The NDP Claws Its Way Back

After years of rightward drift, the NDP has a shot at capturing Ontario's government this week with its most left-wing platform in years.

A polling station in Ontario, Canada. Jamie McCaffrey

With just days before Ontario’s provincial election campaign, the New Democratic Party (NDP) has surged from third to first place, raising the serious possibility that Canada’s social democratic party could win control over the country’s largest province.

Though an impressive feat, the social democratic party’s gains are not completely of their own making. Both partisans and election analysts estimated there was a path to NDP victory given voter exhaustion with fifteen years of Liberal rule and a desire to stop Doug Ford’s right-wing Progressive Conservatives (PCs).

While some of the NDP’s support is soft, the NDP has not shied away from promoting a platform that features a major expansion of the public health-care system that will finally offer pharmacare and dental care. The party is also promising to go further than the Liberals recently have on progressive labor law reform and child care. And the NDP is promising to pay for all of its new spending by raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations.

While not a perfect platform, this election signals a shift to the left by the NDP. The party seems to finally be responding to shifts in public attitudes and the recent victories of movements for progressive causes. Right-wing media has sought to smear the party as being full of radicals; party leaders have actively defended their left-wing stances. An NDP victory in Ontario could provide a template of how a social democratic platform can push back against right-wing populism.

Between Respectability and Populism

The NDP’s potential victory comes in the context of an ascendant right in Ontario. Doug Ford, brother of the late Rob Ford, the infamous former mayor of Toronto, is one of the most significant electoral manifestations of right-wing populism in North America since Donald Trump’s election.

Ford came to be leader of the PC only on March 10 of this year after a sexual misconduct scandal triggered the resignation of previous leader Patrick Brown. Brown, thought to have been a social conservative, had actually planned to campaign on a platform titled “The People’s Guarantee,” a centrist platform promising middle-class tax cuts but also investment in public transit, free dental care for seniors, and reduction on greenhouse gases. The document was a departure for the PC as they had offered up a pro-business right wing platform promising budgets cuts during the past two elections, in which they remained stuck in second.

The media pushed the narrative that Brown’s careful centrism was the reason that the PCs were polling well over 40 percent months before the election. But when Ford won a short leadership race to become party leader and reverted back to a right-wing agenda of cuts and social conservatism, the PCs didn’t take much of a hit in the polls.

Ontarians clearly wanted change, regardless of who is leading it. This stems from the baggage of the Liberals’ decade-and-a-half tenure in government. The party has accrued a large number of scandals that have cost the province billions and have even seen one of their staffers sent to jail. But there are also the policy failures and inaction on everything from social assistance rates, privatization, cost of living, and income inequality that has driven the desire for change after fifteen years.

When the Liberals won under Dalton McGuinty in 2003, they were elected in part to reverse eight years of PC rule that saw Ontario’s most aggressive right-wing government that slashed spending, taxes, and went to war with the province’s public-sector workers.

The Liberals managed to reverse some of the PC’s most egregious policies and managed to make serious improvements in public education and increased spending on health care. But over time it became clear the Liberals were doing little to deal with many key social issues in the province.

This inaction on many of the pressures facing middle- and working-class Ontarians would help fuel a right-wing populist backlash against them. It is a cautionary tale on how the limits of the center and center-left can lay the groundwork for potential right-wing gains.

Liberal Exhaustion

Liberals did not significantly reverse major cuts to disability and social assistance rates, and rates remain behind what they were in real terms in the early 1990s. Public transit remained underfunded, tuition in higher education continued to rise, and many other services that the previous PC government had foisted onto municipalities remained underfunded. A crisis of housing affordability has also emerged in Toronto under the Liberals’ watch.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, McGuinty found himself in a minority government situation after the 2011 election. Ontario’s deficit and debt were rapidly climbing. The Liberals wanted to prove they were serious about balancing the budget. McGuinty decided to prove he was a deficit hawk by going after public-sector workers, particularly the province’s teachers that had once strongly supported the Liberals in order to oust the PCs. In 2012, Ontario teachers had a contract imposed upon them and their right to strike suspended for two years by the Liberals.

A gas plants scandal saw the government lose nearly $1 billion in sunk costs to cancel two natural gas plants in Toronto’s suburbs, part of a bungled effort to hold on to Liberal seats in the 2011 election. McGuinty resigned in late 2012. His successor, Kathleen Wynne, won the Liberal leadership in January 2013 by promising to be the “Social Justice Premier.” By shifting the Liberals to the left on several key issues and promising to expand spending on transit, Wynne surprised most by winning a majority in the 2014 election.

Since 2014, one of the biggest issues that dogged the Liberals was the rising cost of home energy. But because Wynne’s government was still dedicated to closing the deficit and meeting its spending priorities, it decided to privatize a majority of Hydro One, the province’s electricity transmission company. This provoked criticism from every corner, even from the PCs. With the Liberals ignoring these pocketbook issues, it was easy for the PCs to push a narrative that tax and spending cuts could even benefit the working class.

