The “Freedom Convoy” has claimed its first political casualty. Led by its socially conservative right wing, the Conservative parliamentary caucus voted to remove Erin O’Toole as leader of the federal party on Feb. 2. O’Toole’s refusal to support the blockade in Ottawa unreservedly was the final straw for the right wing of the Conservatives, which is now on the offensive to solidify control of the party.
This wing of the party, grouped around Candice Bergen and Pierre Poilievre, has opportunistically thrown in its lot with the convoy and has been temporarily emboldened and strengthened. The uneasy truce in the party is breaking down under the pressure of events. Where is the Conservative Party going?
The internal divisions in the Conservative Party are long-standing and run deep. There has been an uneasy alliance in the party between the Blue and Red Tory wings since the merger between the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives in 2003. Complex regional divisions add to this internal strife in the party.
This tenuous alliance was maintained under Stephen Harper in part because of the party’s electoral success at the time, but it is beginning to break down as the crisis of capitalism deepens. The differences between the various wings are widening under the pressure of polarization, which is pulling the main poles in the party in opposite directions.
The Blue Tory wing has dominated the Conservative Party since the merger, but this wing itself is divided between a more “pragmatic” wing that wants to maintain a “respectable” appearance and a more populist, far-right wing. Stephen Harper exemplified the “pragmatic” wing, which tends to lean on the populist wing for support, but keeps the more far-right elements in check for reasons of electoral opportunism. The racist, homophobic, misogynistic, anti-worker, anti-immigrant program of the socially conservative wing was a constant source of embarrassment for the party brass and a threat to the party’s electoral success.
Andrew Scheer tried to lead the party the same way Harper did. Scheer’s leadership became unviable after losing the 2019 election and a party finance scandal where it was revealed that the party was paying for the private schooling of his children. But there was more to it than that. The internal divisions in the party intensified as the crisis of capitalism deepened, and it became increasingly difficult for the leadership to straddle the growing divide.
O’Toole’s victory in the leadership race to replace Scheer also reflected the growing divide in the party. O’Toole presented himself as a “true blue” Conservative, but he had to lean heavily on the socially conservative and far-right elements of the party around Derek Sloan and others to win the leadership. The populist and far-right elements of the party were emboldened with O’Toole’s victory.
But over the course of his leadership, O’Toole adopted a more moderate approach and ultimately betrayed his base on the right of the party. A recent article in the National Post explained the reasons for O’Toole’s opportunism:
“If social conservatism was an electoral winner, former leader Andrew Scheer wouldn’t have put so much effort into trying to disguise his. O’Toole’s biggest mistake was seeking the leadership by pandering to the right, then quickly trying to decamp to the middle. But he did it because he clearly didn’t believe the alternative had a snowball’s chance of carrying the country.”
O’Toole’s opportunism led him to flip-flop on a series of issues from carbon taxing to gun control, making Conservative policy almost indistinguishable from that of the Liberals. He initially flirted with Trump-style populism and slogans (Take Canada Back!) but then backtracked. After initially defending Derek Sloan from accusations of racism, he eventually removed Sloan from the Conservative Party caucus in an effort to maintain this moderate image after a donation to Sloan from a neo-Nazi came to light. This added to the sense of betrayal and anger growing on the right of the party, where O’Toole was increasingly denounced as a “fake conservative”.
O’Toole’s opponents in the party and the corporate media have portrayed this flip-flopping as a function of his weak character and poor leadership style. This may be true to a certain extent, but his flip-flopping was also the inevitable result of trying to bridge the widening gulf between the various wings of the party.
O’Toole’s moderated approach was apparent during the 2021 election where he campaigned as a slightly more right-wing version of Justin Trudeau. The Liberals painted O’Toole as a hard-right fanatic with a hidden agenda. This has always been the Achilles’ heel of the Conservative Party. O’Toole’s “Liberal-right” campaign was designed to counter this but he ultimately failed to deliver.
The growing internal strife in the party may have been softened temporarily had the Conservatives won the election. These divisions would have reemerged with the party in power and implementing policy, but they didn’t win. For the second election in a row the Conservatives had won the popular vote, but due to the rules of a first-past-the-post electoral system failed to win the most seats. This exacerbated the already rising tensions in the party and the knives were out for O’Toole following the defeat. The right wing of the party came to the conclusion that the moderating approach was not translating into electoral success and that what was needed was a bold turn to the right.
