There was much alarm and considerable dismay when Tory leadership contender, Pierre Poilievre, was photographed last month marching in solidarity with some unsavoury representatives of the far-right so-called trucker convoy. The stunt had a rather pathetic quality and, as he made his way through the streets of Ottawa with these nasty characters, the less than imposing Poilievre looked like a chartered accountant meeting with his bike gang clients. Still, as a calculated, less than subtle political gesture, the message it delivered was loud and clear.
The truth is that, in recent years, the dividing line between the far-right and mainstream conservatism has become decidedly blurry. In the US, the Trump presidency accelerated this process in ways that were quite shocking. It was Trump who, during a debate with Biden, called on the fascistic Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” That they were being kept at the ready, as these words suggested, became clear when Trump unleashed those very forces during the ugly Capitol Hill riot.
In Canada, a comparable, if somewhat less spectacular, working relationship has been forged between overt fascists and leading political representatives of the mainstream right. The far-right’s adoption of the trucker convoy tactic as a way of attracting a broader following has taken this dangerous alliance to new levels. Leading Tories came out in enthusiastic support of the pro-pipeline United We Roll convoy in 2019, even though its links to right-wing extremism were abundantly clear. The far more disruptive and dangerous Freedom Convoy this year, got the same kind of backing and assistance from Tory politicians.
Tory base moves right
The political base cultivated by mainstream conservative politicians has been in a snarly mood for some time and the current cost of living crisis is exacerbating it. Those who look to the right for answers in this situation are hardening their outlook and the politicians and parties seeking their political support must take this into account. The Tory Party, moreover, faces a challenge on its right flank from Maxime Bernier’s right-wing populist People’s Party, which won nearly five percent of the popular vote in the 2021 election.
Erin O’Toole’s leadership represented an effort to preserve a more traditional role for his party as the right-wing component of a political arrangement in which the main parliamentary parties will disagree on particulars but not on the fundamentals. This certainly meant being the most conservative force but it also entailed an effort to avoid positions that would be considered beyond the bounds of the mainstream.
Having been discarded as leader in February, O’Toole recently uttered a futile cry in the wilderness, when he observed: “Whoever the next leader is … they will have to get the balance right between conservative, traditional policies and populism.” He and his colleagues in the parliamentary caucus and the party’s apparatus are surely aware that such advice will be disregarded by those on the right of the party. In a less than subtle shot at Poilievre, O’Toole added, “I believe as leaders we have to channel people’s frustrations into positive change, not add fuel to the fire.” With his populist style and hard-edged policy positions, Poilievre represents precisely the “fuel to the fire” approach that O’Toole cautioned against.
Rather tellingly, the historically pro-Conservative National Post expresses the fear that Poilievre will take the Tories in a direction that will prevent them from securing office. Alarmed at his antics, the paper warns that “Whether Conservatives nonetheless decide to put him in charge of the party will say a lot about their credibility as a potential alternative to the Liberal government.”
This suggestion that someone like Poilievre will appeal to a constituency too small for electoral success is a common refrain but, while it has some justification in the immediate sense, I’m not so sure that we can take it as a given that the Liberals will be able to fend off someone like Poilievre for too much longer. In some alarming and discouraging ways, the political tide is rising in his favour.
It is certainly true that the constituency Poilievre is playing to represents a minority of the population. It is a very significant political force but it isn’t currently poised to decide the outcome of a federal election. However, the striking factor at work at the present time is the declining legitimacy of the political centre. The Liberals under Trudeau continue to cling to power, but they have been reduced to minority status and their shaky survival has more to do with the travails of their rivals than with any great enthusiasm they are able to generate among voters.
Last month’s Ontario election offers an indication of where things might go at the federal level. In this province, the Liberals were voted out in 2018, after 15 years in government. They failed to regain ground this time and have been reduced to a dismal state, lacking official party status and floundering hopelessly. Even with the Liberals so seriously weakened, the NDP utterly failed to galvanize support and turn out voters in the recent election. This led, not to a vast tide of support for the crudely right-wing Doug Ford and his Tory party, but an historically low voter turnout of only 43.5 percent. In this situation, Ford’s party actually formed a solid majority with the support of roughly 18 percent of eligible voters.
These events in Ontario are worth considering when you contemplate the prospect of a rightward shift in the federal Conservative Party. The political shelf life of the Liberals, as a discredited party of the neoliberal centre, is a limited proposition. The NDP, currently supplying the votes to keep the Liberals in office, shows no signs of posing a bold left alternative that might spark a sense of hope. The major upsurge of workplace struggles and resistance on the streets that could change the political climate is theoretically possible but absent from the horizon for the time being.
In such a situation, a hard-right Tory leader who plays shamelessly to the most reactionary sections of society might not be the unelectable bridge-too-far that many imagine. Perhaps this period of economic crisis and political instability isn’t conducive to a more respectable, slicker brand of conservatism. It may be that a more populist and blatantly reactionary style, welcoming photo ops with right-wing thugs and content to “add fuel to the fire,” will confute the establishment media pundits and prove electorally viable.
Although Poilievre and his ilk may represent a way forward for the political right, this outcome is by no means inevitable. If the patently false political solutions that right-wing populists advance find a hearing with voters in a period like this, a mobilized working class movement and a radical left political alternative could garner a far greater base of support. In the absence of this, however, neither hollow liberalism nor ‘compassionate conservatism’ is going to save us from the rising tide of reactionary anger that Pierre Poilievre is riding.