Confronting another stinging defeat, members of Ontario’s New Democratic Party are questioning approaches that have been foundational to the party’s internal governance, policy development and electoral strategy.
On June 2, after failing to defeat Doug Ford for the second time in four years, Andrea Horwath announced her resignation, ending her 13-year tenure as the party’s leader.
Then, on June 15, Horwath’s Chief of Staff Michael Balagus announced his intention to step down. More resignations followed: principal secretary Karla Webber-Gallagher, director of digital communications and speech writing Jared Walker, and community engagement director Jennifer Yin Barrett.
With an all-time low voter turnout of 43 per cent, the NDP hemorrhaged more than 800,000 votes and lost nine seats from 2018, when it became Official Opposition for the first time since the party formed government in 1990.
No one disputes there was a lack of enthusiasm for what the NDP offered.
Was it the party’s policies, its messaging, its organizational structure? All of the above, activists with years of experience in the party told The Breach.
Sitting MPP ousted
“The political system is increasingly toxic,” said Rima Berns-McGown. That’s why Berns-McGown, who represented the NDP for Beaches-East York in the Ontario legislature until June 2, chose not to run again.
Progressive parties like the NDP are not immune to toxicity, she told The Breach.
“If I stayed, it would have been giving up the very reason why I got into politics in the first place, to represent people who are marginalized in society, who need their voices and interests to be pulled into the mainstream and at least to be seen,” Berns-McGown explained.
The party, she said, failed to take into account the unique challenges Black people face in politics.
Berns-McGown pointed to former NDP MPP and fellow Black Caucus member Kevin Yarde, who faced a nomination challenge in the leadup to the election earlier this month, and was ousted. It’s rare for incumbents to face challenges, and Yarde told a reporter that he had not been informed that there was a challenger until after the deadline for signing up new members.
Yarde subsequently quit the NDP to sit as an independent for the remainder of his term.
The move attracted criticism from several other members of the party’s Black Caucus.
The absence of support from the party is glaring, McGown told The Breach.
Party sources quoted by The Pointer suggest race played a role in the party’s lack of support for Yarde, because they saw the challenger Sandeep Singh as more likely to appeal to the large Punjabi population in Brampton.
If that was indeed the party’s strategy, it didn’t work. Singh lost to a Liberal by over 2,000 votes, and the NDP lost the seat.
Party operatives “need to understand that the days of being able to say one thing and then act in a completely different way are gone,” said Berns-McGown. “Especially when there is such a heightened need for a progressive party and the NDP is taking up that space on the political spectrum.”
A revitalized Ontario NDP must not simply pursue more equity-seeking candidates, but support them once they’ve been brought on board, she said. “It has to really listen when people have said that there are issues and problems, and not just dismiss those people as noisy activists.
“You can’t fix what’s broken if you don’t listen.”
Focus groups and tested messaging
The problems the party faced in the 2022 election are nothing new, Miles Krauter told The Breach. “It’s the same thing that’s been going wrong with the party for a long time now.”
Krauter is an Ottawa-based NDP organizer who sits on the electoral district association board for Ottawa Centre, and has worked on provincial and federal campaigns for the party.
Party strategists have been banking on an electoral landscape similar to what happened in provinces west of Ontario, where the provincial Liberal party collapses and the NDP becomes the only serious option for centre-left voters.
This hasn’t occurred. In fact, the Ontario Liberals received slightly more votes than the NDP in the most recent election, although it was spread too thin to make a difference in seat count.
The Ontario NDP, Krauter explained, has pursued a strategy outlined by journalist Susan Delacourt in her book Shopping for Votes, which outlined how modern electoral politics increasingly treat voters as consumers who are investing in a brand, as if they’re buying a pair of shoes, with policies and messaging tailor-made to certain voting demographics through focus group testing.
“If you’re winning elections in that way, does it matter? I’m not sure it does. I don’t want to have an Ontario NDP government that is just another iteration of what we see in B.C. and Alberta,” Krauter said.
