Political parties seek to differentiate themselves and their platforms to give voters clear choices during elections.
Not so with Ontario’s New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Andrea Horwath, who has been criticized in a public letter by a group of high profile NDP members for her apparent strategy of moving the party platform toward the centre, which would make this latest iteration of the NDP somewhat indistinguishable from the Liberals.
In fact, notables such as academic Dr. Grace-Edward Galabuzi, activist Judy Rebick and Michelle Landsberg, wife of former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis, attached their names to the letter which states in part: “From what we can see you are running to the right of the Liberals in an attempt to win Conservative votes. It is not clear whether you have given up on progressive voters or you are taking them for granted.”
In typical political fashion, Horwath has shrugged of the criticism, calling it part of the democratic process. But, her move away from old school NDP socialism is not without precedent as that path has already been cleared by provincial NDPers in the west, namely Gary Doer in Manitoba and previously, Roy Romanow in Saskatchewan. The strategy led to NDP governments in both provinces.
The letter writers cannot have been too surprised. Horwath has been signaling for months that she was taking a more populist approach in trying to win over uncommitted voters who might feel they could not vote for the fearsome ideas being put forward by the Progressive Conservatives (PCs) – that promise to cut 100,000 public sector jobs in order to balance the budget, for example – or who would be uncomfortable rewarding the Liberals with another term as the government, given all the baggage they have accumulated.
Horwath is not trying to win hard-right conservative votes; this is after all Ontario, where the Tories have long been considered the province’s natural governing party. Rather, the NDP leader appears to be working on the premise that the trauma of the Harris years – the two terms this province was governed by the mean-spirited Conservative Mike Harris government – still have not worn off, which could push people to vote for the Liberals. Except that the Liberals have committed such a multitude of political sins they might have fallen out of favour with some voters.
The alternative would be to vote for a party that looks like the Liberals but are not the Liberals. Horwath would also want to distinguish her leadership by putting as much distance as possible between her and the former NDP government of Bob Rae. If her talk of strong fiscal management brings in some conservative votes, then so much the better.
The NDP stalwarts also question Horwath’s decision not to support the Liberals’ left-leaning budget – a budget she said she had no confidence the Liberals could or would deliver – a decision that triggered this election.
We have to wonder whose side the letter writers are on when they argue that Horwath could have waited until this fall or next spring to see whether the Liberals would keep to this budget, since she would then have had stronger ground for her argument that Liberals were just blowing smoke. Of course, if the Liberals were to fulfill those budget promises, the NDP’s chances for heading the government would virtually disappear.
Horwath is taking a calculated risk by making the focus of her election platform fiscal management while minimizing core NDP values. Platform promises include having a balanced budget by 2017-18 and a “significant contingency” to deal with the deficit. Sounding more like a PC, she says her NDP will “cut out some of the fat” by bringing all hydro agencies into one organization and capping public sector CEO salaries. And, while she hasn’t said she would cut hundreds or thousands of public sector jobs, she has said she would remove bureaucracy.
Indeed, every party understands that it stands on the support of its base. These are the people with enough faith in party principles to volunteer their time on the hustings, going door to door, and summoning the reluctant to come out on Election Day to cast a vote for their party.
While the letter is a sign of the possible erosion of her party’s base, only on Election Day would we know if hers was a brilliant strategy or a giant misstep.