The results of the Conservative Party of Canada leadership race are in, with rightwing populist Pierre Poilievre scoring a decisive victory. Poilievre received 68 per cent of the vote, with second-place finisher, former Liberal premier of Quebec and establishment favourite Jean Charest, far behind at only 16 per cent.
With Poilievre, the Conservatives have clearly pivoted toward right populism, attempting to emulate the success of figures like Donald Trump. While he pretends to be a fighter for the working class, Poilievre is a right-wing demagogue whose program will be one of vicious attacks. His victory is therefore a stark warning to the labour movement.
How Poilievre won
Before the most recent leadership race, the Conservative Party had languished under two failed leaders in Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole. Scheer and O’Toole attempted to court the “centre” vote by appearing moderate. This approach, unsurprisingly, failed to enthuse anyone, and both leaders were quickly turfed by the party.
Poilievre’s campaign, on the other hand, rode a wave of anti-establishment sentiment, railing against “elites” and “gatekeepers.” For example, Poilievre famously said that he’d fire Bank of Canada governor Tiff Macklem, accusing the Bank of acting as an “ATM” for the Liberal Government. Some of Poilievre’s other populist offerings included promoting cryptocurrencies as a way of “opting out” of inflation (before the value of Bitcoin subsequently crashed); and saying he would ban ministers in his cabinet from attending the World Economic Forum, an annual meeting of CEOs and heads of government.
Poilievre’s anti-establishment message clearly struck a nerve with a layer of society, drawing crowds of thousands to his rallies. Poilievre’s campaign claims to have recruited over 300,000 new members, in the process making the Conservative Party the largest in Canadian history.
We’ve seen this phenomenon before in Donald Trump. This is right populism. While Poilievre dresses up his ideas in the language of fighting for the working class, a look at his policies shows that he has a deeply anti-worker agenda and the labour movement must prepare to fight.
A history of attacking workers
Poilivre’s history of attacking the working class spans his entire career. While he likes to present himself as an “everyman” and a political outsider, Poilievre is a career politician who has never held a job in his life—videos of woodworking notwithstanding. First elected to Parliament at age 24, Poilievre served as a cabinet minister under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. For his service, Poilievre received a full pension at the tender age of 31.
This “service” consisted of attacks on the working class and our ability to organize. For example, while a member of Harper’s government Poilievre championed a private member’s bill that would force unions to disclose their internal finances—while of course not requiring corporations to do the same.
Furthermore, Poilievre has promoted so-called “right-to-work” laws, stating that he is “going to do [his] part to see that [right-to-work laws] happen…at the federal level and [that he] would encourage provincial governments to do likewise.” For those unfamiliar with the term, right-to-work laws, popular in the U.S. south, attack union financing, with the aim of decimating the working class’s ability to fight back against the bosses. The effect of these laws is that workers’ wages in right-to-work states are on average 15 per cent lower than in non-right-to-work states.
Not content with just attacking unions, Poilievre has a history of preying on the most vulnerable in society. For example, Poilievre has attacked migrant workers, suggesting they are to blame for lower wages of “local” workers. He supported deporting thousands of migrant workers in 2015. In 2013, Poilievre championed changes to the Elections Act to effectively disenfranchise many young, poor, or marginalized voters. As if that weren’t bad enough, Poilievre scandalously said in 2008 that Indigenous survivors of the brutal residential school system just need a “stronger work ethic.”
Lest we think that Poilievre has turned over a new leaf, he has recently promised to introduce a so-called “pay-as-you-go” approach to federal budgeting. Under this scheme, the government would pay for any new spending by cuts elsewhere in the budget. Any working class person knows what this means: attacks on our standard of living and public services, services which are already stretched to the breaking point. For good measure, Poilievre has also promised to defund Canada’s public broadcaster, the CBC.
It’s clear that Poilievre represents a threat to the working class. But the question arises: How can he be defeated?
