By Corvin Russell.
Or, the bale of straws that crushed the camel
This election, I’m voting Liberal for the first time ever — without enthusiasm, obviously. On the whole, this election has been dismal and depressing. At a time when even mainstream media commentators see an opportunity and a need for left alternatives, and when the politics of austerity has proved a failure, the overall political debate in Ontario has lurched rightward and, as far as policy is concerned, narrowed to a meaningless contest of small differences.
Without a doubt, the most depressing thing about this election is the NDP, who opportunistically triggered this completely unnecessary election for partisan tactical advantage, putting us in jeopardy of a Hudak government and voting against the first budget in years to break from the austerity mould. (The last time this brilliant NDP strategy was used, it gave us 9 years of Stephen Harper.) That budget would have increased the minimum wage and given a $4/hr increase to personal support workers; its pension proposals would also have made a real difference for one of the fastest growing demographics of poor people, senior women living alone. NDP leader Andrea Horwath threw all that away. At the time, she said it was less about the content of the budget than about trust – but how can we trust a leader, and a caucus, who have so completely betrayed the principles on which the NDP is founded?
The mainstream media were the first to pick up on the party’s shift to the populist right, with their use of Republican language like “job creators” and their retail pocketbook pledges. The Globe and Mail also reported that Horwath held closed-door meetings with Bay Street power brokers in which she pledged to eliminate the deficit quickly even if it means being tough on public sector unions. This is a page straight out of Tony Blair’s playbook: pander to the right wing press and capital instead of trying to build a popular opposition strong enough to overwhelm them. Indeed, the Globe quoted a senior party strategist as saying that Tony Blair is the inspiration for the party’s current approach. No wonder that among those who most staunchly defended Horwath following the letter from the “Gang of 34” numbered most of the party’s well-known Blairites. But Tony Blair at least had panache, and, 18 years ago, coming after the Thatcher era, offered (to some) a simulacrum of vision and the illusion of hope. Horwath has none of that panache, and most of Blair’s discredited politics.
The rightward shift within the NDP is not a sudden development. Already, several years ago the party produced posters with the motto “more ‘clip and save’ than tax and spend – not your grandmother’s NDP”. As a friend of mine said, if the NDP is not for taxing and spending, then what the hell do we need them for? Redistribution is the essence of left liberal and social democratic politics; that’s what differentiates them from fiscal conservatives. Horwath has failed to advance or communicate the most basic progressive values in any way. It was left to Kathleen Wynne in the leaders’ debate, and elsewhere in the campaign, to make the essential argument that “Taxes are the price we pay for looking after each other.”
The contest of values and ideas is integral to politics, even electoral politics, and can’t be replaced with microtargeted pitches and catchphrases. It’s not just, as some party defenders say, that the NDP has repackaged left wing ideas in smart marketing. They’ve abandoned left-wing ideas altogether and reduced politics to a sporting contest. And the party strategists know it, which makes their loud protestations at being called out on it all the more cynical. Some time before the election, an established, mainstream figure in the party expressed concern to a senior party official about the party’s direction and was told “if the Liberals can run on the left and govern on the right, why can’t we run on the right and govern on the left?” Except, as a friend of mine said, not one government in the history of the world has ever done that, and the failure to appreciate why is a reflection of the shallowness or insincerity of the NDP’s strategists.
Some party defenders say these differences are mostly verbal, or that the Liberals are really more right wing than the NDP and that it is the Liberals who are being cynical and tactical. They say that Wynne doesn’t really mean what she says, that the budget was a bluff (memo to party: the right way to call that bluff was to vote for it!). Or they say that if you look at the substance, the NDP’s platform is more progressive. I’ve looked at the platforms. Frankly, on balance, the NDP and Liberal platforms hardly have a whisker between them. More than 10 years ago, I asked a senior party staffer what the main take-away of the Rae experience was for the party. Rather than saying “don’t betray your base” or “go public when Bay Street threatens you” he said, “don’t make big promises”. And the NDP have certainly honored that suggestion in this election. Yes, the NDP will raise corporate tax rates for large corporations by 1%, while simultaneously cutting taxes for small businesses. On the other hand, the Liberals will tax top individual earners more. But most of these pledges pale next to both parties’ commitment to eliminate the deficit by 2018 – and the only way to do this is through punishing cuts which Hudak, at least, has been forthright about.
Ironically, considering their reputation as fiscal conservatives, the only party that is not promising to eliminate the deficit is the Greens. Just the fact that they are not promising austerity budgets puts them to the left of the NDP and Liberals in this election, despite what can be argued as regressive tax shifting in their energy policy. In fact, the Greens may have the best thought-through platform of any of the parties. For example, all parties say they agree on setting targets for public procurement purchases of local food, as part of the new Local Food Act, but only the Greens advocate dedicated funding for hospitals and other institutional purchasers to make this a reality.
