Who Deserves The Conservative Vote?
December 1st, 2020 | KW
It is no surprise that Conservative MPs are accusing Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada (PPC) of splitting the national conservative vote. This is not the first time the CPC has levied vote-splitting accusations against similarly platformed candidates and it likely will not be the last. One could argue that vote splitting is just a fear tactic parties use to scare constituents into voting for the status quo. You see this rhetoric regularly during election cycles.
The accusations against the PPC can only be accurate if one believes that conservative leaning constituents have no agency and should only cast votes for candidates under the CPC tent. If you believe that conservatives should vote for a party because it has the word “conservative” in its name and not on values and principles, then this definition of “vote-splitting” is accurate for them. The reality is, though, that most PPC voters, according to themselves, are either first-time voters, disenfranchised voters or disillusioned voters.
They have either spent most of their adult lives reluctantly voting for the Conservative Party even though they are practically indistinguishable from the Liberal Party and their platform. Or, they have supported no party at all.
This means that the large tent Conservative Party is more focused on maintaining what power they can get than on executing the needs of their constituents.
Fear mongering about smaller C parties is all too native a problem for Canada's natural opposition party, which has had unity and identity crises dating as far back as the 1940s. It is this very unaddressed and ongoing crisis that has led the party to splinter in the past, making room for parties like the Reform/Alliance, People’s Party of Canada and the Maverick Party.
To understand accusations of conservative vote splitting, we need to understand the history of the Conservative Party to see if these claims are well founded. Through this lens, we can determine whether the CPC is deserving of the unconditional conservative vote.
What is vote-splitting?
Vote-splitting is considered a political effect. Vote splitting occurs when two or more candidates with similar platforms or policies run in the same riding. For instance:
In riding X, both the conservatives, liberals and a third right leaning party are competing. The liberals get 35% of the vote while the conservatives get 33% and the other right leaning party gets 32%. It is clear the riding has a conservative affinity or leaning with most constituents, 65%, preferring a right leaning MP to represent them. Because of vote-splitting and Canada’s voting system, the Liberal MP wins with a measly 35% of the vote.
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Of course, this theory of vote splitting depends on the presumption that votes belong to one party or another. Which is false. All votes are free moving and independent.
A Characteristically Fractured Party
The Conservative Party was the first governing party of Canada in 1867 thanks to Sir John A. MacDonald’s ability to mobilize a strong coalition of conservative voters to form the first incarnation of the party. MacDonald was so effective in his leadership that the Liberal Party at the time was considered radical (looking at the party today we can see this) and was marginalized by the country for the beginning of confederation. With this knowledge, we can understand the Conservative Party’s legacy of fractured and tolerated unity.
Then, in the 1940s, the Conservatives tried at a coup for supremacy of the House of Commons by planning a merger with the now defunct Liberal-Unionist Party. This would add another demographic of conservatives under their already burgeoning tent while also solidifying their majority in the House of Commons for decades to come. However, this was a complete miscalculation of the priorities of Liberal-Unionists constituents (foreshadowing of general party priority mismanagement). The leadership of the party failed to unite the unionists on the several critical issues. Primarily on the issue of free trade.
In the consequent years, the Conservatives struggled to prevent the decline of conservative voter turnout as a malaise of interest overtook the party. The many failures at representing their diverse tent resulted in the party being viewed as just another elitist party focused on catering to the needs of Ontario and Quebec, not the interests of the West. This dissatisfaction partially resulted in the rebranding of the party as the “Progressive Conservatives”, an attempt to modernize their appeal. This worked to some degree as a temporary solution and helped the party grow as other smaller parties folded.
During this period, Canada was mostly Liberally governed, governing between 1963 and 1984 almost exclusively (several months of Joe Clark as conservative PM). This all ended when the Progressive Conservatives managed to elect Brian Mulroney, once again a thanks to a major coalition of voters, this time from the West.
