the clear evidence of their white supremacist connections, this was a move of some political significance.

The previous Tory leader, Erin O’Toole, was ditched in February. His effort to put a stamp of moderation and dubious social compassion on the party failed to produce electoral success and alienated the party base. As the overwhelming possibility of Poilievre as leader loomed large, O’Toole responded with some rather futile advice. He suggested that the Tories must avoid playing to moods of reactionary anger and retain their place within a respectable and moderate political consensus. “..we have to channel people’s frustrations into positive change, not add fuel to the fire,” he warned.

Crisis of conservatism

The tribulations of the Tories in Canada is only one manifestation of problems that are besetting mainstream conservatism in a range of countries. Their British counterparts have their own problems at the moment, to say the least. The dangerous and erratic Donald Trump has created no end of difficulties for the establishment of the US Republican Party. The instability that is besetting each of these parties is a reflection of a societal dislocation that is upsetting the political equilibrium that once defined their role.

Ever since the financial crisis and Great Recession, the social base that conservative parties have relied on has been shaken up, producing a mood of hateful anger in that segment of society. The pandemic and the cost of living crisis that has followed it has only intensified this ugly state of mind. A significant minority of the population is moving sharply to the right and drawing crudely reactionary conclusions that unsettle those who operate within the confines of the political mainstream. Anti-immigrant sentiment, climate denial and hostility to public health measures during the pandemic have all been a big part of this.

This rightward moving base, moreover, is being very deliberately targeted by fascist and white supremacist groups. The trucker convoy that the far right initiated in Canada this year, for example, drew around it a periphery that included many Tory voters.

Last year the delegates to the Canadian Conservative policy convention voted down a resolution that the establishment of the party had put forward. They specifically rejected the inclusion of the statement ‘we recognize that climate change is real. The Conservative Party is willing to act.’ Such open climate denial is no longer a viable political approach and this incident is a telling example of the tensions within mainstream conservatism.

Among the Conservatives’ elected representatives, we see a division between those who are ready to pander to this hard right political base and those who place more emphasis on preserving the role of prudent and respectable political stewards of the capitalist class. It is worth noting that the particular development of the Conservative Party in Canada over recent decades had already positioned it significantly to the right.

In the 1993 federal election, the Tories suffered a near death experience. They went from being the governing party to one that held only two seats in the House of Commons. The main right wing opposition to the new Liberal government was now the western based populist Reform Party. This later changed its name to the Canadian Alliance and, in 2003, this formation, led by future prime minister Stephen Harper, merged with the Tories to from the new Conservative Party of Canada. This ensured a reincarnated Tory formation well to the right of its former self.

Yet, the volatile conditions during the long sluggish ‘economic recovery’ that followed the Great Recession, continued to drive the base of the Tory Party further to the right. In 2017, the hard right, in the person for Maxime Bernier, came very close to winning the position of leader. Following this defeat, Bernier went on to found the far right People’s Party of Canada, a virulently anti-immigrant formation that has also played a leading role in promoting the anti-vaxxer message across the country. A victory for Poilievre could well bring a whole layer of disgruntled hard right wingers back into the Tory Party.

Commentators on the left and many solid voices of the establishment frequently argue that Poilievre’s right wing populism, while it has a significant base, won’t achieve enough support to win an election but this may be an unwarranted assumption. The Liberals have held power for seven years and their political legitimacy is running very low. The neoliberal centre won’t indefinitely fend off a challenge from the right in such uncertain times as those we are living through.

In the recent provincial election in Ontario, the right wing Tory government of Doug Ford was re-elected because neither the Liberals nor the social democratic NDP were able to generate very much support. A voter turnout of only 43.5% meant that the Ford Tories could form a majority government with the support of only 18% of eligible voters. Such a scenario at the federal level is entirely plausible and a figure like Poilievre would be quite capable of generating enough support on the right for it to happen.

Obviously, the prospects for the political ascendency of the right can’t be assessed without properly considering the what kind of challenge to it exists on the left and, the immediate situation in this regard is sobering. At the federal level, far from posing a strong alternative to both the Liberals and Tories, the NDP is clinging to the former, actually providing the minority Trudeau government with the parliamentary votes it needs to stay in office. While workplace actions and protest movements are far from extinguished, the kind of robust working class resistance that is called for at this time is sadly lacking.

The rightward trajectory of the Tories in Canada and the reactionary political base this rests on are very much products of a society that is being shaken up by social and economic crises. Pierre Poilievre is the personification of this development and his probable leadership of the Conservative Party poses major dangers. Only decisive working-class action can contain this threat and create the basis for a real political alternative to the hateful forces that Poilievre is inspiring.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.