As the dust settles from the 2014 Ontario election, the province’s voters have soundly rejected Tim Hudak’s Conservatives and their anti-labour austerity program. Instead, they have rewarded Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals with a majority government.  The Liberals’ victory had less to do with enthusiasm for their program and more to do with keeping Hudak and the Tories out of office at all costs.  Unfortunately, the NDP has missed a grand opportunity to present itself as the anti-Hudak austerity voice, which means that Ontarians will now face the hidden austerity of the Wynne Liberals. Although Hudak’s mass public-sector layoffs have been defeated, labour needs to begin mobilizing against Wynne’s attacks now.

After 11 years of cuts, attacks, scandals, corruption, and the destruction of stable well-paying jobs, the Ontario Liberals have somehow been rewarded with an unprecedented fourth consecutive term in government — and a majority one, no less.  This morning, the so-called “pundits” (except the panicked folks at the right-wing Toronto Sun) are crowing about the fact that Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals have won a decisive mandate from Ontario voters.  After three years of minority government, the Liberals are being returned to Queen’s Park with 59 seats, compared to 27 for the Conservatives and 21 for the NDP.  However, thanks to Canada’s electoral system, the Liberal majority is based on just a 1% increase in the Liberals’ popular vote.  Even worse, with the low voter turnout, the Liberals wield 100% of the power after gaining the votes of just 19% of the total electorate!  It is certainly not the landslide mandate that the Liberal apologists are trying to portray.

Moreover, much of the Liberals’ support (especially in the Greater Toronto Area) was based out of a fear of having the Conservatives elected and a repeat of Mike Harris’ infamous “Common Sense Revolution” of the 1990s.  Significant sectors of the labour movement and the broader left mobilized to have Liberal MPPs elected if it meant keeping the Tories out of Queen’s Park.  This support will not last, especially as Wynne and the Liberals are forced to impose the Bay Street agenda down the road.

Aside from Toronto, most of the Liberals’ new seats came at the expense of the Progressive Conservatives, who were widely seen to be in the lead when the election began.  The Tories went from 37 to 27 seats, and lost 4.2% of the popular vote.  The collapse in the Conservative vote is the clearest indication of the wholesale rejection of the Tories’ “Million Jobs Plan”, which proposed to cut 100,000 public-sector jobs, eliminate public services, and increase corporate tax cuts. Hudak’s previous talk about introducing “right-to-work” legislation and curtailing the power of “union bosses” further pushed Ontario workers to mobilize to defeat the Tories.  As a result, the Conservatives have been almost completely wiped out from urban and suburban Ontario (including in most of the GTA suburbs) and leader Tim Hudak was forced to resign in disgrace last night, to the absolute glee of the province’s working class.

The NDP’s results — good enough?

On the surface, the NDP appears to have come out of the election relatively unscathed, with a status-quo result — retaining the 21 seats that they had when Queen’s Park was dissolved and increasing their share of the popular vote by a modest 1%.  The NDP was able to maintain the seats that they won in the recent by-elections, ridings that had previously not voted NDP in recent memory.  The NDP was also able to pick up new seats in areas such as Windsor, Sudbury, and Oshawa, which are, not coincidentally, heavily working-class ridings that have been devastated by the ongoing economic crisis.  But, the NDP did exceptionally poorly in Toronto, with one commentator even calling it a “bloodbath”.  Only two NDP MPPs, Cheri DiNovo and Peter Tabuns, were re-elected — and DiNovo only won her riding by a slim 1% of the vote.  Two of the party’s longest-serving members, Rosario Marchese and Michael Prue, went down to defeat.  Marchese, who was first elected in 1990 and was a cabinet minister in the Bob Rae government, was embarrassed by losing almost 10,000 votes in the traditional NDP stronghold of Trinity-Spadina.  In Toronto Centre, the party came a distant third place, outpolled by both the Liberals and Tories and a far cry from the results achieved in some of the recent campaigns in that riding.

Some of the NDP strategists interviewed on election night put on a brave face, explaining how it was important that the party was able to keep the seats it had won in the by-elections and break into some new ridings.  On CP24, ex-leader Howard Hampton snidely mentioned how the NDP’s results would be a disappointment to the so-called Group of 34 who had predicted doom based on the party’s right-wing election campaign.

