Hollow victory for Ontario NDP Leader Horwath

by Barry Weisleder

After months of intense campaigning, using all the resources of the organization, Ontario New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath managed to hang onto her position, but only after promising to atone for her crass opportunism, and pledging to turn left.

The mandatory leadership review occured at the biennial convention of the labour-based party held in Toronto, November 14–16. Horwath, 52, received 76.9 per cent support from the gathering of 1,055 district association and union delegates, only slightly more than the 76.4 per cent she got two years earlier.

The move to dump Horwath sprang from the discontent of NDPers with the June 2014 provincial election campaign she led. It embraced conservative populist themes and discarded social justice issues. Moreover, the turn to the right had no internal mandate, and it strained relations with large segments of the labour movement.

The NDP policy shift mostly helped the Liberals, who campaigned for pension improvements and a wage increase for low-paid workers, while Horwath promoted a Ministry of Cost Savings that seemed to target jobs in the public service, and she pledged to hold the line on wealth taxes.

Once the Liberals emerged with a majority government, and the NDP had lost three key seats in downtown Toronto (although its overall seat count remained static), Andrea Horwath purged her senior staff and apologized to the party’s Provincial Council. She told the Convention that she would “keep talking about our ultimate values and goals and not just our first steps.” While this is thin gruel for socialists, it persuaded many members to give her another chance – especially as there is no heir apparent to the Leader.

Still, the mood of the convention was angry, and quite critical of the party tops.

Although the establishment dominated elections to the provincial executive with an official slate, the organized party left wing and independent candidates did remarkably well.

The Socialist Caucus ran or supported over a dozen candidates for executive posts. They garnered from 20 to 44 per cent of the votes cast. For General Members-At-Large, Tyler Mackinnon received 44 per cent. For Vice-President slots, Elizabeth Byce got 28 per cent; Julius Arscott 25 per cent; Barry Weisleder 20 per cent.

Independent candidate for an At-Large spot, Michael Erickson, broke the strangehold of the official slate. Unfortunately, party staff did not reveal detailed vote results for Region and equity-seeking committee reps to the executive.

Debates on convention procedures and resolutions produced a number of upsets. In the opening minutes of the convention, delegates voted to amend the agenda, forcing the vote on Leader to occur late Saturday afternoon, rather than immediately following the Leader’s rah-rah speech set for the morning. This meant that hundreds of delegates summoned by conservative riding and union leaders to vote to sustain Horwath had to hang around an extra seven hours. As it happened, between Friday and Saturday, convention attendance jumped from 527 to over 1,000. By Sunday morning it had dropped below 800.

Motions of referral, with instructions to integrate tougher language into otherwise pablum-like resolutions from the official vetting committee, succeeded in a number of cases. This radicalized the policy on Social Assistance, Post-Secondary tuition, the bitumen pipeline known as Line 9, the Ontario Municipal Board, and nearly did so on Minimum Wage. The rebellious feeling also produced a win for more time to debate Labour issues, and it led over 30 per cent to vote against acceptance of the Provincial Secretary’s Report, a report that was clearly identified with the failed election campaign.

By far the biggest upset to the establishment was the victory for Free Post-Secondary Education, Abolish Student Debt – a long standing Socialist Caucus cause celebre, fought for relentlessly by SC activists, led by Tyler Mackinnon.

On Sunday morning, Ontario Federation of Labour President Sid Ryan stirred the convention with a hard-hitting presentation. Following perfunctory congratulations to Leader Andrea Horwath, Ryan eviscerated the ONDP June election platform. He reminded delegates that environmental issues were conspicuous by their absence. Likewise he singled out pension reform, an easier path to union recognition, a much higher minimum wage, workers’ health and safety issues, employment equity, public auto insurance, and the need for free post-secondary education.

“Don’t be afraid to advance bold policies,” said the chief of the provincial labour federation to which over one million workers are affiliated.

Ryan outlined his strategy to win more of the 54 unions in the OFL to the NDP banner. In part, this entailed a defense of the OFL’s Spring campaign that focussed on defeating the openly labour-hating Tim Hudak and his Conservative Party, an effort which tended to condone so-called strategic voting for Liberal Party candidates.

But the overall impact of Ryan’s speech was electrifying, brilliant and militant. It was a shot of political adrenalin much needed to rid the sour taste left by the vote on Saturday to prop up Horwath, and to shake off the hours of mind-numbing tutorials on the finer points of fund raising.

