The election of the Conservatives to a second majority is unwelcome news. In their first four years, the Ford Conservatives attacked workers and public services, weakened and destroyed regulations, and mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic — all while trumpeting the interests of big business. There is little doubt that Ford’s second majority Conservative government will continue to advance the interests of business at the expense of the climate and workers.
But we should be wary of painting too gloomy a picture of the election outcome, or of dismissing the electorate. With a 43% voter turnout the 2022 provincial election was by far the lowest voter turnout election in Ontario’s history. Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives won 40.83% of the popular vote, which was comparable to their 2018 40.5% share of the popular vote. But the actual votes cast for the Conservatives dropped by 415,000 votes.
So the majority of voters did not vote, and a majority of those who did voted against Ford. Ford maintained his vote share by changing his rhetoric in the lead up to the election. This reflects not a resounding endorsement of the Conservative’s agenda but pandemic fatigue and apathy with the official political process. While he successfully tapped into this mood for the election, this indicates a shallow level of support for the policies he plans on bringing in. And while he has a strong majority inside Queen’s Park, social movements outside can build resistance.
How Ford won
Ford’s poll numbers bottomed out last spring when the Delta wave was hitting the province. In the fall of 2020, Ford had made a series of missteps around the pandemic, declaring it essentially over. This very predictably led to ensuing waves pummeling workers and seniors in the province, causing unnecessary and tragic infections and deaths. His poll numbers reached their lowest in March and April of last year, at the height of the pandemic. Ford refused to heed the growing calls for paid sick days, instead opting to close parks and increase the powers of the police. The public outcry was immediate and it forced Ford to apologize and reverse course by bringing in three temporary paid sick days.
It was at this point governing that the Progressive Conservatives changed course and opted to foreground seemingly pro-worker pieces of legislation and rhetoric. This softer tone by Ford was also the product of a pandemic that gave him a near constant political spotlight. Ford benefited from the federal Liberals’ freewheeling spending in the early days of the pandemic. As much as Ford had to wear the problems of the pandemic response, he was also credited with the vaccine rollout and the economic recovery, despite having little to do with either.
His message of “getting it done” and his promise of “working for workers” may not have driven people to the polls to vote for him, but they did not motivate people to come to the polls to vote against him either.
No mandate for cuts
To win its majority Ford was forced to run on a much softer set of politics than even in 2018. Rather than making Ontario “open for business,” the centerpiece of his election was “working for workers” and “getting it done.” That he had to shift rhetoric to stay in power reflects a decrease in the appeal of rightwing economic solutions to the issues facing most Ontarians.
Voters were very much concerned about the rising cost of living, the economy and the state of public services such as healthcare and education. All parties promised to fix the economy, end hallway medicine and do right by workers. Ford also finally signed the $10 a day childcare deal in the spring and much of his rhetoric on the campaign trail was compassionate about the state of the healthcare system.
Unlike past elections like 2014 and 2018, no party was running on promising to rein in spending, cut public services or attack workers’ rights. Ford did not campaign on privatizing healthcare, cutting paid sick days or destroying the environment–even though he plans on doing all of these. Instead he promised to create jobs in the construction industry–and was able to pick up some much-touted union endorsements from nine private sector unions like LiUNA. Although it should be noted the eight building trade unions endorsing Ford combined represent only 5% of union members in the province. The Conservatives also picked up two seats in Windsor Essex region, where the NDP does well, by appealing to workers in the auto sector by promising to create jobs.
No appetite for a return of the Liberals
In 2018 the Liberals were reduced to 7 seats in the legislature and won only 19.5% of the vote. After that disastrous election result, it was expected that the newly elected Liberal leader Steven Del Duca would not only lead the party back to official party status in the legislature, but effectively challenge Doug Ford and pick up seats from the NDP. None of this happened.
While the Liberal vote share recovered somewhat under Del Duca, increasing to 23.85%, it was not nearly enough to challenge the Conservatives or the NDP in the GTA. They won 9 seats, failing to regain official party status. Del Duca failed to win his own seat and was forced to step down as leader on election night.