What was not mentioned was the fact that the NDP should not be happy with simply capturing third place at Queen’s Park.  In reality, going back a year, the party was very much in a position to win government.  As late as the beginning of 2014, some opinion polls had the NDP nearly tied with the Liberals and Conservatives.  Had the NDP put forward a strong anti-austerity platform, it is very likely that the anti-Hudak vote could have gone to the NDP instead of towards Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals.  Instead, the vagueness — and at times, even reactionary aspect — of the NDP platform pushed many towards voting Liberal in order to stop the threat of Tim Hudak.  Why risk voting NDP, especially when the NDP platform did not seem to be any more enticing than that of the Liberals?  Andrea Horwath’s promise to create a cabinet position responsible for eliminating $600-million of spending every year sounded positively Hudak-esque.  The labour movement was dismayed by the fact that Horwath would not clearly say whether she would support the implementation of the universal Ontario Retirement Pension Plan, intended to supplement the Canada Pension Plan and a key reform for the two-thirds of workers that don’t have a workplace pension.  For the hundreds of thousands of workers who are forced to work for minimum wage, the NDP’s minimum wage promise appeared to be little different than the one put forward by the Liberals.  Even students could not get excited by an NDP platform that simply promised to freeze tuition fees at their present levels, already the highest in Canada.

Instead, Horwath and the party’s leadership decided to centre their campaign around Liberal crime and corruption.  We certainly believe that any corrupt politician should face their comeuppance, but is this necessarily the issue that will bring working-class and young people out to vote?  Most people already believe that politicians are all crooks.  Moreover, the NDP’s insistence on rooting out Liberal corruption rang a bit hollow considering that the NDP had been propping up the minority Liberals for the last two years.  If corruption was wrong in 2014, why was it okay in 2013?  Last year, we warned the NDP’s Queen’s Park caucus on the dangers of continuing to support the Liberals and advised them to bring down the Liberal government then

Perhaps even more dangerously for the NDP, the party’s campaign was one of the most business-friendly ever run by the party.  The promise to eventually raise the minimum wage to $12/hour was overshadowed by their commitment to reward small businesses with tax breaks and incentives to offset anticipated increased labour costs.  Perhaps most ominously, the Globe and Mail reported at the beginning of the campaign that Andrea Horwath had privately met with Bay Street titans, assuring them that an NDP government would reign in government spending, even if it meant “playing tough with public-sector unions”. (Globe and Mail, 21 Apr. 2014)

This failure to articulate a program that would address the burning problems and issues facing workers and youth today was able to reward the Liberals with a four-year majority government.

In Fightback’s view, the poor showing of the ONDP and the victory of the Liberals is a direct result of the rightward policies adopted by Horwath.  In order to protect the working class from the coming Liberal austerity, and give direction to the discontent this will engender, it is vital that the party change course.  Horwath has become personally associated with this Blairite turn, which was never democratically approved by the party.  Show us the convention that passed a resolution to implement a minister of budget savings!  For the good of the working class and the party, Horwath has to go and be replaced by a candidate more responsive to the wishes of the rank-and-file.  Hopefully she will make that decision voluntarily; otherwise, she may be forced out by a growing internal revolt.  Adrian Dix of the BC NDP tried to hang on after a disappointing election, to miserable results.

Should socialists abandon the NDP?

As mentioned above, the NDP’s election platform strayed far from the traditional working-class values that the party is supposed to espouse.  This needs to be combined with the NDP’s electoral defeats in British Columbia and Nova Scotia over the past 13 months, all of which were based on NDP campaigns that tried to pander to the ruling class rather than the NDP’s core constituency of workers and youth.  The NDP’s poor showing in Ontario completes the ignominious hat trick of dismal right-wing campaigns.

As a result, there is a widespread consternation within the NDP, the labour movement, and amongst the broader left, about whether there is any point in remaining and fighting in the party.  Some of the more crass and opportunistic elements during the election campaign even openly advocated voting for the Liberal Party, portraying the Liberals’ budget as the most “progressive” piece of legislation seen in Canada in the past 20 years.

