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Losing Toronto: How Olivia Chow and the left may be giving away an election

Photo by author.

As we head into the Labour Day weekend that may be accurately deemed to be the start of the homestretch of Toronto's very long mayoral and council election season, the news is not good for leftists or progressives in the city.

Mirroring the fate of Barbara Hall in 2003, polls indicate Olivia Chow's campaign would appear to have gone from sure thing to on track to be a political footnote. Should this prove to be true it will have been for oddly similar reasons.  

Meanwhile, two right-wingers, including our present mayor with a pronounced and self-admitted record of criminal, racist, misogynist and homophobic behaviour, are shaping up to contest the throne in what will amount to a showdown between "mainstream" conservatism and austerity, and its populist, and I think we can now safely say, borderline neo-fascist wing.

Like Hall, this campaign was Chow's to lose. And like Hall, she has played it safe as a strategy to stay on top. Well ahead in the polls, with very high name-recognition and a ready base of supporters in a city that has overwhelmingly favoured the NDP and Liberals electorally recently historically, including in its suburbs and including in the recent provincial election, she would have appeared an obvious candidate to carry that same vote against a tired conservative political figure with a proven track record of failure and a bigot whose astonishing behaviour while in office is a lesson in how the rich, the white and the male are treated differently.

And yet her substantial lead has evaporated. She now sits in third place behind both Tory and Ford. Given that she began the campaign by framing herself as the sole "strategic" option that would stop Ford, and that she is now clearly not that option, Chow has little choice but to attempt a dramatic shift in tone and approach. 

Chow started the campaign with the widespread embrace and goodwill of a city reeling from four years of Ford inanity and actual contempt for Toronto and its institutions and democratic norms. She was tied to a strong attachment to the optimism and sense of hope in progress that she and Jack Layton had been perceived to have brought to the city in the past. Yet she quickly moved to make the campaign not about the values and programs that people associated with these ideals, but rather to make it a "Big Tent" campaign that promised to work with business and that both catered to and pandered to a narrative that is a construct of the very same people she is running against. Her campaign tried desperately to alienate no one no matter how boring this came off as.

Keeping taxes low, no really radical change, helping business, managing what is an already existing austerity regime as opposed to re-imagining it. Chow took what excited people about her candidacy out of the equation from the start in favour of a formula that sees the only way ahead as being through small policy ideas, many of which are good in-and-of-themselves though which are nearly universally framed in right wing terms (i.e. her LRT plan will stop a "30 year tax hike" and her children's programs will keep kids "out of trouble"). All of which, to say the least, are also totally uninspiring as narratives if they even qualify as political narratives at all. 

The campaign has not even seemed to learn from the complete fiasco of the similarly ideologically oriented ONDP provincial campaign that had so recently failed, especially in Toronto.

That campaign was centered around similar notions of appealing to "non-traditional" NDP voters in nearly identical ways and, in so doing, managed to lose three of Toronto's five NDP seats. They can at least pretend that this was of less of a disaster than it was by pointing to a small number of victories outside Toronto.  

Given that Chow is running for Mayor of Toronto a strategy that might be aimed at getting more votes in Brampton or Niagara, even if partially effective, will not do her much good. 

As Matt Elliott of Metro, among others, has pointed out:

The Tory camp loves to label Chow as the "NDP candidate" as if that's an insult, but Chow shouldn't run from her roots. People knew she was an NDP member when she was dominating the early polls. 

It didn't hurt her. And why would it? Historically, the NDP has been pretty darned popular in Toronto.

This is a pretty important point.  In fact, and this is likely worth an article of its own, regardless of all the nonsense it is essentially impossible for a left party, even a moderate left party, to win power in Ontario without carrying almost all the seats in Metro Toronto. Even the most cursory analysis of voting patterns, population densities and the historic reality, both here and internationally, of the dependence of left and social democratic parties on the urban vote to attain power shows the total folly of actually intentionally repudiating it to supposedly appeal to traditionally conservative voters.

This is amplified exponentially when the election is in Toronto alone!

Despite absurd and rather self-justifying and manifestly false notions among some on the left that Toronto is home only to wine swilling elites, social workers, academics and so forth, the reality is that the city has very real and pronounced issues around poverty, inequality and injustice, and not just in its suburbs.

As the Toronto Star noted this past Wednesday:

Child poverty in Toronto has reached "epidemic" levels with 29 per cent of children -- almost 149,000 -- living in low-income families, according to new data being released Wednesday by a coalition of community activists and social agencies.

Among Canada's 13 major cities, Toronto is tied with Saint John, N.B., as having the highest child poverty rate, the coalition says.

Across Toronto, almost 40 per cent of the city's 140 neighbourhoods have child poverty rates of 30 per cent or more, according to the coalition's analysis of Statistics Canada's recently released 2012 tax filer data.

This is a shocking and shameful situation. It is one that is true both in downtown Toronto and in parts of Etobicoke and Scarborough. It is spread across the metropolis. These are conditions of injustice that allowed a very similar type of politician to Chow ideologically, Bill de Blasio, to win a landslide in New York on a campaign explicitly addressing exactly these issues

Yet in Toronto the ideological cousins to de Blasio in the Chow campaign and in most other municipal campaigns seem to think, as limited as his campaign was, even this cannot be done. While elements of the American left, especially municipally, have sought to mobilize and inspire in the wake of 2008 and social movements like Occupy, the Canadian left outside of Quebec has very largely not. 

In Ontario when we pretend that only "wine-swilling" "elitists" want to see policies and ideas that will fight inequality and poverty, the social democratic left abandons its historic constituency and very reason for existence which grew out of fighting for social justice issues that were centered on those living in poverty and the working class. 

On these issues the "Big Tent" only goes so far. You cannot actually do anything meaningful to confront and fight inequality or poverty without angering and alienating business, the wealthy and some sections of the middle class. That is simply a fact. 

This is the Catch-22 of social democratic campaigns like Chow's of late; by trying to pander to and be all things to all people you end up meaning very little to anyone. That this opens the door for candidates like Ford and Tory, and that it legitimizes their agenda, is being borne out by reality right now. The strategy is not working. 

It is not working for the left generally in Canada and rather puts the lie to the notion that this is the way to "play the game". 

While historical precedents do not bode well, Chow does still have time to turn this around.

Just not very much time. 

Photo by author. 

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