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Pierre Poilievre: Friend of the working class?

The Conservative leader’s populist strategy is making inroads with workers at the expense of both the Liberals and the NDP

Canadian PoliticsLabour

Pierre Poilievre holds a press conference regarding his “Axe the Tax” message from the roof a parking garage in St. John’s, October 27, 2023. Photo courtesy Pierre Poilievre/X.

Less than 18 months out from the next federal election, Conservative Party of Canada leader, Pierre Poilievre, is pivoting in many different directions to grow his base and secure the strong majority government that many are predicting he will achieve.

The CPC have improved their game considerably, in terms of leadership, after the very poor performances of both Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole.

Poilievre is a strong communicator, capable of staying on message. He has his party a full 20 points ahead of the Liberals. Nothing the Liberals say or do has had a positive impact, in terms of the polls. Poilievre has both the Liberals and the NDP in a downward trajectory, while Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada has all be disappeared.

Having secured the conservative base established by Stephen Harper, he has many people talking about his move towards the working class, and here too, he is making inroads at the expense of both the Liberals and the NDP.

Ginny Roth, writing in The Hub in April, spoke to this trend: “many from what would have traditionally been an NDP pool of supporters—working class union members—make up conservative leader Poilievre’s growing coalition.”

Max Fawcett, in a piece published in Canada’s National Observer, cited the fact that collapsing Liberal support is not moving towards the NDP. In fact, he quoted Abacus Data stating that, “10 per cent of those who voted NDP in 2021 now support Poilievre’s CPC.”

Fawcett also cited an early 2024 Angus Reid poll that revealed that “more than one-third (36 per cent) of NDP voters said they’d likely switch to the Liberals.”

One could spend much time and effort dissecting Poilievre’s 20-year parliamentary track record and conclude, correctly, that he offers nothing to workers and cannot be trusted, but this does nothing to explain the populist strategy he is pursuing and why it appears to be succeeding, as it did recently in the European Union elections.

Stagnant incomes, soaring food costs, and out-of-reach realty costs, are but a few of the issues Poilievre has seized upon.

Eighteen months is indeed an eternity when it comes to politics, especially during times of economic and global uncertainty, but it is becoming clearer each day that a Poilievre majority is indeed likely. If he succeeds, it will be due to several factors, including his ability to tap into working class frustrations.

In part, Poilievre himself is the answer. He is adept at social media and has correctly concluded that people are hurting throughout the country. Inflation has hurt people in both the grocery aisle and in their rent or mortgage payments. Wages are up, but increases have not matched the heights of inflation from last year, nor the losses in real terms, experienced over the past two decades.

Interest rates remain high, relative to where they were, and some 60 percent of Canadian’s mortgages are up for renewal, with expiring terms that were obtained prior to the hike in rates. This means every day, Canadians learn just how much worse off they are, then they were in 2021 when the Trudeau Liberals eked out a third mandate (a second consecutive minority government).

Leaving Poilievre for a moment, there are, as always, other forces at play that speak to the 20 point lead the Conservatives enjoy today.

First and foremost is the fact that Justin Trudeau is an all but spent force in the eyes of the electorate. He isn’t believed by many and most think he has overstayed his welcome. While it appears likely he is staying put as leader, the only thing that is unclear is what will remain in terms of a reduced Liberal caucus after the next federal election (which will happen by October of next year at the latest).

More surprising is perhaps the fact that bleeding Liberal support is accruing almost exclusively to the Conservatives. One might have thought that the NDP, who chase voters in the same ‘universe’ as the Liberals, might have benefitted from their decline, but this is not the case.

An early May 2024 poll showed the NDP at 17 percent in the national polls, a point less than they achieved in their disappointing 2021 campaign. They appear to be paying a large price for hitching their wagon to the Liberals with the supply-and-confidence agreement signed in 2022.

Signing the agreement was a smart move. No citizen wanted a third federal election within a 30-month period. In addition, signing the agreement placed the NDP, and its 25 seats (the fourth party in Parliament), in a position to exert influence beyond their numbers.