Every honest socialist should feel revulsion at the rightward turn within the NDP leadership, both in Ontario and across the country.  Given the present economic crisis, the working class desperately needs a party that can point the way out of the capitalist mess, and can help organize the resistance against the bosses’ austerity policies.  This should be the NDP, the political voice of the country’s labour movement.  Instead, what we have is a leadership that believes that the key to power is to convince Bay Street that corporate Canada should have nothing to fear from an NDP government, and that an NDP government would be responsible “managers” of the failing capitalist system.  

But, just because the leadership of the party holds this outlook doesn’t mean that so do the thousands upon thousands of working-class and young people that look to the NDP.  It was indicative that the areas in Ontario where the NDP picked up new seats were in some of the hardest-hit working-class cities in the province — Oshawa, Sudbury, and Windsor.  These are the areas where the failures of capitalism — and the inability of the capitalist parties to meet workers’ needs — are most evident.  In Oshawa, a riding held by the Tories since the mid-1990s, the NDP’s candidate, Jennifer French, ran an individual campaign that was more grassroots than the one put out by the provincial office, including a public call for a $14/hour minimum wage, and she handily defeated the Tory runner-up by more than 16 percentage points.  The NDP also pulled some of its strongest support in the recently won by-election ridings, which again are in some of the most economically devastated regions of the province — Kitchener, London, Niagara Falls, and Windsor.  These were also the ridings that saw the most enthusiastic grassroots mobilization, largely based around the unions. 

However, by failing to put forward a working-class and socialist program, many potential (and existing) NDP voters elsewhere in the province (particularly in Toronto) stayed home, seeing very little reason to cast a ballot.  Although preliminary unofficial numbers seem to suggest that the voter turnout in this election was marginally higher than the record-low turnout seen in 2011, nearly half of all eligible voters still remained home.  Although the NDP did well in some working-class ridings, the party did not do enough to convince hundreds of thousands of other workers and young people to go out and vote.  The key to victory for the NDP will be to present a strong enough reason for these people to cast a ballot and to get involved in the party. 

At the height of the election, the NDP campaign was rocked by the leaked letter put forward by 34 current and former high-profile supporters of the party, including Michele Landsberg (the wife of former leader Stephen Lewis) and Cathy Crowe (the noted Toronto street nurse who ran twice as the party’s candidate in Toronto Centre).  In the letter, the “gang of 34” stated their concern about how far the party’s platform had drifted towards the right and how it could potentially cost the NDP the “support of thousands of others”.  This was not an isolated incident.  In the mainstream press, across social media, there was widespread discontent about the direction of the party and, especially, around the leadership of Andrea Horwath.  In Toronto, for instance, Fightback supporters who volunteered on some of the NDP campaigns witnessed how local candidates did everything possible to minimize the visibility of Horwath on campaign material and literature.  On many occasions, voters would tell us they would vote NDP in spite of the poor message from the central campaign, precisely because they knew that the Liberals and Tories did not stand for the interests of workers, the youth, and the poor.

With the repeated failure of this rightward turn in the NDP (both in Ontario and across Canada), there is growing anger and disillusionment from the rank-and-file who see an NDP brass that no longer represents the values and ideals that have been fought for by generations of Canadian workers.  Just as in broader society, illusions in capitalism are being shed away amongst party supporters.  Those who advocate an abandonment of the NDP will cut themselves off from this debate and will cut themselves off from the thousands of workers who are coming to the realization that their interests and aspirations will never be realized under capitalism.  Moreover, those who believe that the NDP should be abandoned actually show a contempt for the working class, believing that the working-class is either too weak or too stupid to ever be able to overturn the conservative leadership of the party.  If this were the case, then what hope do workers have of ever overthrowing capitalism and the ruling class, surely much tougher opponents than a party bureaucrat?

Leaving the NDP, precisely at this pivotal point, is a complete abrogation of the role that Marxists and socialists need to play in the class struggle, and ignores how the broader class conflict in society is being replicated within the NDP and the trade unions.  It is important to not have a static view of the workers’ organizations and instead, see how they will change and develop as the class struggle itself develops.  Otherwise, one risks being sentenced to being a mere footnote in the history of the class struggle.  The rightwing leadership of the NDP is neither strong nor popular.  There is huge discontent brewing from beneath the surface.  It goes against all the laws of nature that this discontent will have no outlet.  Due to lack of any other alternative, huge explosions are in preparation in all the workers’ organizations, and those who deny this possibility tend to fall into miserable depression and inactivity.  Those who prepare for these developments now will be well placed when they come to pass.