Sensing growing frustration and seeing a left-wing shift in the electorate, Wynne then tried to ensure her government’s survival beyond 2018 by instituting or promising several progressive policies like a $15 minimum wage, progressive labor law reform, eliminating tuition for low-income students, and free child care for preschoolers.

But it was too little too late, with polls in lead up to the election showing that 75 percent of voters wanting change.

Enter the NDP

While a desire for change and concern over Ford’s right-wing demagoguery offers a road to power for the NDP, one cannot discount the campaign they have run thus far. It is a remarkable turnaround from where the party was a few years ago.

In 2014, with the Liberals having a plurality but not a majority of seats in the legislature, the NDP triggered an election by not supporting the budget that spring. This angered many progressive constituencies and even party members.

In addition to toppling the government instead of extracting progressive concessions from it, the NDP ran what was probably its most right-wing campaign ever, promising to cut $600 million in spending. The NDP had misjudged the situation, thinking any more support for the unpopular Liberals would harm them in the long term and that the public was obsessed with the budget deficit. This approach earned a strong rebuke in a letter signed by a number of high-profile members and supporters who openly criticized the NDP’s campaign strategy.

The Liberals managed to win an unexpected majority thanks to a gaffe by then-PC leader Tim Hudak, who promised to cut a hundred thousand public-sector jobs in a debate. The NDP was lucky to retain the same number of seats it had before the election, but that came at the cost of losing longtime seats in Toronto while picking up seats elsewhere in the province.

The decision to run more fiscally conservative campaigns simply was not due to the concerns being made about Ontario’s deficit and debt by the other political parties and the media. It goes back to the NDP’s time in government.

The NDP in Power

No one expected the NDP to win the September 1990 provincial election. The governing Liberals had won a massive majority in 1987. Ahead in the polls and realizing a major recession was on the horizon, the Liberals called a snap election. Voters punished this perceived arrogance and propelled Bob Rae into the premier’s office. Rae himself was not expecting to win the election and had plans to leave politics after it was over.

The Liberals had hid the true size of the province’s budget deficit; it soon emerged it was $10 billion. Ontario and the rest of Canada was then battered by a recession that was worse than what Canada experienced in 2008–9. Ontario was particularly hard hit as this recession eliminated many manufacturing jobs which were once so important to its economy.

Added to the recession was a freakout from the elite that the NDP had won power in the province with Canada’s largest population and economy. Conrad Black was a loud voice in the media very publicly vowing not to invest in Ontario. A capital strike loomed.

The first NDP budget was willing to run up another $10 billion deficit with a Keynesian strategy. The government passed progressive reforms like pay equity, affirmative action, and progressive labor law that brought card check union certification and banned scab labor during strikes.

But pressure continued to mount as the recession dragged on. Ultimately a volte-face started once Rae ditched his plan for implementing public auto insurance, claiming it would lead to too many layoffs in the private insurance industry during a recession. By 1993, the deficit was $12 billion, and the NDP was going to move further to the right. The party could not resist the pressure from business nor could it buck the trend of social democratic parties globally of accommodating to neoliberalism.

This was followed by a reimagining of the role of welfare. It was slowly transformed from an income security program to one that acted as an ameliorative support for workers displaced by the changing global economy. The NDP wanted to get welfare recipients into job training programs. Rae warned of welfare dependency, and the government hired more investigators to try to crackdown on welfare fraud. It was an early signal of the shift that the center left would take towards social programs aimed at the poor as the decade went on, with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair even taking more aggressive stances.

The most controversial policy under the NDP was the so-called Social Contract. This legislation opened the contracts of provincial employees, froze wages, and imposed twelve days of unpaid furloughs (which the media dubbed “Rae Days”) on them.

The Social Contract caused a split in Ontario’s labor movement. The Canadian Autoworkers and public-sector unions became more anti-government and increasingly activist, while more conservative international unions like USW and UFCW stuck by the government. While Rae defends the Social Contract to this day, arguing it avoided layoffs, it opened the door to even more savage attacks on public-sector workers later.

In 1995, the NDP was blown back to third place. Mike Harris and the PCs gained a strong majority and pursued the most aggressive right wing governance Ontario has ever seen. Welfare rates were slashed 20 percent, and the progressive legislation the NDP did pass in pay equity, affirmative action, and labor law were reversed. In fact workers’ rights under Harris became worse than they were before the NDP won in 1990.

Bob Rae and the NDP became dirty words in Ontario politics. Though in perpetual third place since 1995, anytime the NDP gained any kind of traction in Ontario politics, Rae’s name always emerged as a bogeyman. His name unsurprisingly has come out of Ford’s mouth during debates. But after twenty-eight years, scaremongering about the Social Contract and Rae Days has had little effect.

The trajectory of the NDP was similar to other provincial NDP sections and social democratic parties as a whole. An interesting parallel to the party is the 1974–79 Labor government in the United Kingdom. Faced with a budget crunch and economic crisis, Labour sought to manage the expectations of its trade union base and was able to win some wage restraint from them. But by accepting the earliest elements of neoliberalism in the UK and rejecting the radical solutions proposed by the Labour left, the party was succeeded by the full-blown neoliberalism of Margaret Thatcher. These are often the consequences when social democratic parties fail to implement even the most modest progressive programs while in government.

