Ontario election: Why Ford won, and how to fight him

The Doug Ford Conservatives have won the 2018 Ontario election. This represents a victory for right-wing populist reaction in Canada’s largest province. It also represents class polarization and the collapse of the “middle”. The Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government has been demolished, and has lost official party status. On the left, the New Democratic party, historically based on the trade unions, won its second best result in history. A period of intense class struggle opens up and there is no time for complacency.

 

Results                      Vote Share        Seats

Conservatives              40% (+9)              76 (+48)

NDP                               34% (+10)            40 (+19)

Liberals                         19% (-19)              7 (-51)

Green                             5% (+0)                 1 (+1)

Doug Ford, brother of the late Rob Ford, Toronto’s infamous “crack-smoking mayor”, won on a dishonest and manipulative program where he refused to detail what he would cut or even the extent of his planned austerity. Populist measures such as $1 beer were interspersed with promises of finding $6 billion of “efficiencies” - a well-known shorthand for cuts. Despite this, Ford promised, incredibly, that nobody will lose their job! There is no way on earth he can keep this guarantee.

The Conservatives refused to release a fully costed platform, so there is no knowing exactly what the final result will be. But that is not the point. People did not vote for Ford because they wanted a well thought out alternative to 15 years of Liberal mismanagement and elitism. They voted for Ford for similar reasons that people voted for Trump - to make a decisive break with the status quo and the downtown Toronto establishment that rules people’s lives. Instead, what they will get is a vicious class-war government that attacks workers and the poor, and that erodes social services that people rely on.

Liberal corruption

The Liberals have been on life support for a number of years. First elected in 2003, they racked up scandal after scandal. They wasted hundreds of millions of dollars in the gas-plant scandal, with Liberal operatives convicted for wiping government computers to destroy evidence. But they managed to survive in the 2014 election by demonizing the Conservative plans to lay off 100,000 workers, while sidelining the NDP with a fake-left face.

In hindsight, it can be said that the final nail in the Liberal coffin was the spike in electricity costs in 2015-16. Prices rose at two-and-a-half-times the national average after the Liberals broke a promise and partially privatized Hydro One. Torontonians were paying twice as much as other Canadians. This price shock, combined with the erosion of good manufacturing jobs and an increase in inequality, sealed the Liberals’ fate.

After this collapse in support, they attempted a more extreme version of their traditional trick of stealing the NDP’s policies. Wynne announced an increase in the minimum wage to $14, with $15 promised if they were re-elected. They promised free childcare for children aged two-and-a-half to four. The favoured party of Canada’s billionaire class did everything in their power to make the NDP seem irrelevant. Of course, if it worked, they would have taken it all back after the election. And their true face was revealed after the New Democrats began to rise in the polls.

The New Democrats had spent a generation in the wilderness after the betrayal of the 1990-1995 Bob Rae NDP government. Elected in the middle of a financial crisis, Rae capitulated to the corporate backlash and abandoned much of the NDP’s reformist platform. Instead he instituted public sector austerity and infamously enforced unpaid days off, so-called “Rae Days”. But instead of learning the lesson of this capitulation and turning left, the NDP consistently moved rightwards. They followed the Blairite mantra that “elections are won in the centre”, despite the fact that the Liberals won elections by faking left. This allowed the Liberals to sideline the party, and appeal for a “strategic vote” to keep out the hated Conservatives. In the 2014 election NDP leader Andrea Horwath had even been proposing $600-million in cuts!

NDP reforms

Finally, after defeat after defeat, the brain trust at the top of the NDP began to catch on. Partially learning from the example of Sanders and Corbyn, the NDP actually developed a platform containing some modest reforms. They proposed a childcare, dental, and pharmacare program, plus the renationalization of Hydro One. None of these programs were universal, and the hydro renationalization was a slow and expensive buy-back plan at market rates. But for the first time since the 1990s the NDP was actually putting forward some reforms that would improve the lives of working class people, if only partially.

The first leadership debate was a watershed moment for the NDP. Ford and Wynne attacked each other while Horwath said that you didn’t have to choose between bad and worse. The NDP offered modest reforms without the Liberal corruption. From this point NDP support shot up from the mid-20s towards almost 40%. There was a real possibility for an NDP victory.

