Sebastian Way reviews Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's post-election Conservative Party Convention in Ottawa and suggests the British Conservatives could learn some lessons from it
Sebastian Way, a former Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) staffer in Ottawa who now works as a lawyer in London, reviews last week's CPC convention which celebrated Stephen Harper’s majority victory at the recent general election, and discusses lessons that the UK Conservatives could learn from our Canadian cousins.
Following five years of the draining trench warfare that accompanies minority government, the 2011 election saw the Canadian Conservatives break through to a strong majority, winning 166 seats out of 308 in the Canadian House of Commons to match the Conservative majority in the appointed Senate. So Stephen Harper’s CPC is now in a position of total supremacy – a remarkable achievement for a party that was only founded in 2003, at a time when the conservative movement in Canada was in disarray and a sort of Liberal party-dominated end of history was the accepted wisdom in Canadian politics.
The general mood of the Conservative convention held last week in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, was therefore of relief and pride at a momentous achievement. As the largest party in two consecutive hung parliaments (in 2006 and 2008), Harper chose to govern as a minority, relying for tactical support on the CPC’s massive advantage in fundraising, its unshakeable connection to a committed base of core supporters, its sophisticated voter ID programme and its careful strategy of brand differentiation from the unappealing mush of the crowded Canadian political left. The decision was handsomely rewarded at the election and is a compelling lesson to conservatives globally.
Canadian Conservative gatherings are more akin to a North American political convention than a UK party conference. They are occasional (the last convention was held in Winnipeg in 2008) and significant events at which approximately 3,000 delegates sent from the distant reaches of this vast country on behalf of the 308 constituency associations (known in Canada as electoral district associations or EDAs) vote to decide the party’s policies and amend its constitution. When there is a vacancy, they also vote to decide the party’s leader.
From a British point of view, the CPC convention is at once more democratic than the UK party conference – for many members it is their democratic stake in the party that gives them the incentive to donate and volunteer – but is also more centralised. Although the party innovated at this convention by allowing a small number of fringe debates and panel discussions, the overall programme is tightly controlled and limited compared to the chaotic diversity of a British party conference. The main programme of the convention was a slick, professionally produced political rally reflecting the message discipline and brand awareness that have characterised the success of the CPC under Stephen Harper. The convention was also short, finishing within two days.
The convention opened on Thursday evening with a review of the party’s election campaign and its success in targeting ethnic communities by the impressive Jason Kenney. Kenney spoke about how the Conservatives have become the party with the broadest ethnic and geographical diversity in Canada. The CPC can now claim to be the only truly national party in Canada. However, this success has been achieved with no use of quotas or preferential treatment but rather through creating a culture where people from any section of society are welcome to contribute. This is true equality and a powerful expression of the effectiveness of conservative values.
Thursday’s keynote event was a valedictory speech by Stockwell Day, one of the party’s most significant figures and a leading social conservative influence, who retired at the last election. The former pastor spoke movingly and from the heart about his political motivation to help the regular guy who works hard, pays his taxes and plays by the rules. Such a sentimental approach to conservative politics is clearly distinctive to North America but Day showed that it can be powerful in the right hands.
Friday’s main event was Stephen Harper’s speech. Harper is now, by political longevity, the senior Conservative leader in the Western world and coming off his majority victory he has the unmistakable confidence of a leader in full control of his party and his country. As with any political party, the CPC is a coalition of factions (in the case of the CPC representing the former Reform/Alliance and Progressive Conservative traditions that merged to form the party in 2003), but the unchallenged leadership of Harper and his undoubted electoral success act as a powerful force for unity. So, on Friday evening 5,000 Conservatives packed into the enormous main convention hall for his speech, greeting the familiar phrases about economic stability, law and order and supporting the troops with cheers, chants and prolonged standing ovations. Whoever said Canadians are reserved has not been to a CPC convention.
“We are taking money from the bureaucrats and the lobbyists and giving it back to the real childcare experts, and they are called Mum and Dad” - Stephen Harper
Harper argued that Canada is becoming a more conservative country and the Conservative party is moving with it. He called for Canada to take a more assertive role in world affairs, offering moral and economic leadership in a changing world where such leadership will be called for. This confident talk of a better future and global leadership appears in striking contrast to the often defeatist tone of political debate in the UK. It teaches us one simple lesson - without sound economic management a country declines; but with a well managed economy everything is possible.
Canada has weathered the recession better than many countries because of a period of prudent economic management going back to the 1990s. Its recent return to growth puts the country in a strong position to look to the future with confidence and pride. It is absolutely essential that we continue to apply this lesson in the UK and that our government succeeds in fixing our economy and tidying up Labour’s mess. If David Cameron’s government can succeed in overseeing a return to public sector prudence and a sound economy, in a few years the UK will be able to look forward to the future with the sort of confidence that is palpable in Canada at the moment (and let us hope under a Conservative majority government).
Saturday morning saw an entertaining speech on fundraising given by the head of the party’s fundraising arm, Senator Irving Gerstein. This is a topic that might at first appear esoteric but is in reality of vital importance to the CPC. In Canada, individual donations to political parties are limited to $1,100 per year and corporate donations are prohibited. In this environment, the CPC has fought four national election campaigns during the past seven years, spending around $20 million each time – but it has never had to use its line of credit. That is an astonishing achievement and is absolutely central to the electoral success of the party. The need to raise funds in the form of many small donations from a large pool of supporters has forced the party to remain tightly focused on the issues that matter to its members. If people are not happy with the party’s message, they won’t donate. This simple discipline causes a positive feedback loop which keeps the party focused on what ordinary Canadians care about and keeps ordinary Canadians connected to the party. The CPC’s fundraising operation ought to be a model for successful conservative parties everywhere.
The convention illustrated how Stephen Harper has achieved a stable majority government in Canada and therefore offers hope for the future to Tories in the UK. The lessons are simple: maintain tight discipline, keep your supporters happy and pursue policies that appeal to the voters who matter. Conservative values are the values of ordinary people in the UK as in Canada and success comes from communicating these values to voters.
Photos courtesy of the Conservative Party of Canada