Freedom Convoy and populist pressure
The right wing of the Conservative Party is increasingly attracted to far-right populism. They have seen the success of Trump in the Republican Party in the United States. They have also seen support for the Conservative Party bleed away in a series of right-wing populist splits with the People’s Party of Canada (PPC) and the various independence parties in the West.
The Conservative losses to the PPC in 2019 were minimal. The PPC’s poor showing in that election convinced the “pragmatic” party leadership that Trump-style populism would not fly in Canada. There was no mass appetite for it. The “respectable” and “pragmatic” party brass were able to keep the far-right elements in the party temporarily in check on this basis.
But there was an appetite for a right populist turn in the Conservative Party. When decided voters were asked whether they would vote for Biden or Trump in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, 84 per cent of Canadians would have voted for Biden, and only 16 per cent for Trump. The numbers were similar when broken down by age group and region (except Alberta where Trump support was twice as high at 32 per cent).
The results when broken down by political party were interesting. The vast majority of NDP (94 per cent), Liberal (93 per cent), Bloc (91 per cent) and Green (89 per cent) voters would have supported Biden. However, the results for the Conservative Party were notable. Among Conservative voters, 59 per cent would have voted for Biden, and 41 per cent for Trump.
Officially, the Conservative party leadership had to reject Trumpism and condemned the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill “insurrection” to defend itself from accusations of far-right extremism. Unofficially, Conservative MPs were wearing MAGA hats and party volunteers and members on a steady diet of Fox News were looking increasingly towards right-wing populism à la Trump.
The right wing of the Conservatives increasingly came under pressure to move in a populist direction. In the 2021 election the PPC captured 5.1 per cent of the vote. The PPC did not win any seats, but a surge in votes for the PPC and the Maverick Party in certain areas cost the Conservatives several seats.
A recent poll shows support for the LIberals and Conservatives tied at 29 per cent. Notably, PPC support has shot up to 13 per cent recently. Right-wing elements in the Conservative Party are worried about losing support that historically should be theirs. As Chantal Hébert recently wrote, “There are those within the Conservative caucus who believe the road to success goes through a reconciliation with the People’s Party or at least with its supporters.”
The divisions in the Conservative Party began to widen as the Freedom Convoy made its way to Ottawa. Stuck between the two poles in the party, O’Toole at first refused to say whether he supported it or not. There was growing pressure on the right of the party to support the convoy without reservation. Manitoba Conservative MP Candice Bergen urged O’Toole to support it. She argued that there were “reasonable people” at the blockade in Ottawa, just as there were at Trump’s Jan.6 “insurrection”. She argued that “there were good people on both sides,” echoing Donald Trump’s phrase in relation to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017.
Her politics notwithstanding, Bergen is not a stupid person. She chose her words carefully and knew exactly what she was saying. It was a signal to the party’s right wing leaning towards populism that now was the time to make their move. With the convoy and rising support for the PPC, the right wing of the Conservatives came to the conclusion that while Trump’s uniquely brash, ignorant style was difficult to translate directly into the Canadian political scene, this was not necessarily the case with his general populist policies and approach. The form might not work here, but the content could, if only they could catch a wave of anger.
Indeed, while there are important differences in the political situation in the United States and Canada, the same social forces that allowed for the rise of Trump’s populism are present here as well. The crisis of capitalism is bearing down on all layers and classes of society. The capitalist class needs to maintain its rule and profits. There are growing divisions over how to attack the working class to achieve this. There is growing discontent in the working class, increasing frustration with the status quo, and hatred for the establishment political parties. People are seeking an outlet and looking for anti-establishment options. There is a total absence of leadership from the labour movement. Class consciousness has been thrown back, and the traditions of solidarity and struggle are withering away in the unions. With no left-wing outlet for anti-establishment anger, some of this anger can be channeled to the right.
Under the pressure of the right wing of the party, O’Toole met with some of the members of the convoy just outside Ottawa. While he announced tacit support for the movement and urged Trudeau to hear them out, he refused to meet the organizers, who were already being identified as a collection of figures from the far right and the reactionary anti-vax movement.
As the convoy was turning into a long-term blockade, O’Toole was put in an increasingly difficult position and started to flip-flop again. The “respectable” and “pragmatic” wing of the Conservative Party was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the far right and fascist elements on the convoy. During blockades in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en in 2020, O’Toole had said, “Blockades are not protests—they are an attack on the freedom of Canadians to live their lives and travel freely through their own country.” Now he was being urged to support a blockade of Parliament Hill organized by the far right without reservation. The divide in the party over the convoy was growing, and O’Toole could not placate both sides.
