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Ontario NDP given chance to pull the Liberals left

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The Ontario NDP might someday regret the results of the August 1 byelection.

Voters delivered a clear message: out with the Liberals, down with the PCs.

The NDP won two of the five liberal ridings up for grabs in this byelection. The new MPPs are successful politicians in their own rights: Percy Hatfield was a city councillor in Windsor and Peggy Sattler was a school trustee. Both were running in ridings where the former representatives, Dwight Duncan and Chris Bentley, wore most of the controversy of the $500 million waste in the gas plant scandal. 

The Liberals barely held onto Dalton McGuinty’s former riding and Mitzie Hunter took over for Margarett Best, a cabinet minister whose profile was never very high.

The PCs only won Etobicoke-Lakeshore in a race that had more to do with Toronto politics than Ontario politics, where two sitting councillors raced against each other. Former Etobicoke mayor and Rob Ford insider Doug Holyday is their new MPP.

Before any party claims victory, a sober analysis of the political scene is critical: were people voting for, or against something?

There’s no question: the PCs and the Liberals, if not tied to be this byelection’s loser, were neck in neck for that laurel. The PCs might just take it as byelections tend to be the opportunity to show the ruling party a lesson. In the next general election, these votes might swing right back to the Liberals. Many have wondered publicly what this will mean for Tim Hudak’s future. I agree that his days as leader are numbered.

This bring me back to my first point: the Ontario NDP might regret these results.

That’s my pessimistic way of saying this: the NDP has won its greatest opportunity since they held government to influence government. Are they up to the challenge?

Assuming that government holds long enough to even consider a budget, the pressure on the NDP to deliver a budget with the Liberals that reflects some progressive values will be their greatest test in nearly 20 years. The Liberals will need NDP support. The New Democrats cannot rely on weak, populist policies if they’re going to prove that they’re a viable alternative. They’ll have to demonstrate that they can play politics: make serious demands or force a general election.

Will party insiders see this reality? Or will they actually believe that folks in London and Windsor voted NDP because they think Andrea Horwath should be premier?

The victories for the NDP in this campaign are not insignificant. Sattler and Hatfield will be important additions to Queen’s Park.

But the losses for the NDP are more significant than this byelection’s gains. The absurd powerplay of Adam Giambrone to become the candidate in Scarborough-Guildwood called into question both the party’s internal democracy and moral decency. It was a bigger error than Sattler’s win was a victory. Miscalculating Giambrone’s transit strategy and siding with a Rob Ford-esque subway promise was a bigger error than Hatfield’s win was a victory.

They’re bigger errors because they seem to have been orchestrated by the party’s central command. Where Sattler and Hatfield won mostly on their reputations followed by the banner of the NDP, Giambrone seemed to be steered by the back room of the party. Or, at least that’s what it looked like from the outside.

When budget negotiations come around, who will be the strategists? The folks who organized Giambrone’s campaign or Sattler’s campaign?

If the NDP picks their big issues now (public childcare? lower tuition fees? new energy policies?), pulling a Liberal budget to the left won’t be politically difficult.

Staying on their current track: figuring out the easiest policies to implement and allowing populism to drive them, will result in a PC victory during the next election, if that party jettisons Hudak.

There are many, many months for the NDP to clean itself up internally and find the best political minds and organizers they can mine from the left. With an activist Ontario Federation of Labour, this shouldn’t be a hard task.

They have no other choice: they have to finally put their progressive rhetoric into action or left-wing Ontarians should walk away and start something new.

Whether or not “the party” sees this is an entirely different question that I’ll no doubt get to write about in a few months.

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