• Nov 01, 2021
  • Insights

Lessons learned from Election 2021, for both Erin O’Toole and the Conservative Party

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Written by Geoff Norquay and Yaroslav Baran. Published by Policy Magazine.

September’s federal election provided disappointments for all the leaders and their parties: 

  • Justin Trudeau suffered the largest setback: by the third week of the campaign, it was apparent Canadians were not prepared to grant him a majority, which was his sole purpose in calling the election in the first place. He also returned with the lowest popular vote of any federal government in history, losing the popular vote to the Tories for the second straight election.
  • Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet appeared to catch fire after the Bill 21 controversy of the English-language debate but faltered and ended up with the same number of seats as before the election. 
  • NDP leader Jagmeet Singh conducted a policy-light campaign that made him the darling of social media, but his party’s anticipated breakthrough among young voters never materialized. He didn’t move the dial in convincing progressive voters the NDP is the “real deal” while the Liberals under Trudeau are just temporarily parked on the NDP’s political turf.
  • Despite her acclaimed personal communication style and her competent command of policy discussions in the debate, Annamie Paul’s Green Party fell apart, with internal infighting boiling over into the public and contributing to a collapse of voter support for the party.
  • Despite performing better than expected and denying the Liberals a majority many Liberals assumed was theirs for the taking, Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives returned with two fewer seats than Andrew Scheer won in 2019. O’Toole’s party also didn’t breach the walls of Canada’s largest metropolises and win central urban seats in Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal.

Among the major parties, only Conservatives started to air any leadership misgivings publicly post-election, with some members immediately beating the drum for a leadership review. 

By and large, success in politics tends to be determined not by final outcomes, but by the degree to which those outcomes miss, meet or exceed expectations. And here, O’Toole did well in the campaign. Written off by many pundits pre-campaign as an unknown running against a charismatic incumbent who had spent a year liberally using the public purse to build support, O’Toole turned heads by immediately reframing the election call, blunting many of the expected attacks against his party, and running a “steady-as-she-goes” competent campaign in contrast to the Liberals’ foundering out of the gates. But he also made some mistakes along the way. For the Conservatives to conduct a thorough reckoning and decide who should lead the party into the next race, both the shortcomings and the successes need to be evaluated soberly, dispassionately, maturely, and politically.

Having campaigned for the party leadership as a “true blue” Conservative, the platform he launched on the second day of the election campaign contained numerous progressive policy initiatives designed to move the party to the centre and broaden its base. Or, evaluated through the traditional lens of Canadian politics, it was a classically and unapologetically “Red Tory” platform—a non-ideological package crafted to respond to the pressing issues of the day, and without an allergy to using both the Canadian state and its purse to tackle some of the problems facing the country.

With the federal party having been led largely by so-called “Alberta School” adherents for the past two decades, this new course, or as some would characterize it, this return to traditional Canadian Toryism, rankled some party members. Clearly, they would have preferred a platform harder right and more libertarian in orientation. In addition, social conservatives felt O’Toole had used them to win the leadership and then abandoned them.

O’Toole’s focus on practical, relevant issues was smart. He not only said he represented a new generation of Conservative leadership; he demonstrated it by discussing such issues as the need for child care, the need to build domestic biomanufacturing capacity, labour rights, and even animal protection. It was a relevant, made-for-2021 campaign that demonstrated he “got it”. 

Moreover, the steady messaging and performance of the Conservative leader in the first two weeks seemed to have an impact on the polls. Canadians were looking at the Conservatives “again for the first time” and seemingly liking what they saw in a comparative sense.

While mistakes were few, a notable one stands apart. When the party was confronted with the platform’s commitment to roll back the Liberal prohibition on “assault-style” weapons, O’Toole and his candidates faced an angry backlash from urban and women voters—precisely the groups the whole election strategy was designed to reach. He struggled for three days to escape the issue before repudiating his platform and saying that the Liberal ban would remain in place pending an independent “classification review” of the firearms in question. Having already missed the mark with his target demographics, his platform plank repudiation now angered dissident Conservatives already in the tent.

In its “scripting”, there were two evident misfires. First, the pivot at the start of week four which saw a more combative, attacking Erin O’Toole taking a notably more negative and critical tone on Trudeau’s performance. The positive and uplifting message that appeared to have worked in the first three weeks of the campaign was seemingly switched off, with the leader himself acting as the so-called “attack dog”. Make no mistake, most successful campaigns do have someone of significance playing this role. But the pivot, and decision for the party leader to play this role himself, removed the positive stylistic contrast O’Toole enjoyed relative to a Trudeau, who had been slinging mud from the start.

