What’s Behind the Defeat of the Left in Toronto?

Professor Leo Panitch discusses the appeal of Toronto’s conservative mayor-elect and the failure of the left to galvanize the working class

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

On Monday, John Tory, a progressive conservative, was elected to be the next mayor of Toronto, defeating the incumbent mayor’s brother, Doug Ford, and former [New] Democratic Party councilor and federal MP Olivia Chow.

Rob Ford, the most famous mayor of Toronto, had to cede his candidacy to his brother Doug Ford, as he was diagnosed with cancer.

Now joining us to discuss the elections from Toronto is Leo Panitch. Leo Panitch is a distinguished research professor of political science at the York University in Toronto. He’s the winner of the U.K. Deutscher book prize for The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire. He’s also the coeditor of the 2015 volume of the Socialist Register titled Transforming Classes.

Thank you so much for joining us, Leo.

LEO PANITCH, PROF. POLITICAL SCIENCE, YORK UNIVERSITY: Good to be here, Sharmini.

PERIES: Leo, before we talk about John Tory and what his mayorship might mean, let’s talk about the Fords. By all accounts, Rob Ford’s mayorship and his candidacy was a comedy of errors, theatrical, with a tragic ending. Why was Rob Ford and his brother Doug so popular among the working classes?

PANITCH: Well, not only the working classes, but certainly a good number of parts of Toronto–including areas where workers live, people in public housing live, areas where there are large immigrant communities even–supported him. And that has to do with the fact that these are Mussolini characters. They are themselves wealthy. They come from a very right wing Conservative Party faction here in Ontario. They used to be associated with the Reform Party, which was a type of Tea Party movement in the 1990s that amalgamated with the Conservative Party here and moved it to the right. Our prime minister was associated with that, the current Conservative prime minister. And they make an appeal as populists of the right, with very Mussolini-like overtones, to the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, a very large number of people, of course, in North America, as being anti-elitist and antiestablishment, although they are close friends with many right-wing people who are very much in the establishment, and even in the federal government. And the left in Toronto, as is the case with social democracy everywhere and the Democratic Party in the United States, of course, that never prevent presents itself as speaking for the marginalized, the poor, the ordinary worker in the name of being antiestablishment. And these guys, who in every sense are shysters in this respect, are able to do this.

And it’s a kind of talk radio phenomenon. They get themselves heard to the masses through what Toronto has picked up from the United States by way of talk radio. And it has the same type of soundbite, know-nothing, you’re wasting our taxes kind of appeal, which is irrational in many ways. People are told they will save $100 in taxes a year and they’re not told that they won’t have their potholes filled or their schools properly staffed. What’s worse is, of course, they won’t go after the telecommunication companies that add enormous costs onto people’s needs in terms of television or the internet. But that’s what we’re facing.

PERIES: Right. Leo, in terms of the global growing appeal of the right-wing populism that you’re talking about here, what’s happening on the left that’s allowing this to happen? Why isn’t the left appealing to the working classes and the poor and the disenfranchised and immigrant communities that Olivia Chow, the NDP candidate here, could have actually embraced?

PANITCH: Well, they appeal to it in a whiny kind of–you know, there’s a lot of poor people in Toronto, and in a policy way, but not in any mobilization kind of way, not in a way that, heaven forbid, should speak of class struggle, not in a way that, as the Fords do, breaks with the rules of the game. And people are fed up with the rules of the game amidst this crisis and under neoliberalism. They know they’re getting shafted. And the NDP–and Olivia represented this in the worst way–tries to represent itself as balanced and fair, etc., etc. And she went so far in congratulating her opponents last night, congratulating Tory, but also congratulating Doug Ford for the great race he ran, for congratulating him for commending him on his determination. Well, what came to my mind was you could have congratulated Hitler for his determination, for heaven’s sake. That’s not to say that Ford is comparable with that type of fascist, but this is not the kind of politics that is going to catch on with people who are just fed up to their eyeballs with the existing system. You need to be able to speak in a way that captures their anger. And it’s only the right that is doing this, not the, quote-unquote, reasonable left.

PERIES: Right. And media played a big role in the way that the issues were covered and the way that the candidates were covered. Tell us more about that. How did the–? Mhm?

