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Federal Politics

Inside Poilievre’s Ploy to Court the Working Class

Left unchecked, it could win him the next election.

David Moscrop 11 Jan 2024The Tyee

David Moscrop is a writer, commentator, author and newsletter writer. He lives in Ottawa.

Last week, Conservative Party of Canada Leader Pierre Poilievre captured the attention of a segment of the internet when he released a campaign video in which he says, “The electrician who captures lightning from the sky and runs it through a copper wire to illuminate this room and light up the world is not ordinary.” That got some chattering types, me included, chattering.

Setting aside the possibility that Poilievre doesn’t seem to understand how electricity — or electricians — work, his point was day-to-day folks know better than the so-called “experts” or the government. People just want to get by without being harassed by the powers that be. The government wants to foul up their efforts. From its perch in Ottawa, the government wants to control lives in Moose Jaw and Drumheller and Brandon and Yarmouth.

“You see, Justin Trudeau really has only two core principles,” Poilievre says earlier in the video. “One, that the state should control everybody. And two, that he should control the state.” He then proceeds to the line about the electrician drawing lightning from the sky and gives a nod to waitresses and farmers, too. These people, he says, are ordinary but also extraordinary.

The effort is clumsy and transparent. But effective.

Poilievre is a master at pandering to the working class with platitudes. He puts on a convincing show. He hits the hustings in small towns, shakes hands, trashes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party — and perhaps Jagmeet Singh and the New Democrats, if he’s feeling loose — and gets his applause. He fills halls and pubs and his message resonates with the crowd: You’re getting screwed. You’re just trying to get through the day, doing what you were told would deliver you a decent life, and then bam! The rules change and you’re left holding the bag.

It works because it’s true. More or less.

It doesn’t hurt Poilievre that neither the Liberals nor the NDP have been able to sufficiently capture and mobilize the working class. The former fails because they aren’t fit for purpose, the latter because, well, they aren’t either. The Liberals are, ultimately, a tepid party, their social programs limited in scope and their eye never too far from Bay Street. The NDP is better, but lukewarm in their own way, scared of socialism — and thus their own origin story — and too often amateurish, as the party’s own assessment detailed in the fall of 2022.

Faux populism

The Conservative plan to court the working class precedes Poilievre. It’s been in the works for years, going back to at least 2017. Poilievre is simply better at it than former Conservative party leaders Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole. At least so far.

It doesn’t hurt that Trudeau and his government are turning like guacamole left out in the sun, or that the NDP has been unable to further develop its relationship with working-class voters, despite its close relationship with the labour movement. Perhaps that is because the party misunderstands who the working class is, if you believe data and analysis from 2022 that found the roughly 6.5 million in that category, narrowly conceived, were largely in the service sector. But more to the point, the NDP has been unsuccessful at movement building and mobilization, particularly among young voters, where it tends to find support, if not turnout at the ballot box.

The NDP is certainly not the party it was, say, in the years of Ed Broadbent. It may be able to exert influence right now, but that’s an accident; more the function of being in the right place at the right time than a function of strategy.

The Conservatives stand to become the beneficiary of Liberal fatigue and entitlement, and NDP weakness. This is a tragedy. Poilievre is a phoney populist whose pro-worker bit is as thin as it is transparent. As Martin Lukacs wrote in the Breach back in 2022, Poilievre “has spent his entire political career serving the very elites he vilifies.” This “fake populist” approach, he argues, is “when politicians ride ordinary people’s outrage against the establishment into office, then hand the keys to the One Per Cent.” That’s precisely correct.

Looking ahead, we can suss out what might be in store for Canada under a Poilievre government: austerity and a further erosion of an already eroded welfare state. Lukacs and others, including myself, have detailed Poilievre’s libertarian faux populism. By 2025, the Conservatives may well be poised to win and proceed with cutting government spending, social programs, the public service and the CBC on the march towards Poilievre’s Hayekian utopia.

To fight back, here’s what to do

In the fall, I warned of Poilievre’s dangerous “common sense” revolution. It’s reminiscent of the disastrous — indeed, deadly — austerity of the Mike Harris government in Ontario in the 1990s. Proponents of this program couch it in terms of reforms in the name of ordinary people.

It’s a compelling grift, especially to those who rightfully feel cheated by someone or something. But the someone who is cheating them is economic elites and the something is capitalism — the very people and system Poilievre will turbocharge as prime minister.

Unregulated capitalism and welfare state retrenchment will leave working-class Canadians worse off than they are now. Without state support, the vulnerable will fall deeper through the cracks and at an even higher rate than they do now.

Without regulation and a tax and legal structure designed to control the market, our fight against climate change — already a struggle proceeding poorly — will become harder, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. For instance, we’ve known for a long time now that trickle-down economics doesn’t work.

The next election is scheduled for the fall of 2025, though it may arrive earlier. As things stand, Poilievre and the Conservatives are well ahead of their rivals in projections and polls and into majority government territory. Naturally, there’s plenty of ball left to play and elections matter, etc. But the point is that if you’re betting on a winner today, the smart money is on the blue side. That has to change.

To resist Poilievre and the Conservative faux populist plan, the institutional left in Canada — particularly the NDP — must go all-in on class-based politics focused on the economy and the material interests that go with it. Every other consideration ought to come second to a class politics that is couched in real, relatable, accessible terms. The NDP must be first, foremost and always a working-class party.

The left needs to meet Poilievre’s approach with a strategy like his own, adopting a tone that will resonate with working-class Canadians, with all those struggling to get through the day. The difference, however, is the left plan must also include tangible measures to serve the working class: transforming the structure of the state and economy to serve the many by investing in social programming, reforming tax structures to level the playing field and transferring power from owners to workers. That’s a winning strategy waiting to happen. That’s lightning in a bottle.  [Tyee]

Read more: Federal Politics

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