Despite its strong start, the Conservative campaign also didn’t appear to have a close. The best campaigns open with a framing statement, deliver supporting policy along the way, and then conclude with a closing argument that reinforces the overall frame or “ballot question” the party is presenting. That last component seemed missing. Following the attack pivot, the Conservatives’ campaign messaging appeared to have run out of script and seemed to just coast to the end. A relatively low-profile closing weekend—with few public events compared to an active PM who looked like he was fighting for the job—sent an unconscious message that either O’Toole didn’t think he could win or wasn’t sure he wanted to.

Overall, the Conservatives’ election results could be characterized as either fully respectable or as underwhelming—depending on the beholder. In fairness to O’Toole, he can’t be blamed for the surprise showing of the Peoples’ Party of Canada (PPC)—their 800,000-plus votes in the election likely reduced the Conservatives’ chances of winning in numerous ridings. A simpler accounting is that there were 25 seats where the Conservative Party’s votes plus the PPC’s vote totals were more than the winning party’s share. As an important asterisk, however, we cannot assume that PPC support all came as a bleed from the Conservatives. Earnscliffe polling suggests the PPC galvanized a cross-spectrum anti-establishment sentiment, with only about 40 percent of their strength coming from previous Conservative voters. The other 60 percent came from other parties or individuals who previously said they did not vote. 

Equally, O’Toole was not responsible for—and could not have foreseen—the backlash in Alberta against the provincial United Conservative Party government led by Jason Kenney. Chances are that by the next election, when pandemic management may be a memory, these brakes on federal Conservative support will have passed.

Deciding where the party goes from here must be governed by a clear-eyed analysis of what worked in the recent election, what didn’t and what must be adjusted for the future. 

This assessment starts with how close O’Toole and the party came to upsetting the Liberals in the election. In both 2019 and 2021, the Liberals received fewer votes than in the previous election—33.1 per cent and 32.6 per cent. On September 20, the Liberals’ superior vote efficiency enabled them to continue in government with the fewest proportion of votes ever. These are trends on which the Conservatives can build. 

In response to internal critics like MP Shannon Stubbs who are repudiating O’Toole’s moderate repositioning, we offer the following counterargument: the trendlines suggest the O’Toole strategy worked. It just didn’t work enough. The broader tent approach did sacrifice some support in regions where the Tories had surplus, and in exchange, it did build support in swing-riding regions held by other parties. The whole play just didn’t quite hit its tipping point. But it almost did: in much of Ontario, the Tories were one single percentage point from dozens of close ridings going blue. So where to find that additional one percent?

During the Harper era, the party invested heavily in ongoing outreach to ethnic cultural communities and voters but much of that activity appears to have stopped post 2015. Clearly, an aggressive outreach program needs to be restarted urgently by the leader and caucus, because if the party is going to be successful in urban and suburban Canada, it needs to improve it appeal to ethnic voters. 

The party also needs to be very careful with communities prone to external interference. Several Conservative Chinese Canadian candidates felt this acutely at the doorstep. They knew disinformation was being spread about them throughout their communities on foreign-based social media platforms, and there was little they could do about it. In future, mitigation plans need to be developed for such scenarios, in concert with both Elections Canada and CSIS. The more principled any party’s foreign policy, the more we should expect to see this kind of external manipulation.

O’Toole has the political skill and creativity to be a very successful leader, given time, and if he successfully manages the dissidents in his caucus who now number five parliamentarians and one member of the party’s national council. He has anticipated this criticism and has stayed a step ahead of it. He encouraged his party to adopt the so-called “Chong Reforms” from MP Michael Chong, author of the 2014 Reform Act, that give caucus final say over his fate. He appointed a Western MP who lost his seat (and not even an O’Toole loyalist) to conduct the formal campaign review. And he is steadfastly remaining committed to a moderate policy path. 

Reviews of political performance must be thorough and they must be balanced. And for party members watching from the sidelines, they would be well-served to take stock not only of the missteps, but also of the many successes that thus far characterize O’Toole’s tenure. 

The 2021 election saw many Conservatives coming out of the woodwork and re-engaging for the first time in two decades. It also saw many Canadian voters looking at the party afresh, and seeing a political home in it. These are real achievements and a foundation for growth.  

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