In response, the other parties pivoted their fire against the NDP. Conservative tabloids trawled NDP candidate social media accounts for anything that could be distorted. The rabid right-wing group Ontario Proud played racist dog-whistle politics and vilified the NDP’s proposal that hospitals and schools will not restrict service to immigrants and refugees based upon their status. However, to their credit, the NDP did not bend to these attacks.

In the second televised debate, the Liberals discarded their left face and engaged in a full-on assault on the NDP from the right. Wynne attacked the NDP for being opposed to back-to-work legislation against striking workers and specifically raised the current dispute at York University. Subsequently they backed up this attack with ads in the media. This debate was the high point of the NDP campaign with Horwath defending the right to strike while correctly blaming Liberal underfunding for precipitating such disputes.

In the final weekend of the campaign Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne held a press conference to announce that she was conceding the election, but appealed to past Liberal supporters to elect enough Liberals to create a minority government, which would moderate the “extreme” NDP and Conservatives. The real intention for this call was to prevent the anti-Ford vote from coalescing around the NDP, and 90% of Liberal attacks were aimed against the left. The election of a majority Conservative government was the final service that the Liberals provided to their corporate paymasters on Bay Street.

“Strategic voting” betrayal

What is more criminal than the right-wing Liberal attacks, which should have been expected, was that a sector of union leaders maintained support for the Liberals through this period. This was justified by the concept of “strategic voting”, which only ever seems to mean a Liberal vote. Campaigns led by left wingers, such as Fight for $15, were also criminally silent on the need to reject the strike-breaking Liberals. They even refused to oppose the Liberals when they were actively campaigning against the right to strike. The union bureaucrats actually held out for a Liberal victory longer than Kathleen Wynne, and only supported the NDP after the Liberal leader conceded defeat! But this was less than a week before voting day, by which time the damage had been done. The failed tactic of strategic voting as a means to stop the Conservatives, and those who supported it, bear part of the responsibility for the Ford victory and all the repercussions it entails for working people in the next 4 years.

However, the final responsibility for the failure of the NDP to defeat the Tories lies with the NDP leadership itself. There is a palpable mood of discontent in society and a rejection of the status quo. The eradication of good union jobs, the rise in poverty and precarious work, while a small minority of bankers walk away with billions, is infuriating to the population. Doug Ford tapped into this sentiment when he said he would fire the CEO of Hydro One who had awarded himself over $6 million while presiding over crippling price hikes. The NDP’s complicated, technocratic, plan didn’t speak to the anger of people and gave no hint that the party would confront the establishment.

The only way the NDP would have been able to win the Ontario election, and defeat Ford’s right-wing populism, was if it could mobilize a mass movement against the status quo. This was entirely possible, as shown by Bernie Sanders in the US, Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, or Jean-Luc Melenchon in France. The Liberal middle had been rejected and people were looking for a radical alternative. If there is no alternative to the left, people will find it in the right. You cannot defeat the anti-establishment right with a pro-establishment message. This is a clear lesson from the battle between Trump and Clinton, which has now been repeated in Ontario.

The NDP’s 2018 platform was an improvement over previous elections, but it was only marginally to the left of the Liberal platform. The tax increases on the rich and corporations were very modest, leaving tax levels lower than when the Liberals first came to power. All of the reforms were partial, instead of being universal on the model of healthcare - free for all at the point of use.

Notably, the NDP platform was silent on the issue of university tuition fees. Horwath offered to turn a $4000 Ontario student loan into a grant, but gave no guarantee that this wouldn’t be erased by fee hikes. Both Sanders and Corbyn were able to mobilize a mass of young people behind the demand of free education. In Ontario, young people remained sympathetic to the NDP, but passive with a low turnout. The party didn’t give enough to the youth to provoke mass enthusiasm and participation. The unrealized potential is shown by the fact that a mock vote of school students returned a majority NDP government.