Then the Nazi and Confederate flags were unfurled at the blockades. The National War Memorial and a Terry Fox statue were desecrated. Reports of the thuggish behaviour of blockade participants appeared increasingly in the media. The image of a grassroots movement of truckers fell away as the convoy was exposed as a well-funded, well-organized vehicle for the far right and the reactionary anti-vax movement.
Over the first weekend of the blockade, O’Toole denounced these more odious elements of the convoy to placate the “pragmatic” wing of the party. This was unacceptable to the right wing of the party, now greatly emboldened by the convoy and the support it was receiving from Trump and other right-wing figures.
With the convoy settling in around Parliament Hill, a battle erupted over whether the Conservative Party should call for an end to the blockade or not. Bergen argued that the party should not ask those on the blockade to go home, and opportunistically hoped to use the developing crisis in the capital to win over the far-right anger of the convoy to strike a blow at the Trudeau government and the O’Toole leadership of the Conservative Party. The “respectable” layers of the party were more cautious, worried about parliamentary decorum and anxious about what hitching the fortunes of the party to the far-right blockade could mean.
The battle over the party’s approach to the convoy erupted on the same day the Conservative parliamentary caucus announced it was holding a review and vote on O’Toole’s leadership. The populist, right-wing of the party mobilized against O’Toole, and he was turfed just a few days later.
A shift to the right in the Conservative Party
The divisions in the Conservative party are becoming unbridgeable. O’Toole has been removed and Candice Bergen is now the interim leader. There is a battle in the party between the “pragmatic” wing on the one hand and the right populist wing on the other for the direction of the party. Because of the convoy, all the momentum at the moment is with the populist right wing of the party.
Conservative MP and current finance critic, Pierre Poilievre, has already announced his intention to run for the party leadership before the race has even officially been announced. Poilievre has been cultivating a small populist base on social media in preparation for just such a moment. Aptly described in a recent article as “viperous” and as “a frankly creepy Ottawa MP who radiates cruelty and small-mindedness,” he is the perfect candidate for a right populist turn in the party. Based in part on the momentum of the convoy, he is already the early frontrunner to win the leadership race.
The Freedom Convoy is an important development in the political situation. It marks a new stage in the process of political polarization taking place in the country. The main reason the populist right wing of the Conservative Party was kept in check by the “respectable” and “pragmatic” wing was that they could not find any mass support for their racist, homophobic, anti-immigrant, austerity program. While support for these ideas can be found in some rural areas, workers in urban areas are repelled. This electoral opportunism allowed the “pragmatic” party brass to maintain control over the party.
With the rise of the PPC and the Freedom Convoy, the right wing of the Conservative Party now sees an opportunity to find the beginnings of a limited mass base for their reactionary program. The right wing of the party cynically seeks to use populist rhetoric to capture the mood of anger around the blockade. They are riding this momentum and attaching the fate of the party to the fate of the convoy. They hope to undercut growing PPC support and to transform the Conservative Party into the party of the Freedom Convoy.
The turmoil in the Conservative Party will intensify as the crisis in Ottawa unfolds. The strained unity in the party is beginning to break down. The “pragmatic” party brass has lost control and can no longer keep the far right of the party in check. If Poilievre wins the leadership, the socially conservative right wing of the party will dominate. The Conservative Party will undoubtedly lurch towards the far right and adopt a populist approach.
The shift towards right populism in the Conservative Party will not sit well with more “respectable” elements in the party. Pierre Paul-Hus, a Conservative MP in Quebec, has already denounced the “siege of Ottawa” and wants the streets around Parliament Hill cleared. Conservative senator Denis Patterson of Nunavut is leaving the caucus over the party’s support for the blockades. The divide in the party over the convoy could be the basis for a split. As the Conservative Party heads in a far-right populist direction, it will be increasingly indistinguishable from the PPC and Maxime Bernier. Personal rivalries and hatred may prevent a merger, but some sort of a realignment on the far right could be a possibility.
Where is the left?
The video Poilievre released announcing his run for leadership uses a distinctly bland Canadian version of Trump’s playbook. He presents himself as someone who will stand up for “the little guy”. He denounces the billionaires, the financial elite and the corporate giants, and along with big government he blames them for the rising cost of living for the working class. He appeals to abstract notions of “freedom” and rails against government corruption and red tape that prevents people from owning a home and earning a living. He is using populist rhetoric in an attempt to tap into growing class anger and frustration with the status quo.
