“Dog bites man isn’t news,” the old adage goes. “But man bites dog sure is.” The rare, unusual, freakish and shake-your-head unbelievable is newsworthy. And so it has been well reported that new Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre is committed to upend the power of “elites” and fight for the working class as the next prime minister of Canada.
If Poilievre’s pitch beats back NDP strength among working class voters, it’s not just bad news for the New Democrats. Already reduced to a minority and long in the tooth, if Trudeau can’t give clear policy wins to Jagmeet Singh in exchange for the balance of power, it could be game over for the governing Liberals, too.
For many, the idea of Poilievre as a working class defender is nonsense that should be dismissed as the latest ploy from a party desperate after three successive election losses. Certainly, there is nothing in Poilievre’s 18-year record as MP that shows working class Canadians are his priority.
To wit, his Conservatives called the incoming national dental plan for those without employee benefits “wasteful spending.” They’ve opposed a pharmacare plan that would bring coverage to millions. And Poilievre has routinely criticized special COVID supports designed to benefit workers would couldn’t even quality for employment insurance.
What’s more, whenever Liberals tabled legislation to outlaw a strike, Poilievre’s solidarity was with Justin Trudeau—not workers.
But the dismissal of Poilievre’s claim to represent working class Canadians is based on a certain view of what ordinary Canadians want from Ottawa. Maybe that view is partly obstructed.
Poilievre isn’t the first conservative to proclaim himself a defender of working people. In his opening days as leader, Erin O’Toole made the same claim. And so did Donald Trump, who made his race-tinged appeal to the “white working class.”
O’Toole didn’t stick to the plan, however, and his campaign ultimately floundered. But Trump became president of the United States. Indeed, right-wing appeals to the working class have some recent precedent.
But consider the different political topography between the United States and Canada. Working class Americans had not been overtly courted by either Democrats or Republicans for many years, leaving a political vacuum Trump could walk into. While it is true that Hillary Clinton fared better than Trump with lower income voters, when added to his support from higher income earners, Trump closed the gap enough to win.
Like the Democrats, Canadian Liberals have abandoned appeals to working class voters. Rather than try to raise the living standards and circumstances of average folks, Trudeau’s main offer has been to help those “working hard” to join his preferred socioeconomic group: the middle class. Not surprisingly, polls consistently show the Liberals winning among those who consider themselves affluent or middle class, but running third among working class voters.
And Liberals are running third because, unlike in the US, Canada has a party, the NDP, which is the product of working class politics. The same polls that show Liberals in third with working class people show the NDP’s support is strongest among Canadians who say they are working class.
Trump’s appeal to working class America was a march into unclaimed territory. To stop Poilievre from outflanking the Liberals and making similar gains with working class voters, the new Conservative pitch needs to hit an NDP wall.
In fact, while the conflict and high stakes might be uncomfortable for Singh and his MPs, a showdown with Poilievre over working class voters might be a great thing for the NDP, the working class, and Canada as a whole.
But in winning the showdown, New Democrats need to closely listen to what working class Canadians are saying.
On the policy front, central to Trump’s pitch to workers was his offer to cancel NAFTA, which had been widely criticized by unions for offshoring millions of industrial jobs. Standing atop the $21 trillion US economy, Trump’s ‘America First’ strategy could use tariffs and trade protectionism to beat Canada, at $1.7 trillion, or Mexico, at $1.1 trillion, into trade concessions.
In a showdown between Poilievre and Singh, big chips like NAFTA aren’t on the table, but it’s a reminder that what working class people want isn’t just dental care and a drug plan—especially if those plans aren’t going to be realized for months or years.
Working people need attention, respect and an economic plan today that promises to hike incomes and reduce costs. Recent inflation has made this even more dire.
And, whether it helps them or not, some working class people will want to use their vote as a stick to give a hard hit to political leaders who have ignored and talked down to them for too long.
Surely, Poilievre will pledge to cut taxes, deficits, and red tape and then stand back and watch the economy boom. It’s not enough for the NDP to point out this plan has never worked for working people. The NDP needs an economic strategy outlining how we got here and a positive plan that gets us to a better place. In contrast to Poilievre’s plan to stand back, Singh’s offer must be to lean in.
Economic development and empowerment should not be mystery to a party that rejects laissez faire capitalism. These planks have been central to NDP governments across Canada. In British Columbia, New Democrats focused on forest management and local mills. In Alberta, they beat the drum of economic diversification. In Saskatchewan, public enterprise pressed their advantage on minerals such as potash and uranium. In Manitoba, the low-cost power from hydroelectric projects remains a massive advantage to the province.
The Liberals’ Canada Infrastructure Bank has proven to be a multi-billion dollar boondoggle. Their “supercluster” program has gone silent. With interest rate hikes pushing the economy toward recession, the governing Liberals’ economic agenda, similar to the Conservatives, is to stand back and watch it blow. If the Liberals will not provide an economic development plan, once again it is up to the NDP.
To build the NDP wall that will block Poilievre, dental care isn’t enough. New concessions from the Liberals to reduce the tax burden on working class families is a good start. But if social democracy means anything, it means leaning in to a plan of economic empowerment that will really benefit working class people.
Tom Parkin is a frequent political columnist and commentator with a bluntly social democratic point of view. Follow him on Twitter @TomPark1n.