In a parliamentary byelection on June 19, the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) held on to a seat in Manitoba. The outcome of the race in Portage-Lisgar was never in doubt. The CPC routinely wins it, by a lot. But this time, far-right People’s Party of Canada (PPC) leader Maxime Bernier was running, challenging his former party, under whose banner he’d served as a member of Parliament and a Cabinet minister. He got demolished, winning just 17.2 percent compared to the Conservative Party’s 64.9 percent — a twelve-point improvement on their 2021 win.
Both the Left and the mainstream right celebrated Bernier and the PPC’s defeat. But the episode — and the matter of a fractured right — is more complicated than it seems.
Reflecting on the race, journalist Sean Speer challenged the assumption “that right-wing fragmentation is inherently bad and the PPC’s optimal vote share is 0 percent” and argued “recent provincial experiences in Alberta and Ontario suggest that the optimal number may actually be higher than 0 percent.” His central thesis is “[p]olitical parties to the right of the mainstream conservative party may be a helpful safety valve for fringe ideas and voices. They can enable mainstream parties to position themselves as balanced and moderate and ultimately to govern more effectively.”
The question of right-wing fragmentation is a question of who is inside the party tent. Historically, Canada’s Conservative and Liberal parties have been brokerage parties, competing to draw in voters from beyond the confines of doctrinaire politics. Playing the brokerage game is tricky, though, since these parties also require base communities of support. If you stray too far from core supporters or ignore their biggest issues of concern, you risk alienating your base, leaving voters at home or generating a backlash that can lead to, among other things, fragmentation.
The Progressive Conservative Party learned this lesson in the 1980s and 1990s as the Right split apart in Canada over Western alienation from the rest of Canada and Quebec sovereignty. That sundering guaranteed Liberal Party government for over a decade. The Right was able to regain government only when the implosion of the Liberals, following the Sponsorship Scandal and Paul Martin’s indecisive term as prime minister, coincided with the reunification of conservative factions, which now form the Conservative Party of Canada.
However, the party faced an ongoing internal struggle, as more moderate and establishment political approaches vied against the influence of populist and doctrinaire pressures from the right flank.
For opponents of the Right, the fragmentation of right-wing parties looks like a welcome development, until it isn’t. The interwar period in Europe — an extreme example — tells the story of what can happen when an extremist fractured right exploits a political, economic, and social moment. We aren’t living in 1920s and 1930s Europe, but the challenges we face today are serious and the risk of extremist politics is real — as is the risk of the harms that such politics trades in.
Today, the PPC stokes anti-immigrant fervor, peddles in conspiracy theory, attacks identity-based groups, and advocates for dangerous libertarian politics. While mainstream parties fail to address the growing concerns of most people, particularly the working class, and average people become further immiserated, the potential appeal of extremist voices promising salvation from their wretched lot grows.
While Speer presents a compelling case for liberating the CPC from the far right, trading a small vote share for a broader cross-section of the Right and center-right in a classic brokerage style, such a division entails risk. The Conservative Party under leader Pierre Poilievre has pursued its own brand of anti-globalist conspiracy thinking, adopted a zany free-market pro-cryptocurrency stance, railed against Canadian institutions, and declared war on safe supply and other measures meant to fight the drug poisoning crisis. That could be because Poilievre is trying to protect the party’s right flank from the PPC, or because he truly believes in the nonsense he pedals — or both. If the party’s posture is indeed because of the PPC, in whole or in part, then the normalization and mainstreaming of extremist views are a net negative for the CPC and for the country itself.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that absent the PPC, the CPC would become more moderate and bury such extremist politics. As it stands, the Conservatives more or less maintain Canada’s pro-immigration consensus. And while they worship at the altar of the free market, as always, they are at least trying to speak to concerns of the working class on affordability and the housing crisis, which are the central bits of their pitch to voters. Of course, their platform is unlikely to deliver much for people who are struggling.
In fact, Poilievre’s anti-statism and drive to cut government spending will hurt the very people he says he wants to help. But the rhetorical stance proves that there’s more to the CPC than their indulging in irresponsible, campus Conservative culture war politics.
Conventional wisdom says the Conservative Party cannot form government without winning seats in Ontario, particularly the suburban regions of the greater Toronto area. It also says that the party must moderate to win those seats. While some might look at former leader Erin O’Toole as an example of why that moderating strategy is a failure, O’Toole won more votes than the Liberals in 2021 (as did his predecessor Andrew Scheer in 2019). Had the party run a better campaign, they might have eked out more seats, too.
With people tiring of Justin Trudeau’s aging government ahead of the next election, Poilievre is well-positioned to take a serious shot at winning. To do so, he probably has to ignore the PPC, and his own impulses. And while that might produce a better Conservative government than one fully committed to far-right politics, it’ll still produce a Conservative government.
In the end, celebrating potential splits to the Right’s vote is only worthwhile from a position of strength. The waning fortunes of the Liberals can be to the Left’s benefit, but only if Poilievre’s mendacious populism isn’t allowed to outshine the Left’s historical commitment to improving the material conditions of working people.
Countering the CPC’s conception of freedom and the good life means leaning into the Left’s historical commitments and articulating a vision where greater freedoms are tied to the welfare of all — the freedoms to not starve, to have good housing, to access safe and well-paid work, full healthcare and housing. Making the case for these items, rather than gloating about a fractured Right, is the only way to beat the CPC and to head off the rise and potential success of the far-right.