NDP increasingly irrelevant to needs of workers, immigrants and youth
“After an historical election, Toronto has chosen its first wealthy, white male mayor in nearly half a decade.” Thus ran the headline in The Beaverton, the online satirical publication. As with all good satire, the humour is understated. For those not familiar with Toronto politics, half a decade ago, Toronto elected Rob Ford, a white, somewhat rough-hewn, millionaire businessman. Last week, they elected another white millionaire businessman, the much smoother, John Tory.
More than just Toronto eyes were focussed on the election race for Mayor in Canada’s biggest city. The previous two years of rule under Rob Ford, tainted with various scandals, had attracted attention all over Canada and even internationally. For socialists, the salacious details of the Ford scandals were peripheral –more important were issues around the viability of the so-called “Ford Nation” and the prospects of the left wing challenger for mayor, Olivia Chow.
Populist Rob Ford
Rob Ford had been on City Council since 2000. He quickly acquired a reputation as a loudmouth and buffoon whose conservative politics were firmly grounded in cutting public spending – he argued against spending money on the suicide prevention barrier on the Bloor Viaduct, and spending it instead on rounding up child molesters "who are the main cause of people jumping off bridges." However, his politics and his brash manner, claiming to attack the “downtown elites”, gained an echo among many workers and immigrants, especially in the suburbs. His mantra was “an end to the gravy train” and “respect for taxpayers”. Thus he was one of only four councillors who voted against a 5% increase in property tax in 2001. He also made a point of not using his allotted city budget for his office expenses, paying for the expenses from his salary. And he prided himself on his accessibility to his constituents, responding to every phone call, getting pot holes fixed, etc.
This was the context for Rob Ford’s bid to become Mayor in 2010, running on a right-wing populist platform. His predecessor, for two successive terms, was David Miller, a card carrying member of the National Democrat Party (NDP – the traditional social democratic party), who had lost favour with many voters following his handling of the month long municipal workers strike of 2009 and austerity measures brought on by the economic crisis of 2008-10. Against weak opposition, Ford was elected with 47% of the vote.
The 2009 strike was from the inside and outside workers, organised in two CUPE union locals, employed by the City. The issues were around job security, seniority and the banking of sick days. Ford, the rightwing on the Council and the media made much of the claim that the union wanted to maintain so-called privileges. The greatest impact of the strike was in the area of garbage collection and public opinion turned against the workers as rotting, stinking garbage piled up. The five week strike ended with no clear winner. However, Miller’s reputation as a friend of labour was dented. At the same time, it had the effect of fueling Ford’s agenda for the privatization of garbage collection.
‘Ford Nation’ is a term that has been coined to describe an inchoate, amorphous and yet significant section of the Toronto voting population. It cannot be described as a movement but it certainly provides a social base and anchor for the right wing populist politics of Rob Ford and his allies. This heterogeneous and unstable force brings together low paid workers, immigrants, small business people and others who feel alienated from mainstream politics and, typically, are to be found in the outer Toronto suburbs. The lack of decent transit in these areas of the city fed into Ford’s simplistic mantra of "subways, subways, subways". Taken together with his promises to keep a lid on taxes and the failure of the traditional left to offer an alternative, the seeming solidity of Ford’s support, even with the baggage of his personal scandals, is easier to understand.
Rob and Doug Ford built political support over the years by appearing to care for and appearing to be ordinary people. Yet they come from a wealthy background. Their father owned a company with an estimated $100 million in annual sales, and was a Conservative Member of the Ontario Legislature. Rob Ford is a director of that company. They held an annual free barbeque at their mother’s mansion, with thousands of people attending. ‘Guests’ have included Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the previous leader of the Ontario Conservatives, Tim Hudak, and the late Jim Flaherty, former Conservative federal Finance Minister.
The Fords recognized the reality of class politics far better than their opponents. Thus they were able to appeal to the downtrodden’s instinctive mistrust of the "downtown elites". Despite their own wealth, they portray themselves as being on the side of "the little guy", and were able to bracket Olivia Chow and the NDP as part of these elites.
It has become fashionable among some on the left to sneer at Ford Nation as if this was some homogeneous racist, homophobic mass based in Toronto’s outer suburbs. To understand the Ford phenomenon is to understand similar movements elsewhere, such as the growth of UKIP in Britain or the Front National in France. The economic crisis, combined with a lack of combative response from the labour movement, has had its effect on the consciousness of many workers.
So we hear comments such as: ‘Why should I pay more in taxes, if they go to keep up the salaries and pensions of well-paid unionized public sector workers when I’m making poverty wages and I don’t even have a pension? What interest do I have in expanded bike lanes when I’m dependent on a car to get to where I need to go and need less congestion on the roads?’ When the provincial NDP and its supporters on Toronto Council offer no resistance or realistic alternative to the politics of austerity, it is little wonder that workers fall prey to the simplistic program of Ford and his allies.