He said the party’s platform has improved from when he ran as a candidate in 2014, when the NDP ran on an austere platform that called for the establishment of a “Ministry of Savings,” allowing it to be outflanked on the left by the Liberals. The Ontario NDP’s turn to the economic right foreshadowed the following year’s federal election. In 2015, Thomas Mulcair’s federal NDP was leading in the polls until the leader promised balanced budgets and was subsequently trounced by Trudeau’s Liberals, who attacked the NDP for their “austerity” platform.
In 2022, the Ontario NDP offered a bolder policy agenda, including a promise to raise Ontario Disability Support Program benefits and abolish private long-term care.
But those policies were presented more as a grab bag of proposals and not as part of a cohesive vision for the province.
“I don’t feel like we were trying to articulate a sort of totalistic vision for what Ontario should be. We were trying out tested messages that were supposed to be effective according to research the party had done,” Krauter said.
Poisoning the grassroots, ignoring the majority
If the party was unable to get its voters to show up to the polls, at least part of that was due to a lack of energy among its most dedicated grassroots supporters. Some of those supporters have been raising their voices in the wake of a second Ford majority.
Jessa McLean, the president of the York-Simcoe NDP riding association federally and provincially, invited others to air their frustrations on Twitter in the wake of the party’s defeat.
“From an insider’s perspective, what went wrong is just the general disdain and marginalization of the grassroots who we inevitably rely on to do the work for elections,” she said, criticizing the “authoritarian rule” of Balagus, as well as party executive director Lucy Watson.
A long-time party fixer and a key player in Manitoba NDP governments that implemented neoliberal economic policies, Balagus attracted the ire of party activists early on. In 2018, he was suspended for allegedly ignoring sexual harassment complaints in his Manitoba Chief of Staff role, but was then reinstated in time for the 2018 Ontario election.
Kevin Yarde, said McLean, was just one of the candidates who was effectively pushed out by the party. Party-backed candidates were imposed on a number of ridings, demotivating party activists. Complaints about mistreatment, according to McLean, were fielded by the very people the complaints were about.
“It wasn’t just mismanagement, it was malicious,” said McLean. “Some party activists didn’t even vote NDP this time around.”
The party’s strategy of appealing to temporarily disaffected Liberal and Conservative voters ignores what McLean sees as a more robust strategy.
“We haven’t gone after the 60 per cent of people who don’t vote.”
“Our party hasn’t taken the approach of being inspiring, being bold, or creating policies that will lift people out of poverty,” McLean said.
Cautious optimism and deflating pessimism
Ian Borsuk, who is the president of the NDP’s Hamilton Centre federal riding association but has been involved in the provincial party as a volunteer for the past several elections, characterizes his experience with the party over the past four years as “cautious optimism along with some pretty deflating pessimism.”
Borsuk praised the party’s Green New Democratic Deal, its promise to restore the 50 per cent of operational transit funding to municipalities that was axed by former PC premier Mike Harris, and although belated, its vow to double disability support payments. But Borsuk said the party was hamstrung by an overbearing central command that put its weight on the scales for its favoured candidates.
“The overwhelming feeling and the real perspective I’ve had is that despite having such a great platform, in a lot of ways, there just really wasn’t a comprehensive plan or idea of how to communicate that to the base in a way that actually motivated volunteers,” he said, echoing Krauter and McLean.
Another term with Ford in power will have a detrimental material impact on vulnerable Ontarians, Borsuk said.
“These next four years are going to be brutal. It’s going to be a complete disaster for environmental issues, for social issues, for economic issues, and people are mad about that,” he said.
“It really seems like there’s kind of a central base of the party that more or less controls everything and seems to have very different priorities than the folks on the ground who need the ONDP to win, unfortunately.”
It’s encouraging, Borsuk said, that Balagus and other members of Horwath’s inner circle who were responsible for her doomed strategy are leaving. But he questions why Balagus is staying on for another few months.
Those who ultimately replace Horwath’s people must acknowledge the mistakes that were made.
“I volunteer with the NDP because I want to win and I want to see these policies implemented,” Borsuk said. “There have been a number of elections with Andrea Horwath as leader, where we have had different levels of success.”
But the problems of centralized control, difficulty communicating progressive platforms, and a demobilized grassroots suggest the problems run deeper than the current leadership.
“I think it goes well beyond just Andrea.”