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A battle for hope: the brewing campaign clash between the Conservatives and the NDP

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre speaks during a news conference in Vancouver on Monday, Nov. 13, 2023. Appealing to working-class voters in rural and northern ridings — like those held by New Democrats across British Columbia and Liberals in northern Ontario — is a big part of what Poilievre sees as a winning formula.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ethan Cairns

OTTAWA - Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre's path to power may be by prosecuting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's past eight years in government, but his road to victory is painted NDP orange.

Appealing to working-class voters in rural and northern ridings — like those held by New Democrats across British Columbia and Liberals in northern Ontario — is part of what Poilievre sees as a winning formula.

That offensive was on full display recently as he traversed NDP turf on Vancouver Island, rallying supporters in Nanaimo and snapping photos with mill workers in Port Alberni. He also stopped at a steel plant and port in B.C.'s Lower Mainland as part of his tour to rub shoulders with workers, images of which lit up his social media.

"We're seeing Pierre Poilievre, the leader of the Conservative party, on the floor of shops and factories," said Allie Blades, a strategist who worked on his 2022 leadership campaign in B.C.

Blades, who works for Mash Strategy, which produces the party's slick digital videos, cited a recent speech to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade — an invitation it took Poilievre 18 months to accept.

It was his first appearance before a corporate crowd since becoming leader in 2022, not out of spite — "it's nothing to do with my view on business; I love business," he said — but because "utterly useless" corporate lobbyists in Ottawa are too focused on currying favour with elected officials.

Instead, the Conservative plan is a "bottom-up, free enterprise agenda," he said, vowing to end the days of self-interested CEOs and politicians working together solely to advance their own self-interests.

"When I'm prime minister, if you want any of your policy agenda pushed forward, you're going to have to convince not just me, but the people of Canada that it is good for them."

Blades said it's a populist approach that so far has served Poilievre well.

"It's a switch that the Conservatives, I think, have done very rightly and strategically," she said. "We're seeing the floor versus the stage."

The shop floor, of course, is traditional New Democrat territory — home to a critical voting bloc the NDP is not about to surrender without a fight.

"You've never seen him on a picket line," said Anne McGrath, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh's principal secretary and formerly the party's national director.

"You can go to shop floors and look at things on a shop floor, but when push comes to shove and workers need support from their political leaders, we've never seen him there."

Poilievre has clearly struck a nerve by tapping into legitimate public anxiety around affordability, McGrath acknowledged, but his message is "simplistic." So too is the choice facing voters, she said.

"They've got the big, loud megaphone voice of the Conservatives and Pierre Poilievre, or they've got the constructive, positive proposals and actions that they can expect from the NDP."

Selling that will take "a lot of hard work and (a) clear message," not to mention outreach to voters, she added. The NDP has already begun to ratchet up its attacks on the Conservatives and flood traditionally friendly territory with mailers.

Their battle looks like an uphill one — not only is Poilievre's message crisp and resonant, but the Conservatives are flush with cash, said Melanie Richer, a former communications director for Singh.

Poilievre's populist approach has helped the Conservatives smash fundraising records — funds vital to the leader's aggressive public schedule and outreach to new voters, like those who typically vote NDP.

So far, he's held 16 rallies and other meet-and-greets this year, six of them in ridings held by the NDP, compared to eight Liberal ones. Throughout 2023, his first full year as leader, the ratio was 12 NDP, 19 Liberal.

Blades said she believes Poilievre's success with typical NDP voters in places like B.C. is a result of "down-to-earth messaging" that Singh, she argues, "could never authentically achieve."

It is a province that is also deeply affected by the housing crisis as well as the opioid epidemic, both of which Poilievre blames squarely on two factors: the federal Liberal government and its B.C. NDP counterpart.

While critics pan his crusade against the consumer carbon price as an exercise in sloganeering and misinformation, supporters see it as an optimistic message, Blades said — even in B.C., where a provincial carbon price has been in place for years.

It also can't hurt Conservative fortunes that the NDP is bleeding caucus members. Six MPs have already left or said they won't run again, including three just last week — one of whom was Charlie Angus, a 20-year fixture for the party in northern Ontario.

It's time for New Democrats to reflect on the party's relationship with working-class voters, said Richer, many of whom have been drifting away from the party since the death of Jack Layton in 2011.

"We're just not connecting with them," she said.

Richer urged the party to be more vocal about the role it played in securing Liberal commitments on national pharmacare and dental care plans through its supply-and-confidence agreement with the government. So far, efforts to do just that have borne little fruit.

She pointed to Manitoba, where NDP Premier Wab Kinew secured a historic election win last year by confronting public anger "and gave people hope instead."

Poilievre's office did not respond to a request for comment about whether a Conservative government would maintain a federal dental care plan. He's also been non-committal on pharmacare.

"I do think that we need to start having a more aggressive, hopeful message," agreed Kathleen Monk, a campaign strategist and Layton's former communications director.

"Things can get better … we have a vision to do so."

At the same time, she added, New Democrats have to convince Canadians not to believe Poilievre's claims that he is "fighting for little people."

Union leaders say the Conservative frontman borrows the language of the working class, but in fact poses a threat to organized labour, citing his frequent support for back-to-work legislation over 20 years in Parliament.

The party has been working hard to rehabilitate its image with unions, with its MPs backing a Liberal bill — spurred by the NDP — to ban replacement workers during lockouts and strikes in federally regulated workplaces.

Renze Nauta, a former Conservative staffer who is now program director for work and economics at Cardus, suggests politicians must also be aware that Canada's working class has changed.

While unionized, blue-collar trade workers still make up a portion of the working class, he says there has been a decline in unionization rates.

Nauta said the working class has shifted to include more service jobs, including those done by women and new immigrants, and now includes people who work as Amazon delivery drivers or hairstylists.

Many in working-class jobs have a post-secondary education, he added.

"These are the quintessential people who … as the politicians say, who did everything that they were supposed to, and still can't get ahead."

The next federal election must take place on or before Oct. 20, 2025.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2024.

— With files from Mickey Djuric in Ottawa

News from © The Canadian Press, 2024
The Canadian Press

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