The 2014 election campaign
There were three main contenders for Mayor in the 2014 elections – populist right wing Rob Ford, centre right John Tory (previously leader of the provincial Progressive Conservatives) and prominent NDP’er Olivia Chow, (widow of former NDP leader Jack Layton). It appeared that the accumulated Ford scandals (crack addiction, criminal associations, alcohol fuelled, homophobic/racist outbursts) were beginning to cause “cracks” in Ford’s support. At the end of April, another Ford video appeared showing him smoking what appeared to be crack cocaine together with an audio of him swearing and making lewd comments about a female councillor. Shortly afterwards, he announced he was taking a leave of his duties as Mayor and enrolling in rehab. An opinion poll on 1 May showed two thirds of Torontonians wanted Ford to resign. His support had dropped to 22%.
In mid-June, Chow was leading in the polls but, fearful of being labelled as a “tax and spend lefty”, she made the now all too familiar NDP pitch of appealing to the mythical middle ground. “Olivia Chow took aim at rival mayoral candidate John Tory … and painted herself as a fiscal conservative in the best position to save money on transit.” (National Post, August 7). It did not take long for voters to figure out that if fiscal conservatism was the name of the game and the priority was to ditch the divisive and embarrassing Ford, then it made more sense to opt for a genuine fiscal conservative, the man with an impeccable Bay Street (Canada’s Wall Street) pedigree, John Tory.
Over the next 12 weeks, Chow’s support dropped from the high thirties percentage to the low twenties. Rob Ford, back from rehab and projecting a reformed and chastened image, was bouncing back in the polls. In September there was a new twist when Rob dropped out of the mayoral race for health reasons to be replaced by his councillor brother, Doug, as the flag bearer for Ford Nation. As election day neared, the issues of transit, housing and poverty took a back seat and it became a referendum on the Fords. Many natural Chow supporters decided to “go strategic” by voting for the affable Tory in order to stop the Ford bandwagon.
On election day, the results were as follows: Tory: 40%; Ford: 34% and Chow 23%.
Tory, in his victory speech, talked of “building one city” but a look at this graphic of the demographic voting break down shows that this is going to be a hard task.
The upside down “T” reveals the stark class divide in Toronto, with the dark blue representing wards where Tory dominated. “The parts of the city won by Ford (light blue) are the parts that have been left behind in the new economy — the blue collar workers, the underemployed immigrants, the aging widows living on fixed incomes; the people who have been marginalized both in the economy and physically in the city.
At the same time, the headline in the Business section of the Toronto Star, unsurprisingly, was “Business community applauds Tory victory”
Failed NDP ’moderation’
The Toronto election confirmed what was revealed in the Ontario provincial election earlier this year – that the NDP is becoming increasingly irrelevant to meeting the needs of workers, immigrants and youth.
As Toronto Star columnist, Thomas Walkom wrote, “in part, Chow was a casualty of the anybody-but-Ford mood sweeping the city. In part, she paid the price of a lacklustre campaign. But in part, her message of sensible social democracy just didn’t catch fire …The NDP will now have to figure what, if anything, this means for equally sensible social democrat Mulcair".
It is clear that ‘sensible’ social democracy is a bust. Tony Blair’s New Labour, a party of war, privatization and huge increase in inequality, has proved that. It is also confirmed in the Scandinavian countries where social democracies have been held up as the models to follow but following cuts by social democratic governments, new right wing, xenophobic, political parties are making inroads.
Instead of pandering to right wing populism, we should be looking to develop a popular, leftwing politics, imbued with socialist ideas. If this sounds fanciful, there are models for this. In the recent Scottish referendum campaign on independence, the ‘Hope over Fear”’ campaign, with socialists playing a leading role, played an important role in helping mobilizing working class support in a tremendous surge for the “yes” vote and coming close to achieving an upset victory. And in the US, in Seattle, our Socialist Alternative sister organization played a key role last year in the electoral victory of Kshama Sawant as city councillor and in mobilizing around the $15 minimum wage movement (and achieving it!).
The left and union activists in Toronto (indeed, across Canada) – whether they find themselves inside the NDP or outside – need to take note of these developments and to honestly assess the situation that we are in. The seeming resilience of Ford Nation with its manifestations elsewhere and the long term rightward drift of the NDP are not separate, unrelated phenomenon. We need to take heart from Scotland and Seattle. Canadian activists and union members need to seriously discuss how to achieve a democratic socialist party that fights against cuts and environmental destruction. A party that campaigns for policies, all year round, that can provide good public services, jobs and a healthy environment.