The Left Can Combat the Demoralization That Won Doug Ford the Ontario Election

Ontario premier Doug Ford scored a victory in an election in which less than half the electorate voted. The province’s left must step up to build movements that will spark political and social engagement and reenergize working-class politics.

Low turnout won Doug Ford a second term as Ontario's premier. (Cole Burston / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The election of Ontario’s Conservatives to a second majority is unwelcome news. In their first four years, the Doug Ford Conservatives attacked workers and public services, weakened and destroyed regulations, and mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic — all while trumpeting the interests of big business. There is little doubt that Ford’s second majority Conservative government will continue to advance the interests of business at the expense of the climate and workers.

But we should be wary of painting too gloomy a picture of the election outcome, or of dismissing the electorate. The 2022 provincial election’s voter turnout — 43 percent — was by far the lowest in Ontario’s history. Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives (PC) won 40.83 percent of the popular vote, which was comparable to their 40.5 percent share of the popular vote in 2018. But the actual votes cast for the Conservatives dropped by 415,000.

The majority of voters did not vote. Of those who did, a majority voted against Ford. Ford maintained his vote share by changing his rhetoric in the lead-up to the election. The election outcome does not reflect a resounding endorsement of the PC agenda. Rather, the results point to pandemic fatigue and apathy with the official political process.

Ford may have coasted to a majority, but the numbers indicate a shallow level of support for the policies he plans on implementing. This presents the Left with an opportunity to construct a formidable opposition movement.

How Ford Won

Ford’s poll numbers bottomed out last spring when the Delta wave was hitting the province. In the fall of 2020, Ford made a series of gaffes, prematurely declaring that the pandemic was essentially over. This very predictably led to ensuing waves of COVID-19, pummeling workers and seniors and causing unnecessary and tragic infections and deaths.

In March and April of last year, at the height of the pandemic, Ford’s poll numbers hit their lowest point. Ford refused to heed the growing calls for paid sick days, instead opting to close parks and increase the powers of the police. The public outcry was immediate, and it forced Ford to apologize and reverse course by introducing three temporary paid sick days.

From this point on, the Progressive Conservatives opted to foreground seemingly pro-worker pieces of legislation and rhetoric. Ford benefited from the federal Liberals’ freewheeling spending in the early days of the pandemic. While Ford had to bear responsibility for the problems of the pandemic response, he was also credited with the vaccine rollout and the economic recovery — despite having little to do with either.

His message of “getting it done” and his promise of “working for workers” may not have driven people to the polls to vote for him, but they did not motivate people to vote against him either. To win his majority, Ford was forced to run on a much softer set of politics than those of 2018. Rather than making Ontario “open for business,” Ford made political hay of faux pro-labor messaging. This shift in his rhetoric reflects a decrease in the appeal of right-wing economic solutions to the issues facing most Ontarians.

Voters were very much concerned about the rising cost of living, the economy, and the state of public services such as health care and education. All parties promised to fix the economy, end hallway medicine, and do right by workers. After dragging his feet on the issue, Ford signed the $10-a-day childcare deal in the spring, presaging his compassionate campaign trail rhetoric and concern about the state of the health care system.

Unlike past elections, no party was running on the promise to rein in spending, cut public services, or bolster employer’s rights. Ford did not campaign on privatizing health care, cutting paid sick days, or rolling back environmental protections — even though his position on these matters is well known. Instead, he promised to create jobs in the construction industry. He was even able to pick up some much-touted union endorsements from nine private sector unions — although it should be noted that the eight building-trade unions endorsing Ford together represent only 5 percent of union members in the province. By promising to create jobs in the auto sector, the Conservatives were able to pick up two seats in the Windsor Essex region — normally the stomping grounds of the New Democratic Party (NDP).

In 2018, the Liberals were reduced to seven seats in the legislature and won only 19.5 percent of the vote. The party hoped that newly elected Liberal leader Steven Del Duca would provide an antidote to this disastrous election result. Under Del Duca’s direction, the party would not only win back official status in the legislature but also effectively challenge Doug Ford and pick up seats from the NDP. None of this happened.

While the Liberal vote share recovered somewhat under Del Duca — increasing to almost 24 percent — it was not nearly enough to challenge the Conservatives or the NDP in the greater Toronto area. The Liberals won nine seats, failing to regain official party status. Del Duca did not even win his own seat and was forced to step down as leader on election night.

Other than opposing Ford, the Liberals appeared to struggle with identifying what they stood for. They put forward policy ideas like a regional living wage and ending the diagnostic and surgery backlog, but these proposals had little resonance with voters. Even their splashier promises, such as $1 public transit fares — which should have been popular — failed to land with voters. The Liberals seemed to be throwing promises at the electorate and this appearance of ad hoc strategizing projected an impression of disorganization and lack of coherence.

