Image: flickr/John Hansen

The Ontario election is depressing as hell.

The ONDP tried to play the game of the old boys’ parties. They triggered an election with the hopes of capitalizing on high poll numbers and inching their seat count up to form government. This decision has plunged many progressive activists into an election that they didn’t want.

Tim Hudak is the biggest threat in this election. Some of the anger with the ONDP has been wrapped up in people’s fear of a Progressive Conservative victory.

But there’s another threat. This election is so demoralizing not because the three parties are converging more toward each other on the right of the political spectrum than ever before, but because of the message that it sends: a progressive party cannot get elected on a progressive platform. That, according to Horwath, talking about poverty and injustice, is akin to talking about poor people, rather than to them.

With young people in particular voting less and less, the 2014 election will be another nail in the coffin in Ontario’s democracy.

At the heart of the ONDP’s problems is a question of democracy. With their election strategy and platform never having been approved in a vote of its members, ONDP strategists are free to do what they think will win.

With no internal democratic mechanism to rely on that says, yes, ONDP members support this campaign strategy, the result has been an incoherent campaign that seems like a straight up power grab by any means necessary.

And, it certainly doesn’t help that to make the strategy more palatable, ONDP candidates and activists are employing a range of tactics: stretching or ignoring the truth, character assassination and meme-driven smarm. I suspect that there are a record number of progressives being called closet liberals for their criticisms of the rightward drift of this party.

Some might say that it’s unrealistic for a political party to have their platform and strategy democratically decided upon by its members. That, really, democracy is too much of a pain in the ass for such a sophisticated party.

And, yes, that’s true. It is a pain in the ass. But it’s not only totally possible; for a progressive party, it’s critical.

2014 Ontario is a different place then it was in 2011. Thanks to emerging social movements, from the Arab Spring to Occupy, from Idle No More to the Quebec student strikes, much of the heavy lifting has been done.

Tax hikes on the rich are en vogue. Activists have mobilized around Line 9 and helped to make such projects unpopular. Free tuition fees isn’t a crazy idea.

Instead, the most progressive option out there promises to dump $1 billion into exploiting Northern Ontario in the Liberals’ planned Ring of Fire.

What has happened?

Rather than challenging this disenfranchisement and offering a vision for a new society, the ONDP is offering the same, spending most of its public time attacking Kathleen Wynne (despite their support for most of her budget) and ignoring the demands of the people who will be most likely to vote for them.

Some people will argue that my call for a progressive vision is the old way: that you simply can’t get elected promising crap like stopping the destruction of the land. Horwath even tweeted in response to the 34 letter signers who were concerned about the direction of this party, that the ONDP’s third place is the result of doing things their old way. While there’s no way to tell who leaked the letter, it’s not inconceivable that it was leaked by the ONDP. What better way to woo Hudak supporters than by attacking Judy Rebick?

If progressive policies are as incompatible with electoral success as some ONDP activists have argued they are, I’m not sure why the party even exists. Deep down, all progressives believe that their ideas and ideals can be popular and that it’s the strategy that makes these ideas either popular or unpopular. But, if this version of the ONDP doesn’t think that progressive ideas are popular enough to win a campaign, it’s time for an honest conversation about the capacity of this party.

Progressive parties cannot hold “making government” as their primary goal. Progressive parties, parties connected to the working class and the labour movement, should amplify peoples’ demands. They should give voice and cohesion to the working masses, take their demands from social movements, use the levers available to them to push for change and, at their heart, be deeply democratic.

The strategists’ role is to figure out a way to then make these policies popular.

Somewhere along the lines, party insiders have seemingly forgot that the greatest contribution to Canada that the NDP has given, universal healthcare, was not a policy that was enacted thanks to their holding power. That, to build a better Ontario, progressive politicians have to put aside egos and build support on the ground to give them the mandates they need to implement changes. And, in absence of this, it’s a shell game that will collapse under pressure.

It’s not too late to stop this rightward shift. The election isn’t for another two weeks and, if the ONDP didn’t jump right out of the gate with their strategy lined up, it’s possible to make changes to the strategy along the way. It’s possible, though it would certainly not be politics as usual.

But really, in the post 2008 crash, post Occupy, post-Antarctic ice sheet melt, isn’t that what the lefts needs?

If the ONDP wants to engage in politics as usual, that’s fine. But the party and its supporters cannot complain when those of us, seeing the climate crisis and capitalism as being forces that will likely kill us all, argue for the ship to change course. Politics as usual is a disaster and will be a disaster, no matter how many memes, Toronto Sun ad wraps or Kinsella blogs argue that everything is fine.

As Dylan wrote and as a bunch of Mike Harris-era kids sang for a Bank of Montreal TV commercial: please get out of the new road if you can’t lend a hand. 

Image: flickr/John Hansen

Nora Loreto

Nora Loreto is a writer, musician and activist based in Québec City. She is the author of From Demonized to Organized, Building the New Union Movement and is the editor of the Canadian Association...