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Confronting the rightward slide of the ONDP

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Recently, my Facebook feed lit up with angry reaction to the ONDP's refusal to support a $14 minimum wage.

The campaign for the minimum wage hike, led by labour and community organizations successfully pushed the Liberals to promise an increase to the minimum wage. The increase is slight, from $10.25 up to $11 in June, but a clear victory.

ONDP leader Andrea Horwath was pressed by journalists to respond to the campaign and the Liberal announcement. The result was an awkward exchange where she refused to take a position on it.

Finally, last week, the ONDP revealed their plan. Rather than supporting the supposed base of the party, the ONDP has promised to increase the wage to $12...by 2016. This kick in the shins was twined with an announcement about lowering taxes for "small businesses," businesses with fewer than 100 employees. This would likely include your local Tim Horton's or other franchised corporation.

The ONDP’s announcement posits a poverty-level minimum wage against small business success. In case it wasn’t glaringly obvious, this kind of rhetoric really hurts the left.

It's widely accepted that a $12 minimum wage is not sufficient today, nor will it be in 2016. If we were to evaluate the policy on the economics alone, it’s clear that the ONDP's policy isn’t good enough for anyone working a minimum wage job. But it’s worse than that. By refusing to support the groups that are the party’s core supporters, the ONDP has sent a clear message: they’re only interested in progressive voters to get elected. They have no intention of advancing progressive policies.

This is how it’s supposed to work: social democratic parties are supposed to amplify and give formal political voice to the demands of progressive movements. In turn, labour activists and progressives are supposed to support the party.

Somehow, the folks at the ONDP have forgotten this.

The ONDP has gone too far to the right to be able to maintain itself as a political party of the left. It is at best a centrist party that defends the neoliberal status quo and, at worst, a populist party that borrows rhetoric from the right in a bid for power.

This means that if the ONDP were to form government, Ontarians could only expect more of the same.

There is no better liberal party than the Liberal Party itself and, in spite of electoral gains since 2011, the ONDP's populist, ideologically vacant approach to winning will be the undoing of the party. One only needs to look at what happened in Nova Scotia, British Columbia or at Bob Rae's reign to see the outcome of such a strategy.

If the folks at the ONDP are only concerned about getting elected, fine. It’s time to be honest about this.

But, talking from the left side of one's mouth while writing policy with one's right hand does more than disenfranchise progressives from electoral politics. It actively prohibits anything from taking one's place on the left.

Progressives have to stop hand wringing and take back this populist party. If they refuse to take up the concerns of working people, working people need to stop supporting the party. Until the ONDP places their support for a budget on provincial childcare strategy, lower tuition fees or increases to social supports (and higher corporate taxes) rather than minor changes like a 10 per cent savings in auto insurance, progressives should turn their organizing capacities elsewhere.

I've left Ontario. The ONDP is as important to me personally as is the provincial party in Nova Scotia. But I'm worried about my home province. I'm tired of having to tell family and friends that holding their nose and voting is good enough. The economic times are too tough and the stakes are too high for there to be no progressive alternative for people to support.

Ontarians just need to look East to see what's possible. Despite the heavy union support for the social democratic Parti Québecois, progressives here founded Québec Solidaire. The party has created a truly progressive option to the politics-as-usual of the three other parties and has also forced the Parti Québecois to the left on many social issues.

Québec Solidaire probably won't form the next government, but party members won't allow their reps in the National Assembly to vote against party policy, regardless of what the polls say. QS MNAs Amir Khadir and Françoise David are the most respected politicians in the province and the only two that offer a vision that both supports and inspires the people of Québec. The party gives people hope that progressive solutions exist, that through logic and good arguments, we can build a more just society.

Enough with supporting the party out of a sense of tradition. It's time to gain control of the left and build an alternative to Ontario's politics as usual.

If a concerted effort was put into fighting the ONDP's rightward drift, where a coordinated push in riding associations across the province could force progressive change from the ground up, steering the party to the left would be a noble endeavour. If the party resisted a coordinated take-over attempt, the same group of organizers and activists should start a new party.

If a new political party forces introspection at the ONDP and they emerge as a more progressive force, tant mieux. If not, at least Ontarians will have a mechanism to take back the space on the political left, reform the conversation and demonstrate that, yes, even in Ontario, it's possible for a political party to demonstrate a commitment to the creation of a more just society.

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