Future of Conservatism Series, Part II: The Harper Victory Formula

Tom Flanagan
February 14, 2020
There are two components to any political movement: theory and reality. A coherent political ideology is crucial to any functioning party, but so too is recognizing a viable path to success. Few Canadians have as much direct experience fusing political theory with political reality as Tom Flanagan − scholar, author and senior decision-maker in three major conservative political organizations. In the second installment of C2C Journal’s Future of Conservatism Special Series, Flanagan reveals four important lessons from the recent past as the Conservative Party of Canada reassembles the shards of its devastating October electoral defeat.

Future of Conservatism Series, Part II: The Harper Victory Formula

Tom Flanagan
February 14, 2020
There are two components to any political movement: theory and reality. A coherent political ideology is crucial to any functioning party, but so too is recognizing a viable path to success. Few Canadians have as much direct experience fusing political theory with political reality as Tom Flanagan − scholar, author and senior decision-maker in three major conservative political organizations. In the second installment of C2C Journal’s Future of Conservatism Special Series, Flanagan reveals four important lessons from the recent past as the Conservative Party of Canada reassembles the shards of its devastating October electoral defeat.
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Edmund Burke famously defined a political party as “a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavour the national interest, under some particular principle in which they are all agreed.” Echoing Burke’s two-and-a-half-century-old words in 2020, there is animated discussion of the “particular principle” that ought to unite Conservatives as the Conservative Party of Canada goes about choosing a new leader. Yet a political party is not just a debating club for the discussion of ideas; it is an organization dedicated to gaining control of the government by winning popular elections. 

To succeed in that endeavour, the “particular principle” that the party espouses has to be able to unite enough voters to win elections at least some of the time. Thus in choosing their particular principle  – indeed, in evaluating whether there even is one around which to unite – Canadian Conservatives have to think not just about the merit of ideas in the abstract but also about the political geography in which they will have to advance those ideas.

A recently published book by Michael Lind, The New Class War, provides some guidance. Lind, a Texas writer and academic, used to call himself a conservative but now considers himself a “liberal nationalist.” While the left has worked overtime to render the latter word synonymous with bigotry, labels don’t matter here; what counts is Lind’s astute observation of contemporary society and politics in Western democracies. He concentrates on the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, but much of what he says applies also to Canada, though with important modifications.

Flanagan - Inset 1 (above)
Canada’s contrasting
Canada’s contrasting "hub" and “heartland” communities are vastly different in their economic interests, social identities and political loyalties.

According to Lind, Western societies are increasingly divided into urban areas that he calls “hubs” and the rest of the country, the “heartland.” Typical hubs are Paris, London, New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Seattle, the Bay Area, and Los Angeles. Canadian hubs would include Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa or the “National Capital Region”. The hubs and the heartland may share a common language and citizenship, but in other respects they are profoundly different.

Hubs are dominated by highly educated people, often with advanced degrees from elite institutions. Their “industries” centre on the manipulation of symbols in fields such as public administration, banking, investment, accounting, media, and business consulting. Hubs and hub people don’t focus on making physical objects (even though hub cities may once have been great manufacturing centres). The economy of the heartland, by contrast, is based on industries such as mining, oil and natural gas development, forestry, farming and ranching, food processing, and manufacturing – all physical in nature. These descriptions are necessarily oversimplified, but they portray the two areas’ dominant current activities and the resulting social sensibilities.

Author Michael Lind (right) discusses his book The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite at an Institute for Freedom & Community event in 2019.

Residents of hubs tend to be socially progressive and often see themselves as “citizens of the world,” whereas people in the heartland are more traditional in their values and emphasize patriotic loyalty to their own country. Hubs encourage mass immigration, even illegal immigration. Their high-flying residents need a large supply of low-paid service workers to care for their children and aged parents, cook their meals, clean their houses, and tend their gardens. People in the heartland tend to be more cautious about mass immigration, often fearing low-wage competition to their manual employments and disruption of their traditional way of life. 

Not surprisingly, hubs and heartlands differ radically in their political commitments. Hub voters tilt overwhelmingly left, supporting the Democrats in the United States and Labour or the Liberal Democrats in Great Britain, while heartland voters are skewing more and more Conservative in Britain and Republican in the United States. The political battleground is found in the suburbs of metropolitan areas, where heartland and hub rub up against each other.