The lessons of Trumpism
Poilievre has built his career by being an attack dog for the capitalist class, and his anti-establishment rhetoric echoes that of Donald Trump in the United States. He’s cozied up to far-right darling and transphobe Jordan Peterson. However, Poilievre was careful in his campaign not to employ overtly anti-immigrant rhetoric, preferring instead to focus on economic issues.
While some commentators are rushing to reassure everyone that Poilievre is moderating, the labour movement needs to prepare for a fight. As Poilievre’s own campaign has said: “What you see is what you get.”
Poilievre won because, as society is becoming more and more unequal, and living standards continue to fall for the vast majority of society, arguments that appeal to the failed status quo or “centre” ring hollow. The Trump phenomenon shows that liberalism and reformism can’t defeat right populism. The labour movement in Canada needs to take heed.
As we wrote at the time of Trump’s election in 2016,
“The ruling class sees Trump as a threat, partly because he is a maverick and difficult to control, but mainly because his demagogic appeals to the working class and denunciations of the Washington establishment created dangerous illusions and aroused millions of people on the basis of opposition to the status quo. That is why the establishment used every means possible to block his road to the White House. They threw everything at him, and they failed.’”
Lesser evilism, represented by Hilary Clinton, failed to defeat Trump the first time around. In Trump’s second election, the Democrats barely squeezed out a win under current President Joe Biden. Biden, for his part, is now massively unpopular, recently hovering at a mere 36 per cent approval rating. The American establishment is trying to prevent Trump from running again, but he hasn’t gone anywhere and he—or someone worse—is a real threat for the next presidential election.
The impotence of lesser-evilism is further shown by the fact that Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that had upheld a woman’s right to abortion, was overturned under Biden, who has refused to codify the right to abortion into law. Further, George Floyd’s murder, which set off the massive Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, took place in a Democratic state. At the same time, polls indicated that self-professed “socialist” Bernie Sanders would have defeated Trump in a head-to-head election. But the Democratic establishment showed they would rather lose on their terms than win with Sanders and risk unleashing the popular movement behind his call for a “revolution against the billionaire class.”
Reformism cannot defeat Poilievre
Back in Canada, in response to Poilievre’s win, the Liberal Party is engaged in its typical maneuvers of faking left while moving right. Liberal insiders are already saying the party needs to move to the right in order to court the Conservative vote. As an unidentified Liberal MP said, “We must return to a federal centre, centre-right party. We need a government that is down-to-earth and less woke.” Unfortunately this is the very party that Canada’s labour party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), has tied itself to, with its “confidence and supply deal”.
While Poilievre mentions the working class in virtually every speech he makes, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has shown a preference to talk about defending the “rule of law” and saying that he wants to “lift up all Canadians” (emphasis added). The fact is, society is divided into classes. One class is getting rich at the expense of the other. The rich don’t need to be lifted up—they’re the ones on our backs and need to be tossed aside! Even in a distorted way, people can see that, and are rightfully getting angry. While Poilievre demagogically plays on the inequality and unfairness people sense to suggest the problem is a cabal of “gatekeepers” running society, the actual exploiters are out in the open and have a name: they are the capitalists, the so-called “captains of industry” of the system Poilievre defends. If the NDP and the labour movement are unwilling to break with that system and call it what it is, right-wing demagogues like Poilievre will take up the mantle.
By tying himself to the Liberals, Singh has opened himself up to attacks from the right. Referencing the Liberal-NDP deal, Poilievre said, “Yes, the ‘system’ is rigged for the rich but you are the system Jagmeet.”
It appears some within the NDP establishment are catching on. A senior NDP source told the Star that the NDP are “not going to wage a culture war” against Poilievre, but “It will be a class war.” Singh’s chief of staff stated, “‘I know the Conservatives will want to try to dress up in blue collar, but they have really always been on the side of big, wealthy corporations. So that’s the contrast that we’re going to draw and what we’re going to remind people of.”
It’s true that class war is what is needed to defeat Poilievre. However, by tying themselves to the failed establishment, the NDP understandably seems out-of-touch to ordinary workers. Some within the NDP seem to recognize their problem. As the same anonymous NDP source quoted above pointed out, “There’s a tacit acknowledgment that the party will have to work harder at justifying Singh’s reputation as someone who is often linked to bespoke suits, expensive watches, spiffy bicycles and a BMW.”