PANITCH: Well, to be fair, the media, of course, had a field day on Rob Ford’s crack smoking and drinking and vulgar behavior in every possible respect. But they also called him out, especially The Toronto Star did, on his ridiculous lies–that he had provided so many jobs and saved taxpayers so much money, all of which was (pardon the expression) largely bullshit. And earlier, Doug Ford, his brother, who has been living in Chicago all these years, until four years ago running the Chicago franchise of their decal business, which they make a lot of money on selling to governments–you know, they do printing and provide paper and decals and so on to companies and governments, etc. The Globe and Mail, Toronto’s quote-unquote national newspaper, did a massive investigative story showing that Doug Ford had been a major drug honcho as a young man in his ’20s and ’30s. So, earlier, the media did quite a job on them.

During the campaign, this was completely withdrawn. Rob Ford had a lot of sympathy because of his cancer from the media. And Doug Ford, his earlier life was never mentioned. Well, you can bet that had this been someone on the left who had had that kind of a past, where’s any smell of that kind of a past from anyone on the left, that this would have been pulled out daily. And the opposition candidates would have mentioned it. But it went unmentioned when Doug Ford came in to run as mayor when his brother got ill.

PERIES: So what now? Let’s talk about John Tory and what we might expect from him as a mayor.

PANITCH: Well, as you said, Tory is a, quote-unquote, progressive conservative. That used to be the actual–the official title of the Conservative Party of Canada, because they linked up with a wing of the progressive movement way back in the early part of the century for a period. You know, he is a very middle-of-the-road conservative, but he’s a conservative. And he made it clear that he wasn’t going to raise taxes above the rate of inflation. He made it clear that he would not support the gay pride parade if Queers Against Israeli Apartheid marched in the parade, etc. That’s not to say he’s an erudite, urbane, civilized human being.

And he certainly has a campaign for public transit, a plan for public transit which is ambitious. It involves some shenanigans in terms of how the money will be raised, but I think it’s not impossible that he will be able to secure cooperation from the Liberal government here in Ontario, which is led by a relatively progressive liberal woman, and–who knows?–even because of his connections with the Conservatives at the federal level, may be able to get something out of them by way of solving Toronto’s very great congestion problem, which everyone has agreed requires massive expenditure on transit infrastructure in the next ten, 15 years. More than that, he will not be as reactionary in the kinds of ways that the Ford brothers are. And that will be a bridge builder to some extent.

We’ll have to see whether the kinds of things that he says or that Olivia Chow said she would do for public housing, where Ford has a lot of his base, because he does go there–both of them go there and try to deal with people’s cockroach problems. They are the kinds of politicians who really do show up on poor people’s doorsteps and say, look, you’ve got water leaking from the roof in your public housing building; we’ll deal with this. And they are constantly harassing the public agencies to do something about this–never calling for more money to be put in, mind you, more staff to be hired. But they do act, if you like, as poor people’s spokesman in the sense of raising the complaints. And we’ll have to see whether Tory is prepared to do that kind of thing. He doesn’t look like the type of guy who is.

PERIES: And finally, Leo, I understand that John Tory has actually invited Olivia Chow and his other opponent to administer the city with him. What do you think of that?

PANITCH: Well, it’s the kind of thing one says. He’ll probably offer Olivia Chow a appointment in one of the city boards or agencies. I don’t think Doug Ford will come on in this respect or be offered anything in this respect concretely.

His brother, people should know, from his sick bed, while taking chemo, when he withdrew from the mayoral race, did so exactly on the day in which he could put his candidacy down for his previous seat as a counselor in the part of Toronto that he’s from, and he was elected overwhelmingly in that seat without having to campaign much, although, typical of him, he showed up in half a dozen voting booths in the weeks running up to the election and in the early voting, at poll booths, etc., which is an illegal thing for him to do, and he was slapped over the wrist for showing up there.

PERIES: Leo, all very entertaining politics in Toronto. Thank you so much for–.

PANITCH: Entertaining, but I must say, Sharmini, if you’ll give me another minute, the fact that they got one-third of the vote in a city like Toronto, which has been a very progressive city, and which has such a large, large immigrant population, that he is doing so well in working-class parts of the city speaks to something that’s going on right across the advanced capitalist world, and to some sense across the world, your part of the world–look at the BJP in India–where, in the face of the bankruptcy of the traditional left and in the face of the need to do more than protest, as the anti-globalization movement has done, but engage directly into trying to get into the stay, in the face of those two failures, we are seeing the far right pick up the discontents of working people, of poor people, of marginalized people. And that is a very, very scary and dangerous thing which should light the fire under everybody who watches The Real News to get their stuff together and organize the types of political mobilizations in education that can compete with this.

PERIES: Leo, thank you so much for joining us.

PANITCH: Thank you, Sharmini. Good to be here.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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