New Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath ‘Winks’ Left

[by Barry Weisleder/April 2009]

Two wings of the party establishment squared off in an eight-month-long battle that culminated in the election of Andrea Horwath as the first female Leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party on March 7. Leftist pressure at the Hamilton Convention Centre was evident too, and registered some progress. The leadership ballot was a mail-in and e-vote affair, open to all members. Only about 11,500 of 24,000 members participated.

Horwath, 46, the NDP MPP for Hamilton East and a former local city councillor, winked to the left, but steered firmly to the centre. She stressed her working-class roots, her protest coalition organizing experience, and the need for labour law reform. She enjoyed the support of the Steelworkers’ union, CUPE Ontario, the Catholic Teachers’ federation, and the Ontario Federation of Labour tops.

The runner up was Peter Tabuns, MPP for Toronto Danforth, who had the backing of the Lewis clan, that of former federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent and other conservative elements of the party hierarchy. Tabuns advanced a pro-market green technology perspective, which attracted some youths and the latte crowd, while obscuring Tabuns’ anti-labour record as former boss of Greenpeace Canada.

Gilles Bisson, MPP for the far north riding of Timmins James Bay, the most openly pro-business, ‘tough on crime’ guy, and a Cabinet accomplice of the infamous NDP Social Contract and Bob Rae-days, came a distant third. Michael Prue, MPP for Toronto’s Beaches East York riding, an advocate of more democracy in the party, more money for municipalities, and putting an end to public funding for Catholic separate schools, ran a disappointing fourth.

During the campaign Prue evolved to the left. He embraced some policies of the NDP Socialist Caucus, arguing that 50 per cent of convention time should be devoted to policy debate, and that to prevent steel and auto producers from closing, public ownership should be utilized. On this basis, the SC extended critical support to Prue. He dismayed his supporters after the first ballot, however, by endorsing Bisson. Few of Prue’s voters followed his example.

The Ontario New Democratic Youth at its convention on Nov. 22 voted to endorse Tabuns. Prue was a close second choice of the ONDY; the others were far behind.

The leadership race was a kind of low-key, long-distance sideshow, occurring in the shadow of the unfolding global capitalist crisis. Devastating job losses in forestry, auto, and steel dominated the news. Ontario alone lost over 180,000 good jobs since the summer. Horwath was best able to tap into concern about this, using language that seemed to challenge the system.

In her nomination speech, Horwath said, “Look at the difference a year has made. The middle class is disappearing and the working class is largely unemployed. We could accept this and adjust. That’s what the other parties say. But adjust to what? Growing unemployment lines and growing food bank lines? Adjust to this growing discrepancy? Adjust so that those who stole our money can get more of it? We refuse to adjust!”

Despite these defiant words, she offered no commitment to keep industries operating and jobs alive, no pledge to make the rich pay. She just reiterated NDP demands for better employment insurance access, job re-training, protection for pensions, and state subsidies for ‘responsible’ businesses. All of Prue’s opponents denounced his call for a debate on religious school funding, but Horwath’s position was the most intolerant. She decried Prue’s proposal as “the politics of division” and a diversion—rather than recognize party democracy as a valid issue, alongside chronic education under-funding, a class-biased tax regime, and NDP hypocrisy towards a variety of non-funded religious denominations.

As usual, the convention was a tightly orchestrated affair. Less than four hours were allocated for debating and voting on policy resolutions during three days.

Despite many obstacles, the NDP Socialist Caucus rose to the occasion, tapping into an emergent anti-capitalist sentiment. It was better able than in recent years to force an open debate on social ownership of the economy and public school funding. The SC had a strong and positive presence amongst the over 1000 delegates, alternates, and observers at the gathering.

SC supporters in riding associations, youth clubs, and affiliated unions filled the convention book with submitted resolutions on a wide variety of topics. These included: raising the minimum wage to $16 per hour; eliminating post-secondary tuition fees; reducing the work week without loss of pay or benefits; improving welfare, social housing, food safety, and employment equity, as well as calling for production of all-electric vehicles; a boycott of apartheid Israel; and for building the NDP as a mass party with more labour, visible minority, and grassroots community affiliates.

