Parliament buildings on a sunny day

It is a bad sign when a political party is written off before the election writ has even dropped. Despite the Conservatives finding themselves in that position, they don’t seem to show any signs of doing something about it.

The Conservatives have been hit with a litany of bad polls. Some, like a recent Abacus poll, put them 12 points behind the Liberals and just five points ahead of the NDP. Headlines began calling the Liberals unbeatable as the commentariat and media piled on.

338Canada, an electoral projection site, estimated the Liberals would win 169 seats in the Commons — one below a majority — compared to 100 for the Conservatives if an election were held in early July. (The gap has shrunk somewhat since then but the Liberal lead is still commanding.)

But the news for the Conservatives gets worse — their accessible pool of potential voters appears to be shrinking.

The Abacus poll found 41% of Canadians would consider voting Conservative in the next election, compared with 56% who would consider voting Liberal and 48% who would consider voting for the NDP. Three months before the 2019 election, the Conservatives’ voter pool stood at 48%, compared to 50% for the Liberals and 44% for the NDP.

It is hard to imagine Justin Trudeau resisting the urge to call an election with these numbers. (Note that the prime minister has shaved off his beard. Canadian voters don’t like facial hair — just ask Tom Mulcair.)

Two things seem clear. The current political landscape is a lot different than it was in 2019, when the Liberals were highly vulnerable after the SNC-Lavalin scandal. And the Conservatives are in danger of becoming yesterday’s political brand.

When the current Conservative Party was formed in 2003 following the merger of the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives, it followed a narrowcasting strategy of aiming all its messaging at an older, hardcore base and counting on the growth of that base to influence enough swing voters.

The strategy helped end 13 years of Liberal power and continued working until 2015. Although the Conservatives made strides in winning over multicultural voters with a breakthrough in the Toronto suburbs in 2011, that work was undone by the 2015 election, when Stephen Harper’s strategy of railing against targeted groups, particularly Muslims, backfired as demographics were changing.

With a fall election looming, the Conservatives need to reinvent themselves, rather than placing all the blame on party leader Erin O’Toole.

Here are some places to start:

  • Trudeau may have flaws, but he is not the Antichrist. It should be clear now that constantly attacking Trudeau for being the cause of everything bad isn’t working. It didn’t work against Pierre Trudeau, so why would it work against Justin?
  • O’Toole seemed to acknowledge this in his speech at the Conservative Party policy convention in March when he said, “We are never going to win over Canadians just by relying on Justin Trudeau to continue to disappoint.” But in the same speech, he accused Trudeau of using “the worst health and economic crisis in generations to help some well-connected friends get ahead.” Consistency, Erin — consistency.
  • After 2015, the Conservatives conceded they didn’t get the tone of their messaging right. Yet, here they are being strident again, and it is turning people off.
  • Sure, O’Toole may have a five-point plan for recovery, but he needs to flesh it out to convince voters outside the Prairies it is more than rhetoric.

O’Toole journeyed to Alberta in early summer to vow that a Conservative government would end the mistreatment of Western Canadians and give the province $4 billion in equalization rebates. He said this a day after Trudeau was in Calgary announcing federal funding for extended rapid transit.

Just as Trudeau may be trying to get Liberals elected again in Alberta, O’Toole may be trying to shore up the Conservative voting base to prevent leakage to the separatist Maverick Party and Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party.

The Conservative Party is the captive of social conservatives and other interest groups. The rank and file conservatives need to figure out how to take the party back, just as John Diefenbaker led a movement to take back the old PCs in the 1950s.