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Do progressives still have a home in the Ontario NDP?

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Photo: Ontario's NDP

This is an open letter from Gerald Caplan, to Andrea Howarth, the leader of the Ontario NDP:

Dear Andrea,

In last week’s column I pointed out the obvious dangers of Tim Hudak winning the provincial election on June 12 and asked: How do Ontario voters go about ensuring it doesn’t happen? Which of the other two parties do they vote for? Do they go for the party of the squishy centre or do they put their faith in the more progressive party? And how do they know which of the two is which?

It hurt me to write that final sentence. The NDP exists for a reason: to express certain principles and to represent certain voters. Today it is not easy to say what the Ontario party’s principles are or for whom it speaks.

I hope you’re not under the illusion here that I’m speaking only for myself, or even for other out-of-touch old-timers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Did you listen to the CBC phone-in show? Have you read the many puzzled analyses by commentators who have no axe to grind? Do you talk candidly with your own candidates?

Since your decision to defeat the Liberal budget, many of the party’s most loyal supporters have been bewildered, frustrated, and exasperated. Your decision to oppose what just about everyone agrees was the most progressive budget in two decades shocked many. Here was a win-win for the party: Many of those in need – the NDP’s people – would have directly benefited, and the NDP could have taken the credit. It would’ve been an entirely plausible claim, since it was true. The Liberals crafted it expecting your support. I expected it too, as did many others. Our disappointment was compounded when you could offer no sensible rationale for doing the opposite.

It was the first of a series of bad days. Your election campaign has frankly been a mess. No coherent theme, no memorable policies, nothing to deal with the great concerns of New Democrats everywhere: increasing inequality, the precarious lives of so many working people, reduced public services, global warming. I’m afraid you offer little sense that you understand Ontario’s needs and that if elected you have any serious plan to meet them.

In fact you’ve quite deliberately gone the other way. You offer mere tokens to those whose need is greatest while your real target seems to be business people large and small. Yes, they have their needs too, some of them legitimate. But they also have their parties who cater to those needs. If business want a sympathetic party to support – and they do – you can be sure they don’t need and won’t buy the NDP.

While wooing business, you’re busy slamming the Liberal government. In today’s circumstances, that’s just irresponsible. When all progressives are legitimately terrified by what a Hudak government would mean, your campaign attacks the Liberals. I hope your advisers – whoever they might be – haven’t persuaded you that this strategy will tempt progressive voters to support the NDP. Fire those advisers, Andrea.

And please, please, spare us that patronizing guff about how your “mission” is “maturing” the NDP. At the moment all you’re doing is dividing the NDP. You’re driving away many good New Democrats who, thanks to you, are seriously considering voting Liberal for the first time in their lives.

Look, I know this is a challenging situation for the party. The Liberals will spend the last weeks of the campaign calling on all liberally-minded citizens to vote for them to defeat the Hudak menace (and that menace is only too real). The NDP has been here before. It’s an impossible dilemma; I understand that. If you join in the attack on Hudak, you might help push NDP supporters into Liberal arms. But that’s politics for you. We don’t get to deal the cards we have to play. The unhappy irony is that you’re already helping the Liberals with your strange, erratic, pandering campaign. You’re disappointing and angering New Democrats and giving them no reason to stay with a party they barely recognize.

The NDP is not like Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party, where the leader unilaterally decides what the party stands for. New Democrats join their party because they know what it stands for. They want to be proud of their party. When their party no longer stands for those beliefs, no longer makes them proud, New Democrats wonder what the point is. For most New Democrats, loyalty to principles trumps loyalty to party. If they wanted to push contrary policies or are simply ambitious to win power, they would have joined other parties.

I know you won’t appreciate my candour, and I guess I can hardly blame you. The campaign has less than three weeks to go and truthfully I’d be surprised if you changed anything at this late stage. But at least you should have no illusions about the troubled world that exists outside your campaign bubble.


This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.

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