Socialist Caucus militants successfully appealed at a Resolutions Committee hearing to bring its most radical motion—calling for social ownership of the commanding heights of the economy—to the floor, where, after a lengthy debate, it received the support of nearly 40 per cent of the delegates present. Indeed, it might have passed were it not for a last-minute, demagogic speech by OFL President Wayne Samuelson.

On the Catholic school-funding issue, the party establishment decided not to risk defeat with a strictly stand-pat policy. In the face of aggressive campaigning for change by an alliance of educators, civil libertarians, secularists, and SC supporters, the party brass felt the need to proffer a compromise. It proposed an internal task force to study the question and report within a year. This carried handily, with most observers noting that any officially sanctioned discussion of change in this controversial area amounts to a big concession by the party brass.

With all the talk about socialism, the ‘s’ word increasingly sprouted in the speeches of the Leader candidates and other prominent figures. But policy clung closely to the pro-capitalist line, despite more vocal opposition than usual. Adopted resolutions, emanating from the top brass, offer: “a lifeline of credit to the auto sector”, tax credits for investors, “buy Ontario” and “buy Canada” protectionist policies, employment insurance reform, and “more stimulus” spending, with job guarantees to be required of state-aided firms.

In response to the announced shutdown of U.S. Steel Co. operations in Ontario, an approved ‘emergency’ resolution proposed to “explore alternatives”. Peter Leibovitch, Vice-President of the Steelworkers local at Stelco Lake Erie Works, revealed to a hushed assembly that the original resolution of the submitting Steel local included a call for nationalization, but this was deleted from the version that came to the floor.

Ironically, due to insufficient debate time, and time squandered in procedural disputes and referrals, establishment resolutions calling for a higher minimum party membership fee, and more stringent requirements to prioritize motions in advance, did not get to the floor for a vote. Setbacks like these, along with the defeat of Tabuns, put a long face on more than a few party hacks by the weekend’s close.

Party leftists, on the other hand, were smiling. Socialist Caucus candidates for the Ontario NDP Executive won significant support—for vice president positions, SC candidates got 29 and 20 per cent of the votes cast by delegates; for two at-large executive officer posts SCers won about 27 per cent; and for president, 14 per cent.

Nearly 900 free copies of the SC publication Turn Left were snapped up. Two SC public forums at meal breaks attracted over 25 and 35 delegates respectively, notwithstanding a poor venue and heavy competition from other events held at the same time. Dozens of delegates signed up to join the Socialist Caucus. Party members purchased over $200 in literature and buttons at an SC display table.

Conspicuous by their absence were supporters of the new leftist Ginger Project and the Fightback group (save for one press seller). The left-reformist Socialist Project commented on the convention, after the fact. An assessment written by two academics, published in the SP e-bulletin The Bullet, misinterprets the outcome as a possible ‘turn to the working class’ or ‘to the left’, while at the same time it strongly discourages any involvement in the NDP. It even counterposes the “theoretical, organizational and cultural alternative” of “the socialist left”, that comprises mere dozens or at best hundreds of radicals, to the ONDP’s 24,000 members and 740,000 voters, which it ludicrously seems to discount.

On March 5, Ontario Conservative Leader John Tory was defeated in his personal bid for a seat in the Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock by-election by Liberal Rick Johnson. This means that the provincial Progressive Conservatives will be embroiled in a battle to select a new leader, at least up to June 27, while the Ontario Liberal government continues to sink under the weight of the economic depression and its feeble prescriptions. This gives the NDP, and its youthful leader, an opportunity to seize the time, to project a dynamic, critical, and comprehensive alternative.

When the bourgeois media, including putatively left-of-centre Toronto tabloids like NOW magazine and Eye Weekly, bemoan the “conventional”, lunch bucket, ‘stuck-in-the-past’ NDP, they are really gnashing their teeth at the resilient, proudly working-class nature of the party and its strong ties to organized labour. It is precisely those characteristics, plus indispensable (though still elusive) socialist policies, that are increasingly relevant as humanity confronts the deepening crisis of global capitalism.

Soon we shall see how far Andrea Horwath is prepared to move in the direction of socialist solutions, now so urgently needed.

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