Hollow victory for Horwath

The NDP leader pledged to change her ways to win party support, but it’s cold comfort for someone who will have to keep looking over her shoulder the next four years

After months of intense campaigning using the resources and organization of the party, Andrea Horwath managed to hang onto her position as Ontario New Democratic Party leader at the party’s convention last weekend, promising to steer the party left. 

A move to dump Horwath sprang from the discontent of NDPers with the June campaign, which embraced conservative populist themes and discarded social justice issues. That strategy was a mistake, but it was not an accident. The decision to embrace right-wing populism was deliberate. 

Moreover, it was the product of an undemocratic process imposed by the leader’s office. The party needs a provincial executive that will act to ensure that doesn’t happen again.

And although the party establishment’s official slate dominated elections to that body at the convention – the party’s left-wing and independent candidates did remarkably well. 

Independent Michael Erickson broke the stranglehold by winning an at-large spot on the executive. And the NDP’s Socialist Caucus ran or supported more than a dozen candidates for posts garnering between 20 and 44 per cent of the votes. 

Debates on convention procedures and resolutions also produced a number of upsets for the leader. That, despite the hundreds of delegates summoned by conservative riding associations and union leaders to sustain Horwath. (As it happened, convention attendance jumped from 527 to over 1,000 between Friday and Saturday. By Sunday morning it had dropped below 800 again.) 

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 – including on social assistance, where it was changed to advocate a reversal of the 21.5 per cent cuts under Mike Harris, the bitumen pipeline known as Line 9 and abolition of the Ontario Municipal Board. 

The rebellious feeling also produced a win for more time to debate labour issues, and it led to more than 30 per cent of delegates voting against acceptance of the Provincial Secretary’s report closely identified with the failed election campaign.

But by far the biggest upset to the party establishment was the resolution for free post-secondary education and abolishing student debt, a long-standing Socialist Caucus cause.

On Sunday morning, Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan eviscerated the ONDP June election platform, reminding delegates of environmental issues that 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 and public auto insurance as causes the party should be pushing. 

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

Ryan’s speech was a shot of much-needed political adrenalin to rid the sour taste left by the vote to prop up Horwath Saturday, not to mention shake off the hours of mind-numbing tutorials on the finer points of fund raising.

Another exception to dull downtime was Kelsey Mech, national director of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, whose articulate remarks on the theme of engaging youth highlighted the yawning gap between youth and powers-that-be at the summit of the party.

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, Enbridge’s plan to pump Alberta crude through Ontario, stressed the need to devote resources to meet urgent human needs for housing, transportation and health, plus the conversion of energy systems to green alternatives. 

“It is increasingly clear that environmentalism and capitalism are incompatible,” said Goldberg.

NDPers are looking for change, but they settled for Horwath under the circumstances. 

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

Barry Weisleder is chair of the NDP’s Socialist Caucus and a member of the Trinity-Spadina NDP. He ran unsuccessfully as a candidate for vice-president to the party’s provincial executive at last weekend’s ONDP convention.

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