We all know about the soi-disant “high-profile” New Democrats who complained in the middle of the recently concluded Ontario election that NDP leader Andrea Horwath had abandoned core NDP principles and, as a result was risking core NDP votes in a crucial election. They “leaked” a letter on May 23 in which they scolded Horwath, saying “you are abandoning those values and constituencies that the party has always championed.” My Parliamentary Press Gallery colleague Tim Harper pithily described this as “a manifesto that reads like it was written at an Annex dinner party that went one bottle of red over the line.” In other words, this was the whining of your downtown Toronto NDP, a certain species of New Democrat that has, at times, been more trouble than it’s worth to a party that was born of Prairie populism and sober down-home common-sense 50 years ago.
The Ontario Liberals, as they thought about how they could hold on to their minority government at Queen’s Park and maybe even eke out a majority government, figured these downtown Toronto “Nervous Nellie” New Democrats were ripe for the picking if only they had a bogeyman with which to scare them away from the orange door and through the red door. And, sure enough, walking right through the blue door was that scary Tim Hudak and his promise to fire — I’m using verb there preferred by the Liberals — 100,000 workers. Hudak played the part the Wynne Liberals had written for him perfectly. And that meant the Liberals could start their campaign with ads like this aimed at scaring Horwath’s voters:
Meanwhile, Horwath was talking about lowering taxes on small businesses and having “respect for taxpayers.”
Well, downtown Toronto New Democrats acted just as the Wynne Liberals thought they would and three seats that had been held by Horwath’s NDP turned Liberal red.
In today’s Toronto Star one of the NDP MPPs who lost his job, Rosario Marchese, whines that voters in his riding of Trinity-Spadina took Horwath’s talk of “respect for taxpayers” as code that Horwath favoured a Mike Harris-style common sense revolution. I kid you not. At least I guess that’s what they were saying at the those Annex dinner parties that go one bottle of red over the line. The final total for the NDP in downtown Toronto? 9,000 fewer votes were cast for the New Democrats and three seats were lost.
Meanwhile, in the small cities and towns of working class Ontario — Windsor, Chatham, London, Niagara Falls, Welland — Andrea Horwath’s populist message was just what a lot of voters wanted to hear. Under the Liberals, they’d seen manufacturing gutted. Plants were closing all over the place.
— Mike Moffatt (@MikePMoffatt) June 19, 2014
Hudak wasn’t making sense with all his talk of creating 1 million new jobs by first firing 100,000 people. Horwath was making sense.
And so, in the three urban ridings in London, Ontario — the New Democrats found 19,000 more votes than they found in the 2011 Ontario election. The Liberals? They lost 14,984 votes. And how did the PCs do in the home of preppy Western University? Eked out fewer than 500 votes more than 2011. Wynne and the Liberals had been frantically pitching red door versus blue door but a lot of those hicks in London went and chose an orange door. NDP won two of three seats. The lone Liberal seat belonged to incumbent Deb Matthews, the deputy premier and cabinet heavyweight. She saw her plurality narrow as the NDP vote surged to a strong second, the strongest showing for the NDP there since 1999.
Same thing in the six seats in rural southwestern Ontario. NDP vote was up by 21,000, the Liberals lost more than 7,700 votes and, incredibly, the PC Party lost 4,428! The three seats in Windsor-Essex were a wipeout for the Liberals (-15,385) and the PCs (-11,353) and slam dunk for the party pushing that whole “respect for taxpayers” line (NDP was +25,727).
Did all those new votes translate into a lot of new seats. No. The NDP will return to the legislature in Queen’s Park with the same size caucus that they left in Queen’s Park. Still, the NDP spinners note that compared to the 2011 general election, the NDP won four more seats this time, despite the loss of the three downtown Toronto seats. (Between the 2011 general election and the 2014 general election, the NDP had remarkable success stealing seats in by-elections in London, Kitchener, and Niagara Falls).
But the point is a good one: When you compare the Ontario NDP’s performance in the last general election, based on seat totals and popular vote, the NDP have never done so well since Bob Rae took them to power 24 years ago in 1990.
And yet the moaning continues.
There will be a provincial election this fall – September 22 — in New Brunswick. This is a region that has been tough for the NDP provincially. They have no seats right in the legislature in Fredericton but my NDP friends are bullish on their chances of doing well and they think the new NDP leader Dominic Cardy is a smart cookie. Cardy has a poster former British Labour PM Tony Blair on his wall and likes to talk about Blair’s ” third way” — a way of busting up musty old political and ideological paradigms to find new voters and new support. Cardy and I talked a bit about that last February:
Where Horwath promised to lower taxes on small business, Cardy is promising to get rid of taxes on small business together! He’ll close down some government departments! He’s complaining about “a completely unacceptable deficit”! Crazy New Democrat! What will they say in downtown Toronto?
Well, in the salons of downtown Halifax or in the towers of the University of New Brunswick, they have noted Cardy’s populist drift and, as the CBC’s New Brunswick provincial affairs reporter Jacques Poitras notes, they are not pleased. (Read: “NDP’s Dominic Cardy questioned over moderate political strategy“) Poitras quotes a terribly misinformed graduate student at UNB who told him ” the NDP’s disappointing results in the Ontario election showed that traditional supporters “don’t like their party hijacked by pocketbook populism.”” Remember: The Ontario NDP just had their best vote total and best popular support since Bob Rae took them to power but at UNB these are “disappointing results.”
Why should all this matter? Because the pitches Horwath and Cardy made and will make are precisely the pitches Thomas Mulcair and the federal NDP will be making in the run-up to the 2015 election. Will populism triumph ideology? Ask the federal Conservatives how things work out when you play down your party’s ideological bent and play up its populist streak. Or better yet, ask the Ontario PCs if a sharply ideological approach is the way to win friends and influence voters.
** Note: For some of the regional vote totals in this post, I’ve drawn heavily on and am grateful for the the work Alice Funke at Pundits Guide. Thanks, Alice!