What Ford offered, in an incoherent, dishonest, and reactionary way, was the promise to confront the so-called “establishment”. People who voted for him know that he won't be afraid to turn things upside down and make real changes (no matter how counterproductive those changes are). But what do people know about the NDP? The last time the NDP won government in 1990, on a similar program of modest reforms, they capitulated to the corporate establishment and attacked their supporters. In this campaign, when the Liberals and Conservatives attacked the NDP for being anti-business all they did was mumble that they weren’t. A much more enthusing strategy that would have shown some backbone would have been to remind people of the disgusting response of Tim Hortons bosses to the minimum wage increase, and pledge that the NDP would go to the wall to defend precarious workers. In the last week, the NDP couldn’t even wage a concerted campaign to get Liberal and Green supporters to switch their vote to stop Ford.

In a way, this lack of confidence of the workers in the NDP shows that the people have a better understanding of the capitalist state than the reformist leaders of social democracy do. The reformists believe that the state is a neutral body that can be filled with any content. They think a party platform is justified under recognized accounting practices. Workers understand that class society in the real world does not work this way. The ruling class use all the tools at their disposal to derail a government not to their liking. Either through economic pressure such as the investment strike they used against the Rae government, to mass media red baiting via the tabloids, to bureaucratic sabotage by state functionaries loyal to big business. Even if the NDP platform contained a series of universal programs instead of partial reforms, unless this was united with a denunciation of the ruling class (the “establishment”) and the formation of a mass movement, none of those demands would have been worth the paper they were printed on. This is the direct lesson of the “anti-capitalist” left Syriza government in Greece, that had a very good list of demands, but capitulated to the pressure of the capitalist class when it really mattered.

All out against Ford!

Now that Ford has been elected, everything is potentially on the chopping block. The labour movement needs to wake up from its strategic voting-induced hangover, and begin a concerted fightback. There is no way that the mass organizations of organized labour can allow the rule of Ford Nation to be normalized.

Ford is not popular. In fact he squandered a 20-point lead in the election and became more unpopular as more people came to know him. At the end of the campaign only 25% had a positive impression of Ford compared to 54% with a negative impression! Fewer than 1 in 4 eligible voters supported a Conservative candidate. This is a lying government that deserves no honeymoon. Horwath was correct when she said that the majority of Ontarians did not vote for cuts and that the voice of these voters must be heard. But for that to happen there must be mass organized opposition to every reactionary step taken by Doug Ford. They have no mandate for layoffs after promising that nobody would lose their job.

There are many parallels between the Ford government and the Mike Harris government of the late 1990s. Harris’ attacks on the working class sparked off the Metro Days of Action and repeated votes in favour of a general strike by the Ontario Federation of Labour. A movement of city-wide general strikes pushed down the popularity of the Harris Conservatives, but were eventually called off by the union bureaucracy and Harris was allowed to consolidate his rule. The labour movement needs to unite with all forces representing the oppressed, students, and working class communities to build a new mass movement of struggle against the Ford agenda. But this time we need to demand rank-and-file democratic control of the movement from the bottom up. No struggle is to be called off without a general vote of the workers. Each action must be part of a general program of escalation until the government is defeated. Ford is weak and can be broken by decisive struggle.

A good place to start is with the strike at York University. It is quite likely that the first action of a Ford government will be to legislate an end to the strike. The best way to draw a line in the sand against Ford would be if CUPE 3903 defied that legislation with the support of the rest of the labour movement. That will show him that his dictatorial intimidation will not be tolerated. On June 16th there is a rally planned at the Ministry of Labour with the support of the Ontario Federation of Labour. All must come out to this rally as a show of defiance. The Marxists of Fightback will be there in full force demanding militant tactics from the labour movement, democratic bottom-up control of the movement by the workers, and socialist politics that are the only alternative to the right-populism of Ford.

We need to fight for a mass movement against the Ford agenda, united with a socialist program that can solve the problems of capitalism in crisis. Globally we are seeing a phenomenon of mass polarization: Sanders and Trump, Corbyn and Brexit, Melenchon and Le Pen. Now we can add Doug Ford to this list. But the temporary victory of the right only prepares more radical swings to the left. We do not have the luxury of despondency. We leave it to the Liberals to be demoralized, we shall be too busy fighting to defend the workers, youth, and oppressed. The Marxists will be at the forefront of this fight every step of the way. Join us to stop this government of capitalist reaction.