No More Coalitions
Though as the Conservatives governed in from ’84 - ‘93, a protest party in the name of the Reform Party was created and making moves in the West. This party was heavily libertarian in policy and by contrast to the big C party, more conservative. The Reform Party was a pleasant breath of fresh air for the west, advocating for less government involvement, the end of bilingualism, end to official multiculturalism and the radical idea of democratizing the Senate. More importantly, they focused on the needs of Western Canada first.
When the PC failed to deliver on several key election promises (again), it became clear to western conservative voters that the PC’s would not or could not fulfil their campaign pledges. Even after the rebranding the PC’s failed in supporting western Canada and was viewed once more and an eastern corridor party.
Then the PC party collapsed completely following the 1993 election, forcing Canadian politics to be divided regionally. The Liberals took the Maritime Provinces, Ontario and the Territories; the Bloc Quebecois took Quebec; and the newly reconstituted Reform party took control over Western Canada and for a time was the dominant conservative party in Canada (53 seats in ’93, 50 in ’97 and 66 as the Alliance party in ’00).
When It Was United
This fracture of the Progressive Conservatives demonstrated that there needed to be a new party which cared deeply about the issues that afflicted the West and represented their interests. If it is one thing the Bloc Quebecois got right, it is that the future of the Canadian parliamentary system resides in the power of regional parties. This inner turmoil created the rise of the Reform party as Canada’s leading conservative party. This subsequently led to a 13-year mandate of the Liberal Party of Canada while the rest of Canada fought for proper representation.
The Conservatives merged in 2003 with the Alliance Party of Canada (rebranded from the Reform Party), with Stephen Harper at the helm. He managed to keep the West united while gaining a notable number of seats in Quebec, unheard of since the Reform Party. A major victory for conservatives. Stephen Harper was able to unite the conservative vote for 9 years, giving conservatives a long-needed win and representation that the west needed. Stephen Harper left the party united and it managed to tear itself apart without him in less than a decade.
"Through this lens, we can determine whether the CPC is deserving of the unconditional conservative vote."
Did the vote split in the '90s?
Technically, yes, the conservative vote was split, but mostly due to its inability to bond and focus on issues that were important to a large swath of the country. What this demonstrates is that the Conservative Party is a very dynamic and eclectic tent.
It always was and always will be. And the onus is on the Conservative Party leadership to be accountable and respectful to the needs of half the country. Otherwise, new parties will and can rise to prominence.
The People’s Party of Canada (PPC) is no different. Maxime Bernier ran on a platform that 50% of the conservative party voted for. He lost by a hair in the leadership race and decided to form his own party with measurably different policies than the unrecognizably liberal CPC. He famously called the CPC, “Morally and intellectually corrupt,” a phrase reminiscent of the feelings of the western conservative voters.
Conservatives are highly principled people; most Canadians are. They will not stay with a party whose values do not reflect their own and are not shy about voicing their concern. Votes do not belong to a party based on a generic base line of ideology. Those principles must be nurtured through works and acts. To do otherwise would be to leave people behind, which the conservative party has done to its own members since as early back as the 1940’s. Their need to be popular and govern is stronger than their need to be righteous and fair to their own constituents.
The Truth About Conservative Vote-Splitting
Parties like the PPC are not splitting the conservative vote, they are exposing the truth that conservatives come in many different varieties and belong to no one but themselves. The Conservative Party of Canada was founded as the Liberal-Conservative Party and was, since its inception, a liberal leaning institution. Anyone with open eyes can see this of the Conservative Party of Canada. They are naturally liberal and willingly progressive, reflecting the Liberal-Conservative model of the UK house of commons.
The reality is that Canada has always been a progressive ‘politiscape’ and conservative voters never had the opportunity to be courted by a true conservative party. That is until the Reform Party and later the re-rebranded Conservative Party of Canada under Stephen Harper. Once that government was voted out, the conservative tent broke again.
You cannot break the conservative vote if there was never a wholly conservative party. Maybe a confederation as large and diverse as Canada needs to rely on regional parties to have their concerns addressed. Or maybe it is time to reallocate the seats in parliament for fairer representation.
Regardless of the solution, it is time for a new and truer conservative party to take the reigns in Canada.
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