Another exception to down-time was an outstanding presentation by Kelsey Mech, National Director of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition. Her articulate, energetic remarks on the theme “Engaging Youth” came very close to challenging NDP federal and provincial policies that condone oil and gas pipeline construction. Her remarks highlighted the yawning gap between youth and the conservative powers-that-be at the summit of the party and labour.

This was a point echoed at the Socialist Caucus public forum on Saturday during the dinner break. Speakers Lana Goldberg, an organizer working with Aamjiwnaang First Nation members against Line 9, along with this writer, stressed the need to devote society’s resources to meeting urgent human needs for housing, transportation and health solutions, plus the conversion of energy systems to green alternatives to carbon-burning, rather than to wasteful, profit-oriented pipeline construction. “It is increasingly clear that environmentalism and capitalism are incompatible,” said Goldberg.

The Socialist Caucus played a very prominent role at the ONDP convention, consolidating about 25 per cent support on a range of issues and initiatives, and winning policy battles. Mass media coverage (Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, CTV and CBC) frequently quoted SC spokespersons. No other tendency on the left came close to matching this standard of performance. Delegates and observers snapped up nearly one thousand copies of the full-colour, glossy SC magazine Turn Left, and donated funds to add to the thousands of dollars collected prior to the convention to cover the cost of production. Volunteers staffed an SC literature display table throughout the convention.

NDPers are looking for change, but they settled for Horwath under the circumstances. As Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn observed, “New Democrats are sticking with their leader largely because they are stuck with her.”

That’s cold comfort for the Leader who pledged to change her ways, and who will have to keep looking over her shoulder, for the next four years, as the party left and progressive union leaders continue to press for a Workers’ Agenda.

Excerpts from socialist campaign speeches for ONDP Vice-President positions:

“Good afternoon, sisters and brothers, my name is Elizabeth Byce. I’m a member of the Socialist Caucus and a candidate for Vice-President. I am a retired member of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers with thirty years of service, a past Executive Secretary of Toronto and York Region Labour Council, with 12 years of service, and a member of Trinity-Spadina NDP.

I have been active in the party for over 40 years.

I am retired from Canada Post, but not retired from activism. Currently, I am involved in the campaign to Save Canada Post, to maintain home mail delivery.

Turning the NDP to the right didn’t work in Nova Scotia. It didn’t work in New Brunswick. It didn’t work in B.C., and it sure didn’t work in Ontario. It is now crippling the NDP government in Manitoba.
It’s time to turn left. It’s time to elect socialists to the ONDP Executive.”

“Good afternoon, sisters and brothers, my name is Barry Weisleder. I’m the chair of the Socialist Caucus and a candidate for Vice-President. I am a union organizer, writer, editor, political campaigner, and a member of Trinity-Spadina NDP.

The Spring election campaign was a mistake, but it was not an accident. It was a decision to embrace right wing populism. And it was the product of an undemocratic process. The party needs a provincial executive that will act to ensure that such a thing never happens again.

Here’s a riddle: Why does it take 100 NDP officials to run a local campaign? One is needed to rent the campaign office. One to writethe platform. One to put up signs. And 97 to phone members every day at dinner time to ask for money. Members want to be involved as intelligent political activists, not treated like milk cows.

I am running for V.P., alongside other Socialist Caucus candidates for Executive, to offer you a new direction.

We stand for socialist policies and democratic action. Concretely, that means the NDP should be the champion of workers, women, youths, seniors, immigrants and indigenous peoples. The NDP should fight for a $17/hour minimum wage, the elimination of student fees and debt, no funding for religious schools, no new gas or oil pipelines, free mass public transit, and a sharp increase in corporate and wealth taxes. We should call for public ownership, under workers’ control, of runaway companies.

The federal party’s plan for $15 a day national childcare shows the way forward. But most importantly, it is members who should determine the path.

As V.P. I will make every effort to ensure that convention will set election platform priorities. No longer will the EPC be permitted to rescind the nomination of a member in good standing, or to block a New Democrat from seeking a nomination.

There should be much more time for policy discussion at convention. We should be proud of the prominent role of Labour in this party. After all, this is a working class party. Together we can build it as a party of the social movements, a party of the streets and of the ballot box. A party of the millions, not the millionaires. The party of Peter Kormos.”

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