From True Blue to Blue Collar Conservatism
A brief look at the Conservative Party platform, and why it's a policy agenda for a new blue collar conservatism
I want to offer my brief two cents on the Conservative Party platform that was released on the first day of the election campaign. After having read through it, I found myself very pleasantly surprised. This doesn’t mean I like literally every proposal or idea in the platform, but anyone expecting that from a major party platform really should just go and start their own party. Overall, I think this is a serious attempt to put meat onto the bones of a policy agenda for a “blue collar conservatism.”
Briefly, I just want to make clear that I’m not commenting on the branding/messaging side of it. This is not my area of expertise. My plan here is to just focus on the substance of the document in terms of the kind of conservatism it is offering. The only thing I will say on this front is that I personally like that they’ve released the whole thing right at the start. I’m assuming it’s an attempt to set the agenda and then highlight different parts of it as the campaign goes on. I like that. I have no idea whether it’s a good idea or not and I’ll defer to the strategists on that one, but personally as someone who wants politics to be about substantive ideas and not just a branding exercise I like the move.
First off, just to briefly describe the kind of conservatism I’m referring to here, what we’re talking is a shift towards a conservatism that appeals to citizens in the “top left quadrant.” These are citizens who are quite comfortable with state intervention in markets and the welfare state while also being quite culturally and socially conservative. It’s less hyper-individualistic, and more community oriented and comfortable with the language of solidarity. The number of people this describes is sizeable, and they have been mostly underserved for decades by mainstream political parties. I’ve written for the newsletter and elsewhere about various aspects of this agenda and what it could broadly look like. If you’re interested click on the links and take a look at some of the previous newsletters.
You should take a look through the platform yourself and my outline here is far from exhaustive. There’s lots more that I like in it as well. It’s a pretty hefty document. I’m just going to focus on some specific areas I think worthy of more attention - work, labour, housing, foreign policy.
There’s lots of good stuff in the platform about job creation and growth, stuff that has been getting plenty of discussion. But there’s also some good stuff to go alongside this that is about not just about creating jobs, but about reforming and updating the support system for working Canadians. First off:
“We will double the Canada Workers Benefit up to a maximum of $2,800 for individuals or $5,000 for families and pay it as a quarterly direct deposit rather than a tax refund at year-end.
This is a good, much needed boost to the CWB and one that will help low income Canadians. The platform claims “This will put an average of an extra thousand dollars into the pockets of the most vulnerable workers.” I’ll be curious to see how much the Parliamentary Budget Office thinks this will cost, but it’s a good idea regardless. They also say that they will “double the disability supplement from $744 to $1,500.” That’s also good policy and something that it should be easy to build a cross partisan consensus for.
And there’s some interesting stuff on EI. They are promising to create a “Super EI that temporarily provides more generous benefits (75% of salary instead of 55%) when a province goes into recession.”
Some of the more interesting stuff I wasn’t expecting to see in it is a commitment to update how employment insurance works for gig economy workers:
“Canada’s Conservatives recognize that millions of Canadians don’t qualify for Employment Insurance because they are gig workers, independent contractors, online platform workers, contract, on-call, and temporary workers. Roughly 1.7 million people are engaged in independent, temporary work. They don’t have the insurable hours and contributions of a typical employee. This means they have no safety net.
We will require gig economy companies to make contributions equivalent to CPP and EI premiums into a new, portable Employee Savings Account every time they pay their workers. The money will grow tax-free and can be withdrawn by the worker when needed. “
This seems pretty innovative to me, and something that is vital as we move towards more and more gig work. EI doesn’t work for lots of people now who do gig work, and if we can’t just magically bring back more traditional forms of work we need to adapt and build an EI system that actually supports new kinds of work as well.
They’ve also committed to expanding the EI sickness benefit, which I can tell you as someone who has family who have had to use this, needed expanding. They are pledging to “increase EI sickness benefits to 52 weeks for those suffering from a serious illness.” They are also pledging some good stuff for disabled Canadians. Specifically, they want to help ensure disabled Canadians who are able to do so can work, which is a sneaky important part of helping integrate disabled people into Canadian society and ensuring they are able to lead dignified lives. They are pledging to “double the Disability Supplement in the Canada Workers Benefit from $713 to $1,500” and are pledging to reform and streamline the complex web of programs in place to help disabled Canadians to make them more accessible.