The Liberals struggled to identify what they stood for, outside of opposing Doug Ford. They put forward policy ideas like the regional living wage model and ending the diagnostic and surgery backlog, which were half-baked and had little resonance with voters. Even their splashier promises like $1 public transit fares, which should have been popular, failed to land with voters as the Liberals seemed to be throwing promises at the electorate during the election with little sense of credibility.
And this is ultimately what sunk Del Duca and the Liberals. Their attacks on Ford’s record of going after public education and healthcare rang hollow. The Liberals were the party that brought in Bill 115 to attack teachers, and the Liberals for years had gutted hospitals and other public services–paving the way for Ford’s first victory on a promise to end hallway medicine.
The NDP: A good platform is not enough
Meanwhile, the NDP seemed headed for a rough election night, having benefited from a historic Liberal collapse in 2018 that was unlikely to repeat. Just mere months after the 2018 election the NDP’s poll numbers had returned to where they had been prior to the 2018 election campaign.
While Ford’s popularity diminished with a teachers’ strike in 2019 and 2020, as well as a series of student walkouts in 2019, the onset of the pandemic virtually shunted aside the opposition parties at Queen’s Park. Nonetheless, the labour movement and campaigns like Justice for Workers helped to push the NDP’s positions on issues of workers’ rights well to the left of where they had been.
This ultimately resulted in a platform that was substantially to the left of any of their platforms in the last 30 years. Of course this was imperfect, as activists pointed out their position on ODSP/OW rates lagged behind the Green Party and the needs of low-income Ontarians. To the credit of the party they changed their position during the election.
Despite a relatively left-wing platform that echoed many movement demands, the party lost 7 seats, 9.5% of the vote share and over 800,000 votes. A number of factors explain why.
The hodge podge nature of the NDP platform and message in the campaign didn’t capture the public’s imagination. While the policies may have been good, they were never presented or articulated in a consistent or compelling narrative. The NDP talked about affordability, healthcare, auto insurance, and housing in relative isolation. They were a series of promises that never amounted to a vision.
Andrea Horwath’s leadership was long in the tooth and she was an ineffective messenger. Horwath and the NDP, as is too often the case, were focused on attacking the Liberals at the expense of taking on Ford and painting a positive vision. She has never been a great communicator, but her performance at the debate and on the campaign trail was bad. She lacked clarity and passion.Given that this was her fourth campaign, it was hard to tell what she believed in: In 2014, she was the face of a right-wing social democratic platform and in 2022 the face of a left-wing platform. This is not something that builds trust. Rather than boosting the fortunes of local candidates, Horwath acted as a headwind. She was the wrong messenger for the message.
It is no coincidence that many left wing NDP candidates – Jill Andrew, Doly Begum, Bhutila Karpoche, Joel Harden, Chandra Pasma, Laura Mae Lindo and Marit Stiles – were able to win. Those candidates who had been consistently supporting social movements for years, who didn’t centre Andrea in their campaign, and were able to articulate a broader vision for social change for the most part did relatively well.
But to reduce this to a question of Horwath’s leadership is to make a profound mistake. The NDP in Ontario will always struggle to make electoral headway in a vacuum. Their electoral fortunes hinge on the balance of social forces in the province. When the labour movement is on the march and social movements are on an upswing it creates the terrain for the province’s main social democratic party to advance.
This was not the case. While there has been an uptick in labour stoppages over the last couple of months, the labour movement has remained relatively weak. Likewise social movements have experienced episodic upticks during the course of the pandemic, but there has also been a noticeable downturn in movement activity. The few sustained active campaigns like Justice for Workers, Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, and the Ontario Health Coalition have helped shift the NDP to the left and change the public debate on key issues.
However, the fact remains that many Ontarians feel burnt out, demoralized and dejected from the collective process of making change in their lives, whether that be through parliamentary process or through movements. Despite some notable exceptions the larger NDP campaign failed to inspire action and connect with people.