If Singh’s response to Poilievre’s victory is any indication of how he plans to fight Poilievre, the labour movement is in trouble. When Poilievre won, Singh congratulated him! The “solution” Singh presented is for leaders to “refuse the destructive politics of division.” Trying to unify the interests of the capitalists and the working class is like trying to mix oil and water! It can’t be done. The problem isn’t “division,” the problem is attempting to blur class lines.
Singh’s chief of staff said, “The historic role of the New Democrats has been to be that credible champion of working class people…I think we still have credibility as that voice.” The problem is, the NDP have earned little to no credibility in the eyes of the working class as true fighters, rather than BMW-driving careerists. More than words, actions are needed.
Only a fighting, socialist, program can defeat Poilievre
In response to Poilievre’s victory, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) put out a statement saying:
Pierre is a career politician who has been collecting a six-figure salary on the public’s dime since he was 24, and he’s spent every minute of his time in office fighting against fair wages, good pensions and a better life for working people. He is not a worker, and he definitely doesn’t get what it means to be a member of the working class.
Pierre has spent his leadership campaign making the Conservative Party a cozier place for far-right extremists and conspiracy theorists in order to sell memberships. This isn’t your parents’ Conservative Party, or even Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party. It’s now Pierre’s Convoy Party of Canada.
His leadership will be a disaster for working people in Canada.
This is, of course, all correct. But what’s striking in its absence is any mention of how to fight Poilievre.
Poilievre’s promises to improve life for the working class, like the promises of all right populists, are all so much guff. His program, in as far as it exists at all (it largely does not), will do nothing to solve the crisis facing society and working people; on the contrary, it will be a program of vicious attacks.
Poilievre says inflation is due to printing money. Though a one-sided view, he is ultimately correct on this point. But what alternative does he present? Cuts to public services, attacks on unions, and attacks on the vulnerable. While the Liberals have run record deficits and gifted free money to corporations to the tune of $700-$800 billion in order to try to postpone the crisis, eventually the bill for all that spending comes due. And that’s where the Conservatives (or the Liberals!) step in, to carry out a program of austerity and attacks. Keynesian money printing and austerity are, in fact, two sides of the same coin and neither is a solution.
Additionally, while Poilievre points to money printing as a source of inflation, he has sworn a vow of silence in relation to the effect corporate profits have on increased prices. The fact that his big business funders have increased their profits 109 per cent in the last two years is conveniently absent from his demagoguery. The old rule of politics is “follow the money”; while Poilievre complains about the price of toast, it is absolutely clear who butters his bread.
People see that the status quo is not working, and that life is getting more expensive. The wealth in society to provide for our needs exists. But the question is: Who owns and controls that wealth? It’s not a hidden elite, and it’s not “the government” in the abstract. It’s the capitalists themselves who pull the strings, including through their capitalist state, parties, and yes, through individuals like Justin Trudeau and Pierre Poilievre.
Society is polarizing, both to the left and the right. But while the right has had more success on the electoral plane, the movement in the streets has been overwhelmingly on the left. Trumpism found a mighty backlash in the Black Lives Matter movement. At one point, the BLM crowds forced Trump to cower in a bunker at the White House. That’s what the establishment fears: not the right-wing demagogues such as Poilievre or Trump themselves, but the revolutionary movements they can provoke.
It’s clear that what is required is a fighting response from the left that targets not just the symptoms, but the real cause of the crisis in the capitalist system that Poilieve defends. Because reformism cannot win, it provokes a cycle of anger, disappointment, and demoralization that only serves to fuel the right. It is capitalism itself that is driving the crisis of society, and until it is overthrown, the system will need more and more reactionary figures to defend it—by hook and by crook—as the crisis deepens. Only a socialist program, backed by a movement in the streets and workplaces, can defeat right-wing demagogues like Poilievre, and show a genuine way out of the crisis.