Conservatives must find the centre, or lose

But the problem for the Conservative Party is not that the right is divided; it’s that they keep trying to unite it. The ideological spread between the extreme right and left of the party is so wide that there is no blanket big enough to provide cover for both. This is not theHarper St. Catharines 3 time to unite, but the time to make choices.

And the best opportunity to make choices is the present leadership race, which seems unable to find its frontrunner and an issue to debate.

The last Conservative government elected by the traditional united right was the one led by Brian Mulroney. Since 1993, with the creation of the Bloc Québécois and the Reform Party, the historic (Progressive) Conservative Party ceased to exist – not just on paper but also as a real ideological agglomeration of votes. Stephen Harper tried hard to reunite the right, but he succeeded only in building a “coalition” of conservative groups around his leadership, not a united party.

In the first part of his last mandate, Harper succeeded in keeping members of the former Canadian Alliance in the coalition with some puny law-and-order initiatives, while moving toward the centre with solid social and economic plans.

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Unfortunately, in the second part of its mandate the Conservative government changed direction and turned sharply to the right. This shift, and not the party’s failure to “unite the right,” was the cause of their electoral failure. They moved so much away from the centre that they lost most of the moderate vote that gave them a majority in 2011.

It wasn’t the Senate scandal that defeated the Conservatives, but their paranoia about losing votes from what they considered the “core support” of the party. That core support gave them only two minority governments, while it was the moderate swing vote that pushed them into majority territory.

From 2011 to 2015 the Conservatives had a chance to consolidate that relationship and put a permanent dent in Liberal support, but they blew it.

They failed because there was too much personal resentment between the old and the new leadership, and because the new centre-oriented approach to social and economic policies was not properly promoted to rank-and-file party members. In effect, they were thinking, “Even if we do it, we don’t have to promote it, lest we upset our core vote on the right.” Their communication strategy was always aimed at not upsetting the core vote, instead of consolidating their relationship with new moderate voters.

They refused to understand that what pushed them into majority territory in 2011 was not the traditional right-wing vote but the disarray of the Liberal Party and rise of the NDP. Those afraid of “Prime Minister Layton” went to the Conservatives, while those against Harper went to the NDP.

If the NDP and Conservatives had been less concerned about their “core vote,” basically those on the extreme left and extreme right, the Liberal party would be history by now.

Fortunately for the Liberals, the NDP tried unconvincingly to move to the centre while the Conservatives moved back to the right. In doing so, they left a big hole in the centre that gave the Liberals a chance to get back into government.

Most voters in every democratic country are moderate and don’t like radical views. That means only parties that succeed in capturing the moderate vote can win elections. In the United States the Democrats have been able to keep their party in the middle, while the Republicans have failed. This, most likely, will decide the outcome of the vote in November.

In Canada, if the Conservatives don’t understand that their core support lies among moderate voters from the right to the centre, and not those who lean towards the extreme right, they will be in opposition for a long time – more than eight years.

Politics is about ideology and principles, but it’s also about mathematics.

Angelo Persichilli, a journalist, served as director of communications in the Prime Minister’s Office in 2011-12.

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