What he fails to mention is that the Conservatives are a party of big business. Conservative policies always defend the interests of the billionaires and corporate giants against the working class. It isn’t difficult to see that the Conservative Party is decidedly anti-worker and anti-union. “Freedom” for the Conservative party means freedom for big corporations to profiteer and exploit workers. “Cutting taxes” is Conservative Party-speak for vicious austerity. “Cutting red tape” is Tory code for smashing unions, wage cuts and attacks on working conditions.
Despite the momentum the right wing of the party has because of the convoy, it is actually in a weak position. There is very little support for these right-wing policies, especially among the urban working class. The trick for the right wing is to use populist rhetoric to capture the mood of anger and convince some of the workers that the right wing and the capitalist class have the interests of the “little guy” at heart. This trick can only be pulled off in a situation where the leadership of the organizations of the working class and the left is absent from the struggle. As Trump demonstrated in the United States, the vacuum on the left created by the leadership of the labour movement can be partially filled by right-wing populism.
For the working class, the lesson of Trump in the United States is that you cannot fight right-wing anti-establishment politics with establishment liberalism or the meek reformism the NDP is putting forward. The parties of the liberal establishment are increasingly discredited and people are starting to look for radical solutions. These radical solutions are nowhere to be seen on the left. In the present situation, the NDP leadership looks increasingly out of touch and more and more like Hilary Clinton on her path to defeat at the hands of Trump.
The Freedom Convoy and the rise of populism in the PPC and the Conservative Party are a warning to the labour movement and the working class. Millions of people are excluded from politics. The anger on the right, along with angry anti-vax and anti-mandate sentiments, has burst through in an explosive way with the Freedom Convoy. But millions of workers and those on the left are still excluded.
Where is the left? We have said many times that they are absent, but it is in fact worse than that. The union leadership and the NDP are increasingly seen as pillars of the hated establishment. This is because they have allied themselves with Trudeau and the liberal establishment. Rather than fighting for socialist policies that would really defend the interests of the working class, the NDP proposed the pandemic wage subsidy that allowed the corporate giants and billionaires to profiteer from the pandemic.
Despite a militant mood and strike action across the country to fight back against deteriorating working and living conditions and the mishandling of the pandemic, the union leaders have repeatedly stepped in to undercut this momentum to the benefit of the bosses. The labour movement has refused to organize the fight for hazard pay and safe working conditions. As workers and youth instinctively try to organize against the populist right and the Freedom Convoy, the labour leadership and NDP clamp down and try to stop mobilizations.
The situation may look grim at the moment, but we must maintain a sense of proportion. Political polarization inherently means a process of polarization to the left and the right. This results in seemingly uneven and chaotic developments in the political situation. We see this for example in the United States with the rise of Bernie Sanders and Trump, in the remarkable mass movement around Black Lives Matter in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, which was followed by Trump’s “insurrection” last January.
It should not be forgotten that Bernie Sanders represented a left anti-establishment option in the United States. He consistently beat Trump in polls for years for this reason. But where did Sanders go? He allied with the Democratic elite and attached himself unreservedly to the establishment and discredited himself as a viable option in the eyes of the masses.
At the moment the right wing has the momentum because of the Freedom Convoy, but this does not mean there has been a general shift to the right in society. The right is more visible at the moment and has the momentum because the leaders of mass organizations of the working class are too busy watering down their program and preventing the mobilization of the working class. In the meantime the leaders of the right are bold, unapologetic and mobilizing their base, which is inherently smaller than the base on the left.
The overwhelming momentum in this polarization has been to the left. There were the mass climate protests and the BLM movement was also reflected in Canada in a series of mass demonstrations. We’ve also seen a massive shift in consciousness in relation to the Indigenous struggle, which a few years ago resulted in mass demonstrations and blockades in support of the Wet’suwet’en struggle.
Last summer, a poll showed that 35 per cent of Canadians support moving away from capitalism. This is more than the 25 per cent who support the system of production for profit. But these anti-capitalist sentiments are not reflected anywhere in the political situation and there is no organized expression for it. With an ounce of leadership, these inherently anti-capitalist sentiments could be harnessed into a mass movement, dwarfing the Freedom Convoy and other populist expressions of right-wing rage. Now is not the time to give into despair, but to redouble our efforts and fight for a program of mass action in the labour movement to defeat the billionaires and the rotten capitalist system!