Make the NDP Social Democratic Again

The NDP’s platform this election reflects a shift to the left. The party is supporting all of the progressive legislation that the Liberals have recently implemented or are going further than the Liberals are promising.

The NDP is promising universal pharmacare and dental care programs, finally filling two of the biggest gaps in Canada’s single-payer system. They are also going further than the Liberals’ recent progressive legislation with the NDP’s labor law reform promising a return to card check union certification and first-contract arbitration. The NDP is also going further than the Liberals on child care, with a $12 per day proposal that is free for the poorest families.

The NDP is going to pay for its plans by raising corporate taxes, and taxes on the highest earners which will in fact create smaller deficits than the Liberal and PC plans. The NDP is also promising to save money in non-regressive ways by ending public-private partnerships to build infrastructure which has wasted billions under the Liberals.

And at a time where Doug Ford is attracting support from white supremacists, the NDP is promising to make Ontario a sanctuary province and to ban the end of carding (a practice similar to stop and frisk) by police which disproportionately targets racialized communities. Right-wing histrionics, especially regarding the sanctuary province plan, has gained little traction with the public.

And in the closing week of the campaign, the Liberals are painting the NDP as extremists beholden to unions for their opposition to back-to-work legislation. Wynne is now asking for voters to elect as many Liberals as possible to keep the NDP or PCs from a majority of seats. This only serves to seems to be clarify, however, that at this point voting NDP is the only way to stop a Premier Ford.

But the NDP platform is not perfect. There are two issues that could ultimately blow up in its face.

The plan to bring Hydro One back under public control consists of a stock buyback program. The NDP estimates that will cost between $3.3 to $4.1 billion. Something like this could easily spiral higher. They will also have to convince the federal government to remove its portion of the sales tax on electricity if it wants to meet its promise of slashing rates by 30 percent. And their platform is not very specific on building more green energy other than that they promise to build more.

The NDP will have to reckon with the Liberals’ previous Green Energy Act. While it helped to develop a wind and solar power manufacturing industry in Ontario, it has been also criticized as being far too generous in subsidies to large corporations like Samsung. Even the Liberals now admit this. The NDP has been quiet on this during the election so far, but has been willing to move away from the deals in the past. If the party gains power, it could easily be negatively affected by the neverending crises of Ontario’s energy system.

Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath’s rejection of back-to-work legislation to end the strike of contract faculty and teaching assistants at York University, and more broadly, was a welcome development. The use of back-to-work legislation and the suppression of free collective bargaining in the public sector has been a feature of almost every federal and provincial government elected in Canada since the economic crisis of the 1970s, as Leo Panitch and Donald Swartz have shown in their book From Consent to Coercion. This includes several NDP governments.

While an NDP victory will probably aid the strikers at York, over the longer term, there will be tremendous pressure for back-to-work legislation if provincial or municipal workers strike. And given recent history, Horwath’s statement cannot be taken as an ironclad guarantee. The labor movement in Ontario is more united behind the NDP than it has been in years, but this could be a fault line down the road. It is certainly not out of the realm of possibility to see another split in the Ontario labor movement if the NDP were to backtrack on promises, or simply the labor movement muting their criticism out of fear of the NDP being another one-term government.

Pushing the Party Left

Given the anemic NDP platforms of the past few years, it cannot be understated how much movements have helped push the NDP to where they are now, even if they wouldn’t admit it.

The NDP was late to coming out for a $15 minimum wage. Once the Liberals finally introduced it, the NDP, in an embarrassing replay of their 2014 platform promising only a $12 minimum wage, also talked about offsets like tax cuts for small businesses. But the incredible success of the Fight for $15 and Fairness movement in Ontario, and the successful mobilizations against Tim Horton’s franchises using shady tactics to offset the minimum wage increase has eliminated the NDP’s equivocating and outreach to small business.

Many other elements of the NDP’s platform have been influenced by movement pressure. A movement for affordable child care in Ontario has long been ongoing. The call for turning Ontario into a sanctuary province is a response to the growing pressure to address the needs of undocumented immigrants that have been crossing into Canada and temporary foreign workers whose visas are tied to a single job and traditionally have not been able to access public services. The ban on carding comes after a sustained campaign from Black Lives Matter and other anti-police-brutality activists who have been at this for decades. The Ontario Federation of Labor has been calling for card check union certification as part of labor law reform for years.

These movements are responsible for finally pushing the NDP to adapt a classic social democratic platform, and stopping the party from pandering to small business and obsessing over rhetoric over the deficit. If the NDP wins, these movements will have to ensure their basic program is implemented.

The first accomplishment of an NDP victory would be that a progressive platform helped to keep a right-wing populist demagogue out of office. The real challenge is the NDP following through so that the Right cannot seize on its failures in office to win the next election. Though history shows us we need to keep a healthy dose of skepticism to any NDP government, Ontario has an opportunity to win some much-needed reforms if the Left stays mobilized after the ballots are counted.