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NDP supporters in Ontario may be upset by the letter of protest sent to party leader Andrea Horwath, but the protest is not all that surprising to those who follow the party and its history. Unlike most parties, the NDP has a tradition of mid-campaign internal criticism and carping, often involving some of those who signed last week’s protest letter to Horwarth. The 1988 federal election, revolving around “free trade,” and the 1995 provincial election, in which many union activists attacked the “Social Contract,” spring to mind, but they are not unique.
As tradition dictates, the critics cry that the party has lost its moral bearings. In this case, Andrea Horwath is accused of running to the right of the Liberals because she forced an election after Kathleen Wynne’s government tabled an NDP- and labour-friendly provincial budget. For shame, the critics cry, that the NDP didn’t rally behind the Liberals and hold off the barbarian hordes of Tim Hudak’s Conservatives.
It’s easy to criticize Horwath’s decision. She might have supported the budget and said “we’ll hold the Liberals’ feet to the fire.” That approach, however, was fraught with dangers for her and the party, though, both because it would have lent support to the Liberals after they had been exposed for poor management and cover-ups, and it would most likely have led to the elimination of the NDP caucus in a Liberal landslide in the next election. This has happened in the past.
It’s easy to criticize Andrea Horwath’s preparedness and presentation in this campaign and hard to understand why the leader who called the election would not have seemed more prepared for it.
It’s easy, too, to criticize the party’s platform, which, when finally released, seems a bit of a patchwork quilt. Those who claim it is right-wing don’t have an awful lot of policy planks to point to, though. Indeed, the main difference between it and the Liberal platform may be its denunciation of privatization, which is hardly right-wing.
What’s not so easy for those who support the party and its principles, regardless of the leader, is to watch experienced activists undermine the party and push a dangerous breed of strategic voting that can help elect Hudak Tories. It could do this by pushing NDP voters to Liberals, even in ridings where the NDP is the main adversary of the Conservatives. Recent byelections in Niagara Falls and Kitchener-Waterloo are good examples of such ridings.
It’s also not easy to watch NDP members and supporters break the fundamental rule of the party, the labour movement, and, in fact, most organizations — to debate internally and move forward in solidarity. These people can attempt to elect a new leader when the time comes.
In the meantime, they look like whiners who simply don’t like the leader. In no party do all members love the leader, but only in the NDP does this sort of internal blood-letting happen routinely during elections.
Andrea Horwath, for all her flaws, offers something different. Her Goldilocks, not-too-hot-not-too-cold approach to electioneering may indeed make sense to a lot of voters who are tired of bafflegab. And her Shania Twain-style working woman persona will appeal to many who are tired of talking heads from Toronto.
It’s not a question of party democracy. It’s about smarts and survival. One of the first things I learned in politics is the Page 1 rule. If you don’t want something on Page 1 of the Star, don’t put it in writing. If you don’t like the leader or the campaign, fine — complain, lobby, pick up the phone maybe, but don’t sign on to a mid-campaign group letter sure to end up hurting your party. It was predictable that this one should end up where it did — on Page 1 of the Star.
Members should give Horwath a break and work to change leaders, democratically, if they can, at the next convention. In the meantime, they should shut the hell up, especially in writing and in the media.
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.
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