A large share of the electorate has been hit hard by the pandemic. People have experienced two years of pandemic job insecurity, income reductions, increased cost of living, sickness and stress. This experience demoralized many Ontarians and many people are skeptical of elections as means to bring change. Elections and provincial parliament are far removed from people’s everyday experiences. So it is not surprising that many Ontarians checked out of an election that had long predicted a Conservative majority.
What next for the left?
Coming out of the election the left will be faced with a number of strategic questions about how to advance political struggle. The resignation of Andrea Horwath as NDP leader will open the door to a left challenge for party leadership. Should the left rally around a left challenger and join the ONDP? Is the problem facing the left simply a lack of radical policies or a specific leader?
While there is little doubt that the party is better when led by a left-wing leadership, it is dangerous to think that a simple change in leadership can turn around the NDP’s fortunes or more importantly advance broader left-wing ideas in the province. Some will argue that a left leadership can galvanize the left in the party and build social movements along the way. The problem with building an electoral project that can also build movements is that all too often the latter becomes an afterthought.
Ontario’s left, especially the socialist left, is small and divided. Asking people to prioritize the ONDP leadership means asking people not to spend their time building movements. Some may engage in conflation here, where a leadership campaign or the ONDP itself is a movement. For people already rooted in the NDP this may be worthwhile.
Building a fighting left
However, for socialists outside of the ONDP a more effective use of time is to concentrate on the more fundamental problem facing the left: the relatively weak state of our movements.
Socialism at its core is about empowering workers. It is about collective control over all aspects impacting our lives. It is about the radical expansion of democracy and collective ownership of all the wealth of society to meet the needs of all the people in our communities. At the core of this is people themselves. As Marx beautifully put it: “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves; that the struggle for the emancipation of the working classes means not a struggle for class privileges and monopolies, but for equal rights and duties, and the abolition of all class rule.”
There is no shortcut here. We need to build big movements, ones that involve workers in the fight for reforms, which build their capacity, political experience and their confidence to fight for more. This is the best bet to create the conditions for the left to advance inside and outside the NDP.
Often people think you have to enter the NDP to have influence, but the modern ONDP, outside of a handful of riding associations, is structured almost exclusively around elections. That means organized sections of the left outside the NDP have far more of a chance to influence the political discourse than those inside the party. Just look at the NDP platform this election: the call for a $20 minimum wage and 10 permanent paid sick days did not come from party insiders, a new leader, or the left within the party suddenly gaining a hearing–they came from movements mobilizing those inside and outside the party to raise these demands and pushing the leadership to reflect them.
Some on the left, who are profoundly demoralized, seek to blame union leaders or the ONDP, as if they are monolithic structures that can deliver large battalions of activists. This pessimistic outlook justifies their own inactivity. We must dispense with these Eeyores of the left, and look to those willing to fight, organize and lead through action. If we want a more radical and militant trade union movement, we have to build one. If we want bigger movements, we have to organize them. No one is going to do it for us.
The terrain ahead
Just because a government has a weak mandate to do something does not mean they will not try. Ontario, like many other regions and countries, looks headed towards a recession. The ruling class is aiming to rein in inflation by raising interest rates which could stall out the economy. This could create a host of contradictions for Ford and open the path for further cuts and attacks on workers.
For example, Ford’s temporary paid sick days empire in July–so he will effectively be cutting paid sick days for the second time, which will disproportionately affect low-wage frontline workers–those who Ford has supposedly been praising during the pandemic. While the minority of eligible voters voted for Ford, a strong majority supports paid sick days and needs to keep mobilizing on this issue. Remember that the movements put Ford on the defensive and won concessions before–reversing, at least partially, his previous attacks on minimum wage and paid sick days. Movements have pushed back against a Ford majority before, and we can do so again.
This election has been a wake-up call. If we are going to take on the big business lobby and advance the struggles for a better world, we need to get to work in building the mass movements and campaigns that will make that possible.
Join Spring’s Ontario election debrief: What’s next for the left? on Monday, June 6th at 7pm EDT
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