There’s plenty else in the platform about creating jobs, and what they are proposing to do on the innovation front looks quite good as well. But what I was especially pleased to see was that alongside this jobs and growth plans is that attention is given to strengthening a robust support system and updating the social security net for working and low income Canadians. The blue collar conservative recipe should mix growth and dynamism with the kinds of protections and supports workers need, and I think there’s a good mix of that in this platform.
I’m kind of surprised what the platform has to say about labour and trade unions hasn’t gotten much attention from the media, because I’m pretty sure this is the part of the platform that symbolically and policy wise represents the best example of a departure from the kind of mainstream Conservatism that has been dominant in Canada for the last few decades. Some of you I suspect will hate this. I love it. My friend Brian Dijkema has written a good conservative appreciation of trade unions, give it a read to understand where people like Brian and I are coming from on this. Here’s what the platform has to say about supporting trade unions:
Canada’s Conservatives will give workers a real voice and the support they need against major multinational corporations. We will:
Give workers a seat at the table by requiring federally regulated employers with over 1,000 employees or $100 million in annual revenue to include worker representation on their boards of directors;
Level the playing field between unions and multinationals by consulting with union leaders and then implementing changes to the Canada Labour Code to remove barriers that prevent unions from organizing large employers with a history of anti-labour activity;
Work with unions to modernize the Canada Labour Code to provide more flexibility in working hours and working from home.
Give unions standing at the Canada International Trade Tribunal to allow them to bring actions on issues like dumping.
I imagine the left will look at this and just think it’s disingenuous. I imagine there’s more than a few MPs in the Conservative caucus whose eyes popped out of their sockets reading this. The only way to find out if this is serious is to elect them and see if they stick to it. But even the fact that this made it into the platform is significant and a clear recognition by the people who put the platform together that the future of conservatism and the new political divides involve bringing blue collar voters and labour into the Conservative fold. And it can work. If you want to point to a current success story in Canada of what happens when a Conservative government builds a good relationship with unions I’d point to the relationship the Ford government and Monte McNaughton especially ((Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development) has built with the trade union LiUNA.
Some of the things mentioned in the platform that a hypothetical Conservative government is proposing to do that having a collaborative relationship with labour would help with include “doubling the Apprenticeship Job Creation Tax Credit for the next three years to help create more places for apprentices,” creating a “ Working Canadian Training Loan, and investing, investing “$250 million over two years to create the Canada Job Training Fund.” This doesn’t mean becoming best friends with Jerry Dias, but when Conservative governments work with labour good things can happen.
But perhaps my favourite single announcement in the platform is this one:
Canada’s Conservatives will increase employee ownership of Canadian companies by establishing Employee Ownership Trusts, which provide a tax advantage for company owners to sell to their employees. This will take the form of a reduction in capital gains tax when the owner sells to a trust owned by the employees, enabling ownership to transfer to the people who have partnered in building the business. We will also ensure that BDC makes financing available to support these trusts.
Employee Ownership Trusts (EOTs) are among one of the most interesting ideas floating around these days that is a genuinely good way to help build a fairer society. They help spread wealth and ownership of assets to people who wouldn’t have much chance otherwise, and they have all sorts of other benefits. They help produce more resilient companies, they are good for succession, they pay better, and they keep companies grounded in communities. But just most fundamentally, finding ways to make ownership as widely distributed as possible makes for a fairer and better society in my view. EOTs have been successful in the UK and the US, and the recent Liberal budget included a proposal to look into them. Regardless of who forms government after this election, I hope we can bring EOTs to Canada.
Unsurprisingly this is for me the best part of the platform. It might not fit strictly into the broader realignment framing I’m suggesting this platform is trying to capture, but housing is arguably the single biggest issue we face in this country if we’re concerned about growing inequality and decreasing opportunities for younger and poorer Canadians. It’s also the one issue where if you were to fix it, you could help with all sorts of other challenges we face as well, things like family formation and climate change. The other reason people who may not be personally impacted by this or even benefit from insane house prices should want to fix this is that if it doesn’t get fixed sooner or later it is going to produce some really nasty politics that a charismatic figure will take advantage of. Go check out r/canadahousing to see some early signs of this.
Politicians have been talking about affordable housing for years. But the only real solutions that have been offered so far have been demand side solutions that just pump the market with more capital. The Conservative plan, to its enormous credit, is clear on the fundamental problem being a supply one. We don’t build enough houses. Scotiabank recently estimated that we’re about 1.8 million homes short in Canada of even having the G7 average of housing units per 1,000 residents. We simply need to build, and the Conservative platform gets this.
