Charge of the Policy-Light Brigade ended predictably for Andrea Horwath

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Whether you liken Andrea Horwath's 2014 campaign to the Iraq invasion, Custer's Last Stand, or the Charge of the Policy-Light Brigade, it ended, predictably, in confusion and slaughter. Although she and her supporters will spin it as a victory, because they increased the party's vote share marginally, it was anything but that.

Admittedly, Horwath had a tough challenge. Premier Kathleen Wynne set a trap that proved impossible to escape with her spring provincial budget. It was loaded with the kind of polices New Democrats crave, but supporting it would have signalled support for a Liberal program that threatened the very existence of the NDP -- why would the party even be needed if the Liberal budget were adopted? -- and could well have led to a Liberal majority in a 2015 general election. Also, there were hidden stinkers in the budget, especially lowering debt through widespread public asset sales and privatizations. And there is every reason to believe the Liberals would or could not deliver on all their glittering, progressive budget promises.

Horwath declined the budget bait and chomped on a bigger lure with a sharper hook. As a result, respected veteran NDP MPPs like Prue and Marchese are now stuffed and mounted on the Liberal wall of trophies. And Wynne has the brass ring.

The only way out of the trap might have been for Horwath to have insisted on NDPers in Wynne's cabinet, as the price for supporting the budget in May. In Cabinet, a Prue or Marchese might have held the Grits' feet to the fire and guarded against the "corruption" Horwath spent so much of the campaign decrying.

Of course, most NDP leadership types hate Liberals so deeply that innovative thinking of this sort could never be considered. Perhaps there were other clever responses, but cleverness is not something Horwath and her team displayed at any point in this campaign.

Instead, Team Horwath squandered one opportunity after another. One of the biggest advantages, for instance, that a party can have in a parliamentary system is to know when an election will be, as Horwath did. The whole province knew for six months that Wynne would deliver a sugar-sweet budget. Only Horwath and her inner circle knew for sure they would not support it. Horwath's principal objections to the budget were not to its contents but its authors. For them, there was no suspense at all. They should have been ready to charge up the hill.

Knowing precisely when the election would be, you would think Team Horwath would have spent the winter and spring arming themselves. Instead, the Ontario NDP went into the campaign with no platform, no election materials, poor financing and, worst of all, obvious internal divisions.

Even before his jobs plan, Tim Hudak was seen as an awful threat by most constituencies within the party. Trade unionists, social activists, environmentalists and public servants all had real reason to fear Hudak. Rather than reassure these important constituencies within her camp that she sympathized, she triggered an election that was Hukak's to win, with all the public anger with the government. Worse still, much of Horwath's campaign echoed Hudak's, with attacks on government waste and, of course, "corruption." Many respected NDP politicians have won respect and government for being fiscally prudent. But advertising the attack lines of the opponent your supporters hate and fear is not smart.

Into the Valley of Death

Then, having failed to mend fences before the campaign with progressive constituencies that normally support the NDP, Horwath charged forward into the Valley of Death, making enemies of would-be friends. The leaked letter from 34 NDP supporters and others accusing Horwath of running a right-wing campaign had enormous public resonance when the media inevitably got it. (Perhaps all this was even planned by her team, thinking it good to court right-wing voters like this. Who knows what goes on inside fevered minds late at night?) Even though Horwath's platform, when she finally released it, was not arguably right-wing other than calling for finding ways to cut waste (is waste left-wing?), the letter, and Team Horwath's failure to foresee and deal with internal dissension and real concern about Hudak, gave birth to the storyline, "The NDP has gone right-wing." It stuck.

And instead of using the TV debate and campaign stops to publicize, promote and defend the platform -- and attack Hudak as a former Harris cabinet minister -- she wasted time attacking Liberal corruption and Conservative "bad math." She acted as if she believed arithmetic was the reason millions of progressive voters were preparing to flee in panic from Hudak's hordes rather than fear for jobs and desperately needed public services. She even mouthed the words "million jobs plan" repeatedly in the debate and elsewhere, giving unpaid advertising to the dreaded enemy many of her supporters were planning to leave her to fight.

Making matters worse, she played coy until E-2 (two days before the vote, in lay terms) on whether she would support a Conservative minority government. Her "bullspit" comment might have been fine, four weeks earlier, but it was far too little too late when it appeared. By then, many progressive voters had already decided Andrea Horwath was a risk they couldn't afford. It would be better -- I heard many say -- to hold their noses and vote for Liberals who had been publicly exposed as cheats and incompetent managers.

Voters are not as dumb as political professionals like Team Horwath and Team Hudak seem to think they are. With no other big ideas out there, the ballot question became "Tim Hudak, yes or no," and only one party was clearly "No."

With a government in trouble, it didn't have to be thus, but it was. Team Horwath clearly was trying to signal a generational shift, away from the Baby Boom, and also a cultural shift, away from the labour left and the downtown left, with this campaign. Their planning, execution and just plain smarts, however, were by no means up to the battle. They'll now have lots of time, without inconvenient election campaigns, to learn, if they're willing.

Ish Theilheimer lives in Golden Lake, Ontario, where he works for his local NDP candidate, Brian Dougherty. He has run for the provincial NDP five times and served as its Vice President and as Advisor to NDP Leader Howard Hampton.

Photo: Spacing Magazine/flickr

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