Dream Riding

If the NDP can't win in Trinity-Spadina, then they can't win anywhere.

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It’s only one seat of 301 across the country, but for the NDP there’s more riding on the outcome of the federal election vote in Trinity-Spadina than in just about any other riding in Canada.It comes down to this: if Canada’s beleaguered social democrats can’t win here, this time, with this candidate, can they ever hope for an Ontario urban resurrection?

The NDP was wiped out in Ontario in 93 and again in 97. This time, the party has hopes for Windsor and Sault Ste. Marie. But it has a special yearning to get back Trinity-Spadina, which was an NDP seat until Mulroney-weary voters gave it to the Liberals seven years ago.

On paper, it would seem to be a cinch. The riding (which stretches from Dovercourt to University, from Dupont to the Toronto Islands) has dream demographics for the NDP ­– the fifth-highest percentage of university degrees of any riding in the province, but the fifth-lowest median household income. Well-educated, politically tuned in, but not rich! Perfect. And to sweeten things further, it has elected NDPers locally and provincially who are working flat out for a star candidate, Globe and Mail columnist Michael Valpy.

In reality, it’s much less of a sure shot. To begin with, the Grit who currently holds the seat, Tony Ianno, runs a powerful election machine that was strong enough to beat Olivia Chow on her own Chinatown turf when she took him on in 1997.

And the voters are skittish. Many of them, especially the professionals whose votes the NDP would like to get, are quite comfortable, thank you. Some of them would like to vote against Jean Chretien and would vote NDP were it not for fear of the Alliance.

It’s a complicated stew for Valpy, the religion writer for Canada’s pre-eminent journal of the corporate establishment, now trying to explain to voters why they should cast their vote for the left wing.

“Canada is a social democratic country,” he explains to me as we wait for his team of door-knockers to get a live voter at the door. The core Canadian values of activist government and reliance on the public sector to provide crucial services like health care mirror the philosophy of the NDP more than any other party, he claims.

He’s a good talker, all right, which can be a problem for a rookie breaking into the political game. Valpy was nominated just days before the election call, and with a 35-day campaign will just be able to cover all the A polls. But tonight on Brunswick Avenue north of Bloor, he seems to have all the time in the world. “I’m voting Liberal, I’ll tell you that right now,” one woman warns him, but he lingers on her doorstep, his journalistic curiosity making him ask why.

And his pitch about why he’s running can sound a little too discursive to harried voters who can barely keep all the elections straight in their heads. It begins with how he was down in Windsor this summer covering some demonstrations and met these young people and, wow, weren’t they intelligent! But he was struck by how they were so turned off politics, and he wondered why that was and, gee, wouldn’t it be great if we could make politics meaningful for them.

Olivia Chow is along for the canvass tonight, and she’s constantly tugging at his sleeve. There are voters waiting to speak him. But he finds it difficult to tear himself away from the tall young women wearing tartan skirts he’s run into a few doors down, as if it would be rude to leave without imparting his political philosophy.

Ten days later, I’m back in the same area, and he’s tightened up his act. “The Liberals are going back in, and we want to be a strong voice on the left nipping at their heels,” he says to some nods.

But he often follows it up by asking, “Are you afraid of the Alliance?” and if they nod yes, he says, “Let me give you my 20-second don’t-be-afraid-of-the-Alliance spiel,” which centres on the fact that Stockwell Day has no chance of becoming PM, so vote Valpy without fear.

I ask the newly minted NDPer whether he’s inadvertently raising reasons in voters’ minds to vote Liberal. “I raise it if my journalistic instinct tells me that that’s what’s on their minds,” he says.

For all his shortcomings, Valpy does make a good impression on the doorstep. Architect David Dow lingers at the front door asking about taxes, debt and NDP policy and, after Valpy has moved on, I ask how the candidate measured up. “He gave answers I would expect from an NDP candidate, but to be honest I was trying to get a sense of his character more than anything else.”

Dow gives Valpy the thumbs-up for taking the time to answer questions, and may even give him his vote, seeing as how he’s been an NDP voter in the past.

It’s voters like Dow who are crucial to a successful NDP campaign. As NDP MPP Rosario Marchese says, the Portuguese, Italian and Chinese communities will be hard to pry away from Ianno, and there’s no point in running an NDP campaign based on criticism of a Liberal incumbent who’s done his constituency work well. “Tony is doing his work. There’s no reason to dislike him in terms of getting service out of him.”

The challenge, Marchese says, is to convince enough voters that it’s better to have an NDPer in Ottawa with a progressive agenda, and the voter he thinks will be most receptive to that message is “the more middle-class, professional type of person,” of whom there are large numbers not only in the Annex but farther west, on streets like Crawford, Shaw and Churchill all the way down to Queen and King.

Of course, Ianno will be making things as difficult as possible for the NDP. He scoffs at their claim that they can do more in Ottawa than he can. “If I asked you what one NDPer or five NDPers accomplished (in Ottawa in the last Parliament) you wouldn’t know, and the reason you wouldn’t know is that they have very little influence.”

Unlike himself, he says, highlighting his membership on the Anne Golden task force on homelessness and his chairing of the Commons committee that put the kibosh on bank mergers last year.

When I visit him at his campaign HQ at College and Spadina, he hands me a copy of the front-page story that appeared in the Chinatown Post. “Tony Ianno needs your support,” trumpets the treacly pro-Liberal tract, which makes no mention of the NDP. (There are nine candidates in total, including Tory John Polko, Alliance rep Lee Monaco, Matthew Hammond of the Green party and Paul Lewin of the Marijuana party.)

Ianno will be hard to beat, all right, but things are going just right for the NDP. The Liberals are coming down in the polls, but the accident-prone Alliance haven’t been able to crack the 30 per cent level in the polls, the level at which they can start to do damage.

Perhaps we’ll end up with a minority Liberal government, with Michael Valpy and the other NDP MPs holding the balance of power. That’s the dream scenario in which the opportunistic Grits are forced to institute NDP ideas to stay in power. Then the Liberals would be as left-wing in government as they are on the campaign trail.glennw@nowtoronto.com

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