After watching Question Period last week, it’s clear that all political parties see themselves as the party of the people. But who do they really represent?
The NDP have long held themselves as the party of unions and their workers. The Liberals see themselves as the party of the middle class and those working hard to join it. For the Conservatives, the image is a little trickier to figure out.
Following the 2019 election, Abacus Data studied how Canadians perceived the Conservative Party. They found that people often associate the words elite, elitist, wealthy, greedy, and rich with the Party. Not quite the image a party is looking for when trying to seem approachable in an election and to everyday Canadians.
Since the report from Abacus, the Conservatives have made a strong effort to be more approachable and a party of the people. Since being elected as leader, Erin O’Toole has been actively pushing the party closer to the center and to a message that is more Main Street than Bay Street.
In the last election, O’Toole promised to require large federally regulated employers to include worker representation on their boards of directors. He explained that workers are often left out of the decision-making processes that affect them directly and are a company’s best asset. His platform outlined a plan that would support employees, their families and provide a real voice for workers.
The idea of putting workers and people at the forefront of a campaign is not a new idea for conservative leaders. Boris Johnson rolled into power propelled by support from blue collar Brits and the average worker who felt neglected by other parties. In Ontario there is no one more ‘for the people’ than Doug Ford – he even wrote a song about it.
Since taking office, Ford and his government have set up a number of programs intended to fill gaps in the skilled trades. The government has argued that these are good-paying jobs and jobs that young people can fill. The government intends to spend $1.5 billion between 2020 and 2024 to implement its Skilled Trades Strategy. The government also introduced legislation that would require employers with 25 or more employees to draft a right-to-disconnect policy. When passed, employers would be required to establish a written policy about employees disconnecting from their job at the end of the workday.
Earlier this month, Doug Ford stood arm and arm with two prominent union leaders, OPSEU’s Smokey Thomas and Unifor National’s Jerry Dias, to announce that the provinces’ minimum wage will be raised to $15/hr starting in the new year. Smokey Thomas went as far as to say that “for the first time in dealing with three governments, we actually have a government that actually is listening and doing some positive things.” That is huge praise for any political leader, let alone from organized labour about a conservative politician.
At the core of conservatism is a belief in free markets and that the private sector knows best. Many within conservative circles also believe in the financial well-being of workers and families being able to provide for themselves. The increase is a small step forward to empower families and increase workers’ wages.
At a federal level, the Conservatives may take Ford’s idea about a family’s financial well-being to heart. Since the election, the Conservatives have been focusing on inflation and the challenges that families are having at the grocery store, at the pumps, and general affordability. They argue that the average person working a 9-5 job is having a harder time providing for their families because of the rising costs of goods, which they argue is directly connected to government spending.
The argument around why inflation is happening may be flawed or at least incomplete, but the idea that the Conservative Party is fighting for everyday Canadians is there. It’s a step in the right direction for the party as it looks to appeal to the average Canadian ahead of the next election; it is in direct competition with the liberals and their middle class narrative.
If O’Toole hopes to become Prime Minister, he will have to do more to convince workers that he is the leader for them. He will have to shift his focus to empowering workers, much like Doug Ford has done in Ontario. He needs to identify the sectors that need support, especially in the wake of COVID-19. He also needs to continue to push the party brand to be one of workers instead of executives.
Raising the minimum wage is one tool in the policy toolbox to reach workers. If O’Toole is hoping to expand his base, then he might have to take a page out of Ford’s playbook.