An important trend in recent elections has been the shift of heartland industrial workers in the two countries, who had long supported the Democrats and Labour, to the Republicans led by Donald Trump and the Conservatives led by Boris Johnson. Along with many other analysts, Lind calls it a “populist revolt” in the heartland against the “overclass” in the metropolitan hubs. The overclass had come to dominate national politics – in the widest possible sense, to encompass the entire public discourse – through control of academia, news and entertainment media, the civil service, cultural institutions, and many large corporations. Now, in Lind’s words, “there is an ongoing counter-revolution from below against the half-century-long neoliberal revolution from above imposed by Western managerial elites.”

Britain leaves EU on Brexit day
Heartland industrial workers in Britain and the U.S. led populist revolts against what Lind calls the ‘overclass.’
Heartland industrial workers in Britain and the U.S. led populist revolts against what Lind calls the ‘overclass.’

Parallels with Canada are not hard to draw. In the October election the Conservative Party was shut out of downtown Vancouver, Toronto, and Ottawa, while it won almost all the seats between Winnipeg and Vancouver, and many in rural Ontario. But it did not do as well in the suburbs of Toronto-Hamilton as it did in 2011, the last time it won a national election. As always, Canada’s linguistic duality is a confounding factor. The Conservatives are always shut out of Montreal, which is to be expected. But unlike in the rest of Canada, they have only scattered support in rural Quebec, which is almost entirely Francophone.

Even more than the hub-heartland divide, the much older linguistic divide is the biggest problem for Conservatives in Canada at the national level. Provincially, parties of the right (including the British Columbia Liberal Party, the Saskatchewan Party, and the Coalition Avenir Québec) are competitive in every province. Conservatives win almost all the time in Alberta, most of the time in Saskatchewan, and much or some of the time in every other province. Conservative-leaning premiers currently hold office in seven of 10 provinces. 

There is also a local version of the heartland-hub issue. Parties of the left do better in Victoria and Vancouver, Edmonton, Regina and Saskatoon (at times), Winnipeg, Toronto and Ottawa, Montreal and so on. Conservative parties, by contrast, sweep the countryside and small towns, compete in the suburbs and occasionally do well in some of the larger cities.

Premiers Doug Ford, Jason Kenney and Scott Moe (l-r) represent the recent success of conservative ideas at the provincial level.

Canada’s linguistic divide means that success at the provincial level does not translate easily into national success. Brian Mulroney, who was from Quebec and spoke French like a Québécois, is the sole leader in modern times to bring Quebec into the Conservative fold, and then only tenuously and temporarily. John Diefenbaker appeared to succeed in 1958, but only because Premier Maurice Duplessis ordered his Union Nationale organization to support the Conservatives in that election. The problem of finding a non-Quebecker who is personally and politically acceptable to Quebeckers, or recruiting a Quebecker whose English is smooth enough to appeal to Canadians everywhere else, has proved insoluble. 

Conservative difficulties in Quebec are partly due to ancient battles – the Riel Rebellions, the Manitoba schools question, military conscription during the two world wars – that no one really cares about anymore but whose aftereffects linger. But there is also another cause: the populism injected into Conservative politics by Preston Manning. It is hardly recognized in other countries that Canada, under the Reform Party of Canada founder’s influence, quietly pioneered the populist revolt that is now front-and-centre and is driving politics in a number of countries around the globe.

Speaking French is not enough: The only modern Conservative leader to deliver Quebec was native-son Brian Mulroney, prime minister from 1984 to 1993.

In 1987 Manning deliberately formed the Reform Party upon the example of earlier populist parties in Western Canada: the Progressives, the United Farmers of Alberta, and Social Credit. For Manning, populism was centred on “the common sense of the common people,” and was therefore anti-elitist. He demanded structural reforms to government to let the will of the people be expressed. These included the direct democratic institutions of referendum, initiative, and recall, plus an elected Senate and a reduction in party discipline to let MPs vote according to “the consensus of the constituency.” Given this approach, Reform inevitably became a home for challenges to elite political correctness, including bilingualism, multiculturalism, and mass immigration. Standing largely in opposition to Quebec, it could never win there. 

