O'Toole's Union Play
On October 30, in a speech to the Canadian Club Toronto, Erin O’Toole laid out a ‘a new conservative vision’ for Canada. The event began with the light farce of the host giving a shoutout to the (apropos) event sponsor; Waste Connections Canada. It then continued into heavier farce as the leader of the Conservative party gave a speech extolling the virtues of high union membership, warning about the dangers of Canada becoming a nation of Uber drivers and, finally, ended on a call for “policies that build solidarity, not just wealth”.
Before we start sending O’Toole red flags to hoist over Conservative Party HQ we should note that a lot of the language he used was skillfully caveated. O’Toole only spoke appreciatively of private union membership, but had nothing to say about public unions. Likely because public unions are the more powerful and politically assertive elements of Canada’s labour movement. He was also happy to speak out against Uber, but didn’t connect his denigration of the gig economy with any positive policy proposal (will the Conservatives be supporting efforts to unionize Uber drivers?). This article by David Climenhaga gives a summary of the various ways O’Toole’s speech fails to match up with his record, and contains some theorizing about why O’Toole has decided to make this seeming volte-face.
However fun it is to theorycraft about the calculations, whats and whys that go into Conservative decision making, the more pertinent question seems to be: is this a move that could actually deliver voters to the Conservatives? O’Toole seems to be trying to feel out a middle-way between positions that have been pioneered in other countries. He’s looking for something less psycho-drama than Donald Trump’s ‘l’état, c’est moi’ populism and less paternalistic than David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. Both of these approaches were successful, for a while, electorally, so it makes sense O’Toole would look to them when trying to craft what comes next. That being said, the initial signs are that O’Toole hasn’t been able to turn his party in a more worker-friendly direction. Looking at the official statements put out by the Conservatives since O’Toole gave his speech, only two directly reference what could be loosely be called ‘labour issues’*. Bashing the Liberals on their COVID response, and attacking China, both take precedence over concerns about the Uberization of Canada.
All the same, lefties shouldn’t laugh at the idea of a Conservative leader getting chummy with unions, or working people. We may have economic theories that give us reason to believe that the working class can never be permanently bought off by a capitalist party, but elections are not decided by a careful parsing of the consequences of the labour theory of value. Even an administration as fundamentally scatterbrained as Donald Trump’s showed it was able to deliver something to labour when it included a raft of provisions in the USMCA that strengthened labour rights in Mexico, thereby reducing the incentive for American companies to offshore jobs there. In his speech, O’Toole linked the worsening of prospects in Canada with the rise of China, and criticized China for its increasing assertiveness. The joining of those two issues opens a path forward for O’Toole if he wishes to plow forward with his policy pivot. The Conservatives can make splashy public announcements about how they would support Canadian workers against Chinese predation, while in the background reassuring big donors that their businesses can also expect to get government protection from perfidious China (either in the form of direct cash handouts, or indirectly though provisions that protect Canadian businesses from foreign competition). I’d imagine if this sort of policy was ever actually carried out it would be businesses that found themselves receiving the lion’s share of the benefits, but that doesn’t stop it from being an effective messaging strategy that the Conservatives can use to win votes. As O’Toole said when he marked his first 100 days since becoming leader—“It’s been a busy 100 days – but I’m just getting started”.
* One statement criticized ‘Woke Foods’ for not allowing their employees to wear remembrance poppies, the other criticized the Liberals for not better supporting Canadians working in the aviation sector.
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