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The progressive's dilemma: The ONDP's election game

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Image: Flickr/Patrick Imbeau

Not long after Wayne Gates won in Niagara Falls for the NDP, I was in Niagara Falls at a union meeting. Someone said this to me:

"I'd be fine with unions booking workers off to work for the NDP during elections. I just wish that NDP representatives wouldn't sell out the union movement the first chance it got. If we're putting time in to helping them win elections, they should be defending us."

During the Gates campaign, Horwath made it clear that she wanted the small business vote. With a focus on creating and maintaining jobs at the local racetrack, a publicity event at a Quizno's and the emphasis placed on families (not workers), the only person who seemed to mention unions directly was Tim Hudak.

When Hudak complained that Gates won because of union support (indeed, Gates is a union guy), Horwath shot back, arguing that her supporters were much more diverse than that. The implication, of course, is that having union support is something to be ashamed of.

Not long after, Horwath argued that raising the minimum wage would hurt private businesses, so she also promised a tax cut for them. She barely pushed beyond the increase in the minimum wage promised by the Liberal party and very clearly turned her back on the grassroots movement fighting for a $14 minimum wage.

As the party has drifted further and further away from holding the banner of working people, many progressives are right to wonder: what use is it for them to dedicate resources to help the party's success?

At the heart of the ONDP strategy of the past two years must be the sense that the labour movement doesn't really matter. With a minority of Ontarians actually unionized, and many unionized members supporting right-wing policies and parties, the ONDP clearly doesn't think appealing to and advocating for unionized workers is a winning strategy.

Instead, the rightward drift of the ONDP has placed them into Mike Harris territory. They have no qualms about using the words common sense. Their criticism of the Liberal budget reads as if it were written by a Red Tory. Their promises are so weak that it's hard to imagine how the democratic will of a party of progressives is being reflected in their policies.

The only thing helping them is that, while they're drifting into the land of Mike Harris, Hudak is drifting towards fascism, hoping to destroy the labour movement entirely. With the Liberals declaring that the age of austerity is over, the ONDP flirts with being further to the right than the Liberals.

The ONDP knows that, despite the disappointing policies, confusing non-strategies and this slide to the right, they'll still have the votes of labour activists. This has made their strategists cocky, acting as if they're stronger than they are and as if they don't need the support of their traditional allies.

But of course, they do. The NDP cannot rely on generations-old support like the Liberals and Conservatives can. They can't even rely on the average person seeing them as a credible option. A progressive political party needs to have a connection with people on the ground to drive votes towards ONDP candidates. No air campaign alone will deliver a victory. Ontario isn't Québec, after all.

This means that, despite the contempt that has been clearly demonstrated from some at ONDP central command for progressive labour and social activists, they absolutely need them. They need their monthly donations of $5. They need their book-off time. They need their support, even if it's tacit.

And, because they need them, they should have to listen to them too. The power play that Horwath just pulled is dangerous: it threatens to deliver an election victory to Hudak. It threatens to deliver another mandate to the Liberals. It tries to play their game of democracy despite the fact that the power imbalance means that the ONDP will never win their game.

It's a gamble that could pay off, if the party's supporters are behind the move. But far from being behind them, many ONDP supporters are furious.

The question of democracy is central to this problem. The ONDP should not be able to act as if the results of their actions only affect the party’s inside crew.

If the ONDP needs labour and social activists to donate time to run its ground campaign, surely the opinion of these activists must be considered when making a decision like calling an election. The anger and bewilderment from ONDP supporters is a result of this closed-door strategy.

If the ONDP wants to win, it cannot operate like a little, closed shop clique. It needs to be more transparent and democratic, even if that's not how Hudak runs his ship. The ONDP's inner brass clearly hasn't been listening and hasn't held up their end of the bargain to merit the support of progressive Ontarians. So what is a progressive to do?

That is a bad start to the campaign, but many things can happen over the course of the next few weeks. Maybe the ONDP does know something that everyone else doesn't, as I saw one person hope aloud online.

These questions of internal democracy may lead to answers that show that the ONDP can't be institutionally supported by the left any longer.

But, despite the fact that it seems like the only people supporting this election are on the party's payroll, now isn't the time to talk about the future of the party. Now is a time to double down on fighting the Tories, promote progressive policies and challenge the parties to make progressive, worker-centred promises.

But later, later is a time to talk about the future: democracy, empowerment, solidarity and action. Neoliberalism has hurt our communities and isolated us from our neighbours. In a month, it will be time to start talking about building a political party that doesn't rely on that same neoliberalism for its own, distorted version of success. Regardless of the outcome of this election, the time has come to take this conversation seriously.

Image: Flickr/Patrick Imbeau

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