The alignment with the Liberals has seen the introduction of some important social policy gains including $10 per day child care, a dental plan for lower income families and to date, two million seniors, plus the building blocks of a national pharmacare program. On the labour front, the Liberal-NDP working majority has introduced federal anti-scab legislation, which received unanimous, all-party parliamentary approval.

The above accomplishments, while not unimportant, have come at a big price for the federal NDP. The waitlists for $10 child care spaces in major cities are long, diminishing any large political reward for the NDP. Most workers already have dental coverage and workplace health benefits, which include prescription drugs. This is not to say these achievements are not significant, but they too, will not deliver a political dividend to the NDP.

It is hard to fathom just why the NDP is sticking with the supply-and-confidence agreement which every day presents Poilievre with talking points that include lines such as the “Liberal-NDP government.” That they have not extracted themselves from this arrangement is both surprising and disappointing to many including this writer (a lifelong New Democrat, and a strong supporter of union alignment with the party labour helped found).

Working Canadians face a cost-of-living crisis. Soaring food and housing costs have placed many working families on the margins of the economy and they neither trust nor believe that Justin Trudeau represents the way forward. The federal NDP leader has a low profile and at times is reduced to staging media conferences about what he might, but most probably won’t do, in terms of parliamentary votes.

The longer the NDP risks its brand in an alliance with the Trudeau Liberals, the further it falls as a viable vote option for Canadians. It may well be a replay of the 1993 federal election where the governing Progressive Conservatives were all but wiped out, reduced to two seats, while at the same time, the NDP fell to nine seats. The NDP back then had a largely unknown leader, in a change election, and paid a huge political price.

It was very different than another change election, in 1984, when the Mulroney Conservatives won 211 seats, the Liberals got hammered, but a credible NDP leader, Ed Broadbent, held on to near 20 percent of the vote and maintained 31 seats.

If the election were held today, beyond a Poilievre majority, likely a strong majority, the NDP would most likely achieve fewer seats than the 25 it won in 2021. Hard to believe that less than a decade ago they formed the official opposition in Ottawa.

Governments are defeated to a much greater degree than they are elected. Poilievre is benefiting from a tired, underperforming Liberal brand. Notwithstanding the fact that they have governed for much of our country’s history, they are with some regularity placed in the penalty box for a term or two by the electorate. We are at one of those points in time. This should surprise no one.

What is surprising is the fact that Canada’s social democratic option, so critical to the country in terms of what we are and what universal services we provide to citizens, is not ascendent. The NDP ought to be occupying the space Poilievre has raced towards in his calling out the governor of the Bank of Canada for the hurt he has inflicted on working families by fighting inflation at literally all costs.

The Conservatives offer nothing to working families. But they have become adept at telling people how bad their lives are—and people are indeed hurting.

I fully expect the downward trend in voter turnout to continue in 2025. This too will assist the Conservatives with their rock-solid base, plus the votes they gain at the expense of others.

There remains time to prevent a CPC electoral juggernaut, if positive steps are taken, including:

  • Complete affiliate support for the Canadian Labour Congress’ planned campaign to inform 3.5 million union households of the true Poilievre track record. In his 20 years in parliament, he has a consistent track record of opposing labour reforms. Union support for this campaign cannot just be financial, it must include a commitment of all affiliate unions to connect with their members through an in-person, on-the-job canvass directed towards exposing Poilievre.
  • The federal NDP caucus must end the supply-and-confidence agreement with the Liberals immediately. This need not trigger an immediate election, but it will afford the NDP the opportunity to portray the party as a stand-alone force for positive change for working families.
  • This latter challenge, what vision the NDP places before Canadians in 2025, must be a strong, progressive platform that speaks to the hurt working families are feeling today. Confronting failed Liberal and Conservative policies directly is what Canadians expect and deserve from the country’s social democratic option. Such leadership from the NDP is critical in pursuit of the socially just and prosperous Canada we want for all citizens.

Paul Moist is a retired labour leader. He served as National President of CUPE, Canada’s largest union, between 2003 and 2015.


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