The triumphant Harper Conservatives have rejected a key strategic opportunity to strengthen the power of their conservative base. And, in doing so, they’ve decisively signaled that they’ll continue to water their wine in order to hold the center. They’ve shown the center-left how to unite, and shown them why they better force the bond.
The question at their post-election convention last weekend was whether to replace the voting rules that they used to first unite the dynamic untested Reformers and the anemic Progressive Conservatives: to keep a leadership selection mechanism that gave all Canadian ridings exactly 100 votes regardless of the size of each riding’s party membership. The alternative that had been used previously by the Reform Party would have given each bona fide member one vote.
Effectively, the Conservatives, safe with a majority and ginned up by reports of a conservative renaissance in the populous, decided not to ease up on appealing to the unenlightened—not to reward nor strengthen the power of their more ideological Western and suburban Ontario political bases. Despite their trivial electoral contribution to Harper’s majority, Quebec and Atlantic Conservative moderates will continue to have a big say in selecting Harper’s successor.
This is a very big decision; it will influence government policy and the behavior of its most promising political stars. It will likely frustrate conservatives who’d like to reform (cut) regional subsidies and open-ended provincial transfers. Ambitious conservatives will continue to study French and will remain active on the ground in Quebec fighting for federalist votes with other federalist parties.
Conservatives with definite conservative opinions—and accomplishments—will still have a good chance at the next leadership convention. Harper was strong enough to beat his red Tory opponent Peter Mackay, after supporting the equal votes per riding arrangement in 2003 (an arrangement that ignored the fact that Alberta had more paid-up members of the new Conservative Party than Quebec and Atlantic Canada combined).
Aspiring leaders, however, will be operating in a party that has bound itself to the task of keeping a nationwide majority. Belligerent talk of “winning with the base” and causally stereotyping blocs of voters who voted for the opposition will be tempered by the fact that fellow partisans in ridings that need more of those votes will be well represented at the next Conservative leadership convention.
That’s why national Republican conventions in August sound so different than primary fights in January.