What had impelled Reform was Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program plus Trudeau and later Mulroney’s attempts at constitutional amendments to please Quebec. The results discredited both the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives in the eyes of many Westerners, and engendered further hostility to Quebec. Thus Reform became an anti-system party, critical of all the “old parties,” of their conventional wisdom, and of the Eastern elites who dominated government, academia and the media. The causes were specifically Canadian, but the result was a populist party that can be seen as the harbinger of many such parties in contemporary Europe.

“The common sense of the common people”: Preston Manning’s Reform Party was a populist reaction to Eastern elitism.

While this may have served as the “particular principle” around which Reform’s members could unite (for the most part), it proved not to be a winning electoral formula. The early years of Reform included a fascinating internal debate about populism between Manning and his protégé Stephen Harper, which remained unknown to the public until I wrote about it in Waiting for the Wave. In 1989, Harper submitted to Manning a critique of populism, decrying Manning’s attempt to make Reform what Harper called a “hinterland party.” He privately doubted the political effectiveness of Manning’s seeming fixation on “giving speeches in towns whose names end in ‘River’.”

Instead, Harper proposed that Reform should become “a modern Canadian version of the Thatcher-Reagan phenomenon.” By that he meant a party that was free-market in orientation and moderately socially conservative, but not based on the urban middle and upper classes, as historical conservative parties tended to be. These groups were now part of a new “knowledge class” interlocked with and dependent upon the workings of government. 

A modern conservative party, Harper believed, must seek its base in the private-sector economy, embodied in the taxpaying and primarily suburban middle class, but also including members of the working class who had traditionally leaned toward trade unionism and social democracy. This was a prescient analysis, similar in many ways to Lind’s. It amounted to a hub-heartland strategy.

A fascinating internal debate: Manning and his protégé Stephen Harper disagreed sharply about the political possibilities of populism in Canada in the late 1980s.

After Manning took Reform as far as he could, becoming Leader of the Opposition in 1997, Harper became leader of its successor, the Canadian Alliance party, which he quickly merged with the Progressive Conservative remnants. Harper became leader of the new Conservative Party of Canada in 2004 and, like Manning, won enough seats to form the Official Opposition. Harper then went on to win the elections of 2006, 2008, and 2011, serving as prime minister until 2015 – a period of almost 10 years.

Harper’s course was based on recognizing the facts of life of electoral systems. In countries with some form of proportional representation, populist parties can carve out a niche in the party system. They don’t have to win a majority of seats to get results; they can aim for a share of power in a coalition government. This has occurred in Hungary and Italy, for example. But under the first-past-the-post electoral system that prevails in the United Kingdom and Canada, populism cannot win by itself. It must merge with more traditional forms of conservatism, as has happened under Boris Johnson. Harper pioneered essentially the same path by merging the Canadian Alliance with the Progressive Conservatives.

As Conservative leader and prime minister, Harper developed a blend of populism and conservatism. He dropped most of Reform’s direct democratic policies but worked hard to get an elected Senate, though he was ultimately frustrated by the Supreme Court. His rhetoric was populist without being hinterland; he always talked about working on behalf of “ordinary, everyday Canadians.” He developed policies that attracted working people, such as the child allowance and tax credits for work expenses. He was oriented toward the free market, but not to the extent of jeopardizing programs upon which ordinary Canadians rely, such as health care and pensions. He found there were political limits to the economic libertarianism he had espoused as a younger man. 

Harper and his winning formula: Conservative Party leader Harper celebrates his historic minority election victory with his family in Calgary on January 23, 2006.

Harper’s formula for political success is still valid for the Conservative Party of Canada, no matter who becomes the next leader. It is founded on four main strategic principles.

First, while trying not to scare the hubs too much, the organization must cultivate the party’s base in the heartland. Without continuing strong support in the West and rural Ontario, the Conservative party will collapse, as happened to the Progressive Conservatives in 1993.

Second, the party must keep social conservatives on-side, without letting them write the policy book or allowing a ruinous hot-button issue to dominate the news. Their loss would never be replaced by hub people, no matter how hard the party might try to reinvent itself, as many are now urging. Perceptive social conservatives recognize that abortion and gay marriage are not winning issues. But there are many other causes involving education, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion on which they can find common ground with the Conservative Party. Accordingly, they can continue to be not only a source of enthusiastic volunteers and donors, but an overall electoral asset as well.

