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2020 Ontario licence plate by the Doug Ford government. Photo: Sikander Iqbal/cropped from original/licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, linked at bottom of article

2020 Ontario licence plate by the Doug Ford government. Photo: Sikander Iqbal/cropped from original/licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, linked at bottom of article

Social democrats fighting for the centre sees workers stay at home and the Tories maintain power, argues John Clarke

To no great surprise, the Ontario election on 2 June secured a second term in office for the Tory Party and its leader, Doug Ford. Media coverage has seriously downplayed the fact that voter turnout was at an all time low. The numbers who stayed away from the polls were so great that, if ‘none of the above’ had official party status, the Ontario Legislature would be standing empty for the next four years. There are some important lessons to draw from this remarkable development.

While Ontario is only one province out of ten, nearly 40% of Canada’s population live here and its economy is considerably larger than any of its counterparts. Last year, Ontario contributed some 38.9% of Canada’s GDP. The re-election of a hard right conservative government in Ontario, therefore, has major implications for the political life of the entire country.

Doug Ford, very much a right wing populist figure whose name has often been associated with that of Donald Trump, led the Tory Party to victory in 2018. He defeated a tired and discredited Liberal Party that had exhausted its political shelf life, after fifteen years in government.

Since taking power, Ford has certainly served as a loyal representative of business interests. His government has attacked workers’ rights, public healthcare and public education. Though an ‘open for business’ approach has been put well ahead of the health needs of communities during the pandemic, it is also true that the impact of Covid has made a clear cut austerity attack impossible to pursue. Ford’s second term in office is likely to be marked by a far more single-minded assault on workers and the social infrastructure.

Collapse of vote

The right-wing National Post’s headline after the election presented us with a version of events in which the Ford Tories ‘roar to a second majority.’ That they increased their seat count, from 76 to 83 (with 63 needed to form a majority), and raised their share of the popular vote is not untrue but an honest account would have to reckon with the cruel reality of a greatly diminished level of voter participation:

“The province recorded the lowest voter turnout in history during this election, with just about 43.5 per cent of eligible voters casting a ballot according to preliminary Elections Ontario results.”

Only 4.6 million ballots were cast out of 10.7 million registered voters, which is “about 13.5 percentage points lower than the 2018 provincial election turnout.” This means that the Ford Tories, under rapidly worsening economic conditions, will now proceed with a harsh and regressive political agenda with a ‘solid majority’ that actually represents the support of less than 18% of those eligible to vote.

A couple of important conclusions can be drawn from this situation. Firstly, the embittered pessimism that some have given into to about a working-class population that supports the Tories and wallows in reactionary backwardness is quite mythical. There was no sweeping tide of support for Ford but, rather, a strong sense that participation in the electoral process offered no solutions for hard pressed workers and communities.

To the limited extent that the mainstream media is acknowledging the collapse of the vote, it is suggesting that it reflects ‘voter apathy’ but it would be more accurate to say that it is the product of a deep seated anger that finds no outlet at present because of the lack of a viable alternative. In this regard, the state of the other two major parties in Ontario is revealing.

In Canada, the party of social democracy, the New Democratic Party (NDP), generally suffers from an inability to adequately distinguish itself from the Liberals, who dominate the political centre. However, during the 2018 Ontario election, the discredited provincial Liberals were decimated and the NDP took over the role of official opposition. In this election, the Liberals utterly failed to recover their lost ground. When the dust cleared, they had only 8 seats, the leader of their party lost his own seat, and they were unable to regain official party status. This is an important consideration because the NDP were not shut out this time, as they often are, by the fake progressive credentials of the Liberal Party.

The electoral result can, therefore, be largely attributed to the failure of the NDP to pose an effective and convincing alternative to the Ford Tories. It retained official opposition status, but lost 9 seats, going down to 31, and saw a 10% decline in its share of the popular vote. Party leader Andrea Horwath was forced to announce her resignation immediately after the results came in.

While it is possible to point to pledges in the NDP’s electoral platform that would have made some difference in areas like healthcare and workers’ rights, it was hard to see their campaign as a fighting alternative. With the federal NDP providing the votes to keep the Trudeau Liberals in office, Horwath left the door open for some sort of working relationship with the Ontario Liberals, had the election results offered such a possibility. Once again, the standard effort to cling to the political centre defined the role of the NDP.

This deep reluctance to pose an inspiring alternative is revealed with particular clarity by the NDP’s hesitant approach to the hundreds of thousands who live in deep poverty on provincial social assistance benefits, including many disabled people. This system of income support has been eroded over decades and the benefits have been frozen for the last three years by the Ford Tories so that the present cost of living crisis has created an impossible situation of enormous hardship. Horwath did belatedly pledge to double the rates but she did so only under considerable pressure from within her base of support and because her party was being outflanked on the issue by the Greens.

The NDP’s outgoing critic on poverty and homelessness, Rima Berns-McGown, offered a clear assessment of the motive behind such a cautious approach to a desperately needed increase in social benefits, acknowledging that there was a fear of scaring off centrist voters. However, as she put it,

“I think that’s what happens when you try to do that is that you please nobody. If people want to vote for Liberals, they’ll vote for Liberals.

The only slight correction to be made in hindsight to this observation is that, rather than vote for the Liberals, many potential NDP voters simply stayed home in disgust.

The most galling aspect of this perennial quest for refuge at the political centre is that it always fails on its own terms. It is noteworthy that the NDP’s Joel Harden, one of the most left wing of their elected members, with an established reputation for backing community struggles in the Ottawa neighbourhoods he represents, ‘won re-election massively.’ He was the first to call for Horwath to step down and has not ruled out a run for the leadership of the party.

Fightback

Though he obtained it with the support of less than a fifth of eligible voters, Doug Ford now commands a majority in the Ontario Legislature and, in the context of soaring inflation and economic downturn, will go on the attack. The indignation coming from the opposition benches won’t count for a great deal and it will require a serious and united working-class mobilisation to stop the Tory attack.

In the 1990s, when a decidedly Thatcher like Conservative government in Ontario mounted a full-blown attack on workers and the social infrastructure, there was enormously powerful resistance. A campaign known as the ‘Days of Action’ unleashed rotating city-wide strikes and massive protests to challenge the Tories.

The movement was limited and ultimately undermined by stultifying bureaucratic control and the lack of a clear strategy, but it was nonetheless able to blunt the advance of the austerity agenda. In the present context, the need for a united social movement, capable of engaging in powerful mass action, will be even greater than in the 1990s.

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John Clarke

John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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