The Greens are also the only party advocating major reforms this election: creating one public school system and eliminating the Catholic school system, and implementing a guaranteed annual income. They are also strong on a range of environmental issues including protection of class 1 farmland. (Wynne has also committed to a “Farms Forever” initiative and her government has put up $400 million for farmer support.) The Greens are the only party advocating for a universal student nutrition program. And they are the only party raising the issue of poverty, albeit the more politically acceptable “child poverty”. All of which, despite their preference for regressive tax shifting, puts them to the left of the NDP and Liberals in this election.
I should vote for the Greens. I’m not going to. I wish them well and I hope they elect an MPP. But in my riding, it’s a contest between the Liberals and the NDP, and for me personally, this election is about the choices each of those parties has made and how my vote will contribute to the broader political dynamic, as well as about keeping Hudak out. I’ve said I don’t think they are that far apart in their platforms, and anyway, platforms tend not to get enacted (Rae government much?) so I’m more interested in broad mandates and overall political dynamics. Deeds speak louder than words. And the values you communicate are more important than the details of a platform that will soon be forgotten. On these measures, Kathleen Wynne beats Andrea Horwath in my book.
I have no illusions about Wynne – she’s a Liberal, and Liberals have made opportunism an art. She’s been a letdown on many things, for example, criminalization of HIV. And like the NDP, the Liberals are not very good on Indigenous rights, valuing them less than developments like the Ring of Fire. Like the NDP, they have no real answer to deindustrialization beyond the neoliberal “incentives and retraining” mantra. But my gut feeling about Wynne, based on her public personality and on an hour in the same room as her, is that she is a thoughtful, authentic person. She has a track record of activism and of local politics in the school board. As premier, she’s already made some gutsy decisions, like standing up to the nuclear lobby, which is no small thing. (Even before Wynne, the Liberals did a few good things, like the feed-in tariff for renewable energy, in which Ontario has been a leader.) And she has quietly moved this Liberal government away from the enthusiastic neoliberalism of the McGuinty era.
I don’t feel anything that positive about Horwath. When she won the leaders’ race, I was tepidly optimistic about her and some of the people she brought in to the office. The intervening years have snuffed out that tepid optimism. First there was the 2011 populist campaign against the carbon tax without any credible alternative plan and the move to “clip and save” thriftiness as one of the main values communicated. Recently, social movement leaders have told me they can get meetings with Wynne and her top advisors, but can’t get a meeting with Horwath — and these are long time NDP members and activists. This fits with the Blairite contempt for activists and social movements and a lack of appreciation for the expertise of those groups. Then there was the adoption of Republican talking points and the pandering meetings with Bay Street.
But the worst thing to me is how the party has responded to that letter from the gang of 34, and to dissenters in general this election. A mature PR response might have said “we value debate” or some such guff. Instead, we saw relentless attacks based on people’s age, their alleged marginality – despite the letter representing not just the left but also the mainstream of the NDP – and even worse ad hominem attacks. (Tellingly, the party leaked the letter immediately, showing that they thought it would help them.) A neighbour up the street took concerns to our MPP and was met with condescension. In another riding, a friend was told by the NDP canvasser that “only two of the signers were high profile” – a disingenuous party talking point to dismiss the concerns rather than address them. In fact, the “gang of 34” has done far more for social change and to improve the lives of Ontarians than all of caucus and party staff combined. And the party hacks responsible for the pitbull response to the letter should be very ashamed. That was not the action of good people.
It will be depressing if the NDP’s cynical gambits succeed. Either way, I can’t allow myself to reward them. I don’t want my vote to mean “it’s OK for the NDP to run a right-wing populist campaign and pander to Bay Street, as long as they get elected” and I don’t want it to mean that the Liberals’ choice to move to the left –even if it is only rhetorical– is inevitably going to be punished. The NDP needs to hear that message. That’s why I’ll be voting Liberal for the first time – without enthusiasm, but with a clean conscience. I hope it’ll be the last time I vote Liberal. We need a third party, but we don’t need a third party like the Horwath NDP.
On the bright side, I see an opportunity here. Never in recent history has there been a more burning need for a left alternative in mainstream politics, yet such an absence of a left to provide it. There are already rumblings of discontent within the NDP – from the left and centre of the party; from members of the party establishment; from the left wing of caucus. By all means, discontented elements within the party need to organize to defeat the petty Blairism of Horwath, but if that doesn’t work, they must be loyal to their ideas and values above all, and open to the possibility – even the desperate need – for a new political formation entirely.