Third, the Conservative Party must keep a friendly posture towards Quebec but avoid obsessing over winning seats in la belle province. Unless the Conservative leader comes from Quebec and is fluently bilingual, gaining 10 or 12 seats is probably the maximum to hope for. For Conservatives, electoral victory must come from elsewhere.

Fourth, the party and leader should concentrate their electoral efforts on the all-important political contests in the suburbs of Vancouver and Toronto-Hamilton. Given that Conservatives under Anglo leadership cannot make major gains in Quebec, this is where the seats will be found that, when added to those from the heartland, can produce a national majority. 

A crucial aspect of this battle is to win the support of recent immigrants and their children, who are continually moving from the inner city to the suburbs. To solidify these connections, Harper relied on Jason Kenney, who became known to political insiders as the “Minister of Curry in a Hurry.” A new leader will need to find his own Jason Kenney if he hopes to win “the battle of the ’burbs.” The Conservatives tilted away from these constituencies in 2015 while pursuing votes in Quebec, and paid the price. They again failed to get strong support from new Canadians in 2019. Conservatives have proved they can win meaningful support within immigrant communities – but must never take them for granted. 

‘Minister of Curry in a Hurry’: Former Minister of Multiculturalism Jason Kenney proved Conservatives can earn meaningful support within immigrant communities if they work hard enough.

I believe these four principles form the only winning strategy for Canadian Conservatives in federal elections. It seems there isn’t a single Burkean principle after all, for the strategy above blends enduring conservative ideals with appealing contemporary policies, recognition of electoral realities, and clear-headed coalition-building based largely on geography and social sensibility.

While necessary, however, the four are still not sufficient. At least one of two other conditions, and preferably both, must also be met. The first condition is that the Liberals are prevented from winning a majority of Quebec seats. The Conservatives cannot do this without having a leader from Quebec. In practice, then, this means a strong performance by the Bloc Quebecois or the NDP in Quebec. The Conservatives benefited from the BQ’s showing in 2006 and 2008 and the NDP’s in 2011. In 2015, the Liberals rebounded when both the BQ and NDP declined.

The second condition, as Conservative strategist Ken Boessenkool recently pointed out, is for the NDP to do reasonably well in the suburbs, allowing Conservatives to win a lot of seats there in the three-way vote splits. When the NDP is weak, many of that party’s voters swing to the Liberals, causing major problems for the Conservatives. The NDP’s performance in the 2019 election swung a number of such seats back to the Liberals, depressing the Conservatives’ seat count despite their beating the Liberals in the national popular vote.

Unfortunately, none of this is under Conservative control, except in one respect: the Liberals will always try to paint the Conservatives as frightening, hoping to scare “Dippers” into voting Liberal. To have a chance at victory, Conservatives must appear moderate and develop effective tactics for blunting Liberal attacks.

There is no point in clinging dogmatically to the libertarianism of Milton Friedman or the traditionalism of Edmund Burke or some mythical conception of Red Toryism as the core of conservative thought, at least not if Conservatives hope to attain government in contemporary Canada.

What do these electoral considerations have to do with the philosophy of conservatism? Everything! There is no point in clinging dogmatically to the libertarianism of Milton Friedman or the traditionalism of Edmund Burke or some mythical conception of Red Toryism as the core of conservative thought, at least not if Conservatives hope to attain government in contemporary Canada. Political philosophy has its place, as does policy development. But these need to take into account and be meshed with Canada’s particular blend of geographical, demographic and social realities. In turn, all of this needs to be shaped by the evidence gathered from previous elections concerning what works and what doesn’t. 

What this means in practice is that the Conservative Party needs to make room for the concerns of heartland populist voters who are in favour of the private sector but depend on government for aspects of their security, and who resent the political correctness of social and political elites but don’t want a new theocracy. We have to study the political success of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, just as Harper studied Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The goal should be to produce an updated version of the successful populist conservatism pioneered by Preston Manning and taken all the way to national victory by Stephen Harper.

Tom Flanagan is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary and a former campaign manager for conservative political parties.

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