There’s a fair bit in the plan, but I want to focus on what is the most important part of the entire housing plan:
To swiftly increase supply, we will implement a plan to build 1 million homes in the next three years. To do so, we will:
Leverage federal infrastructure investments to increase housing supply. We will:
Build public transit infrastructure that connects homes and jobs by bringing public transit to where people are buying homes; and
Require municipalities receiving federal funding for public transit to increase density near the funded transit;
Most of the solutions to solve supply problems are at the municipal and provincial level. Leveraging federal funding to require density, especially around public transit, is the single biggest thing that the federal government can do to fix this mess. That’s huge. There’s plenty of other good ideas and promises in their housing plan, but this is the single biggest thing that will move the needle and I was genuinely excited to see it. One other little thing I noticed in the platform is that it emphasizes calling houses “homes” rather than other colder terms. I like that, and too often language we use on this stuff, from “housing unit” to supply and demand or “entry level housing” is often too cold or jargony.
Lastly, even though foreign policy isn’t a priority issue for most voters and doesn’t fit with some of the themes above, the platform includes some serious thinking on the rise of China and how Canada should respond. This matters because the (re)emergence of China as a great power and rival is the biggest geopolitical challenge since the end of the Cold War. And as we have been forced to learn, China is not our friend. The Conservatives devote a fair bit of real estate in the platform to getting tougher on China. I’ve highlighted below some of the various promises made on this front:
Work with our allies to build a “coalition of democracies” with the goal of decoupling critical parts of our supply chains from China.
Protect Canadian intellectual property with a strengthened Investment Canada Act that includes...A presumption against allowing the takeover of Canadian companies by China’s designated state-owned entities.
Withdraw from the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Ban Huawei from Canada’s 5G infrastructure and further investigate the company’s role in providing surveillance capabilities that have been used against the Uyghur people and other per secuted minorities in China.
Advise universities against partnerships with China’s state-controlled companies and organizations and prohibit federal granting councils from participating in these partnerships.
Join the UK proposition for a Digital 10 to protect free societies’ data and cyber sovereignty
Ban senior public office holders for five years after leaving office (including former Prime Ministers, Ministers, Clerks of the Privy Council, Deputy/Assistant Deputy Ministers and Ambassadors) from employment or contracts with China’s government or an entity controlled by China’s government. The ban would include doing work through a consulting or law firm.
The platform shows that the Conservatives take seriously the threat that the Chinese regime poses to Canada, and it’s something where I frankly have zero trust in the Liberals. Again, elections may not be decided on foreign policy, but this issue is a pivotal issue of our day and one we have to think about. There’s a lot more to their foreign policy outline than just what I’ve highlighted, But there’s a serious effort to reorient ourselves around this new central challenge, supporting things like the D10 and the Quad alliance. This last proposal I’ve highlighted, the ban on public office holders for lobbying for China is a sneaky little proposal that will have more than a few of our patrician elites in hot water should the Conservatives form government.
There are also some good commitments on defence and rebuilding our military capacity. But governments of all stripes have been promising this for decades and until a government actually does it I won’t be taking these promises too seriously.
A Blue Collar Conservative Agenda
Two other tiny proposals I want to highlight in the platform are their proposals to allow the Canada Child Benefit to begin at seven months of pregnancy rather than childbirth, and also adding three days of paid bereavement leave for parents who have experienced a miscarriage. These are small but powerful pro-family and life affirming policies that I’m glad to see in the platform.
This is not a Conservative platform stuck in 1984 or 2004. It’s a robust attempt to put together a new policy agenda for a new political moment, and I think there’s the makings here of something that can glue together a winning blue collar conservatism.
But taking a step back, while this platform isn’t going to be the thing that likely leads to a full blown realignment that sees the blue collar voters and regions of Canada switch over to the Conservatives en masse, it’s the making of a movement that one day could. You can go back and read my older newsletters about where a pure blue collar coalition would have to be built, but given the way this campaign is developing I think this could sell quite well to people who are a few missed paycheques or a rise in interest rates away from being in financial trouble. The Liberals and NDP may try to lob the old austerity and service slashing attacks at O’Toole, but this platform should be a shield against that.
Blue collar conservatism has emerged in our American and British cousins as the conservatism of the future. Given the new cleavages forming in our politics too, divides built on gender, age, education, and the urban/rural divide, Canadian conservatism will naturally end up going in this direction too. This is a platform that is built for the future of this kind of conservatism.