“Welcome to Hell, the Sequel” — Four more years of Liberal majority rule

The Conservative Toronto Sun cheerily greeted its readers this morning with a flaming front cover that screamed, “Welcome to Hell, the Sequel”.  It isn’t often that we agree with the Sun, but we do have to make an exception here — the next four years will be absolute hell for the province’s workers.

In our previous election articles, we warned that it would be a colossal mistake for the labour movement or the left to create any illusions that a Liberal government would be “progressive” or beneficial to Ontario workers.  This perspective has already been borne out by a report from Bloomberg News, which shows that the Liberals’ much touted budget actually includes the deepest spending cuts seen in Ontario since the darkest days of Mike Harris’ reign.  After the orgy of spending announced by Wynne at the beginning of the election campaign, the Liberals are set to slash government spending in their next term of office.  According to calculations done by Bloomberg, after spending peaks in 2016, the Liberals would then cut government spending per capita by about $179 off of last year’s figures.  This would be the greatest cut in per capita spending since the first three years of the Harris Conservative government — cuts that ended up provoking the Days of Action that ground Ontario to a halt in the 1990s.  Bryne Purchase, the deputy minister of finance during the Harris years, is quoted as saying, “(Wynne)’s not talking about war with the public sector unions, but that’s what those numbers imply to me. I think the reality is a lot of strikes in the public sector.”

We had warned that regardless of who was elected — Kathleen Wynne or Tim Hudak — that Ontario workers would have to shoulder the costs of austerity.  What is criminal, and what may hurt the resistance to the government’s austerity measures, is that the leadership of the labour movement (and in particular, Sid Ryan) created all sorts of illusions that Wynne and the Liberals were the friends of labour.  As the election results rolled in last night on CP24, Fred Hahn, the president of CUPE Ontario, appeared shaken as he fully realized the significance of a majority Liberal government.  When asked if he was happy that the Liberals had been elected instead of Hudak and the Tories, Hahn replied yes, but now labour had to worry because “the Liberals have a tendency to campaign from the left, but govern from the right.”  In our article from 1st May, we wrote, “If you support the ‘lesser evil’ you merely demoralize your base and prepare the conditions for the return of the ‘greater evil’.”  Well, that greater evil is now upon us — a majority government that can ram through the dictates of Bay Street.

The dire situation facing Ontario (at least from the bosses’ standpoint) means that the Liberals will have no choice but to wage the sharpest of battles with the unions and the broader working class.  Since the Liberals were first elected in 2003, Ontario’s net debt has increased by over $100-billion.  Already, international credit agency Moody’s has hinted that the province is facing a credit downgrade that will substantially increase the cost of borrowing.  All sorts of cuts and counter-reforms are going to be put on the table.  However, this does not mean that the Liberals cannot be defeated.  What will be required is a leadership, both from the unions and the NDP, that is willing to put forward a solution to the crisis facing working-class people — a solution to the crisis of capitalism — and be willing to lead the workers’ fight as far as it needs to go in order to defeat the bosses’ agenda.  During the Mike Harris years, the leadership of the labour movement eventually surrendered the fight against the Conservative government, a move that set back labour for a decade and that most workers are still paying for today.  The province’s workers cannot afford such timidity moving forward, especially as every reform and concession won in the previous period is going to have to be defended to the utmost degree from a government intent on restoring the financial equilibrium.  In the age of capitalist crisis, there can be no compromise with Bay Street and the interests of capital.  If the leaders of the NDP and the labour movement are incapable or unwilling of firmly standing against the interests of capitalism, then they must be pushed aside to make way for a new generation of leaders that can truly represent the needs and demands of workers and youth, leaders willing to fight for a socialist future.

See also:

“Stop Hudak!… But Liberals are no better” (30 May 2014)

“NDP must stand with workers, not Bay Street” (1 May 2014)