The Liberal’s criticisms of Ford’s attacks on public education and health care rang hollow. After all, it was the Liberals that brought in Bill 115 to attack teachers, and the Liberals for years had gutted hospitals and other public services — paving the way for Ford’s first victory on a promise to end hallway medicine.

NDP Shortfalls

In 2018, the NDP benefited from a historic Liberal collapse. At the time, although this Liberal misfortune redounded to NDP gain, the party’s poll numbers quickly settled back to earth shortly after the election. The party had no such wind beneath its sails this time around.

While Ford’s popularity diminished with the teachers’ strike in 2019 and 2020 — as well as a series of student walkouts in 2019 — the onset of the pandemic more or less shunted aside the opposition parties in the province’s legislature. Nonetheless, the labor movement and campaigns like Justice for Workers helped to push the NDP to tack left on workers’ rights issues.

This ultimately resulted in a platform that was substantially to the left of any of their platforms in the last thirty years. However, as activists pointed out, it had imperfections. The party’s position on provincial disability and social assistance rates lagged behind the Green Party and was not sufficient to the needs of low-income Ontarians. To the party’s credit, they changed their position on this issue during the election.

In the end, running on a reasonably left-wing platform that echoed many movement demands, the party lost seven seats, 9.5 percent of the vote share, and over 800,000 votes. There are several factors that account for this loss.

The NDP’s campaign was a makeshift hodgepodge and their messaging failed to capture the public’s imagination. In many cases, their policies were quite good, but they were never presented or articulated within a consistent or compelling narrative. The NDP talked about affordability, health care, auto insurance, and housing, which were, in fact, the right issues. But they addressed them in isolation from one another. The party made a series of promises but did not stitch them together to create a coherent whole. It thereby failed to articulate a political vision.

Andrea Horwath’s leadership was long in the tooth, and she was an ineffective messenger. Horwath and the NDP, as is too often the case, were focused on attacking the Liberals. As a result, they failed to both take on Ford and give expression to a positive vision. Horwath has never been a great communicator, but her performance at the debate and on the campaign trail was deeply unsatisfactory. She lacked clarity and passion. Considering that this was her fourth campaign, her performance was particularly disappointing.

Horwath’s problem with voters is a consequence of her inconsistency. It’s hard to tell what she actually believes. In 2014, she was the face of a right-wing social democratic platform, whereas in 2022 she became the face of a left-wing platform. These sorts of fluctuations do not build trust. Rather than boosting the fortunes of local candidates, Horwath acted as a headwind. She was the wrong messenger for the party’s message.

It is no coincidence that many left-wing NDP candidates — Jill Andrew, Doly Begum, Bhutila Karpoche, Jessica Bell, Joel Harden, Chandra Pasma, Laura Mae Lindo, and Marit Stiles — were able to win their seats. Candidates who had consistently supported social movements for years, who didn’t center Horwath in their campaigns, and who were able to articulate a broader vision for social change performed relatively well.

But to reduce this to a question of Horwath’s leadership is to make a profound mistake. The NDP in Ontario will always struggle to make electoral headway in a vacuum. Their electoral fortunes hinge on the balance of social forces in the province. The labor movement and social movements create the terrain on which the province’s main social democratic party can advance.

While there has been an uptick in labor stoppages over the last couple of months, the organized labor as a whole has remained relatively weak. Likewise, social movements have experienced episodic upticks during the pandemic, but in the main there has been a noticeable downturn in movement activity. The few sustained active campaigns, like Justice for Workers, Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, and the Ontario Health Coalition, have helped shift the NDP to the left and change the public debate on key issues.

However, the fact remains that many Ontarians feel burnt out and demoralized. At present, many feel despondent about the collective process of making change in their lives — whether that be through parliamentary process or through movements. Despite some notable exceptions, the larger NDP campaign failed to inspire action and connect with people.

A large share of the electorate has been hit hard by the pandemic. People have experienced two years of pandemic job insecurity, income reductions, and increased cost of living. Living and working through the pandemic has meant navigating providing childcare and eldercare, finding proper PPE, accessing vaccines, and dealing with sickness while lacking adequate paid sick days. Workers in Ontario felt abandoned by the government. They felt isolated and alone.

This experience demoralized many Ontarians. Further, many people are skeptical about the extent to which elections bring about change. Elections and provincial parliament are far removed from people’s everyday experiences. It is therefore unsurprising that many Ontarians checked out of an election in which a Conservative majority had long been predicted.

What Next for Ontario’s Left?

Coming out of the election, the Left will be faced with a number of strategic questions about how to advance political struggle. The resignation of Andrea Horwath as NDP leader will open the door to a left challenge for party leadership. Should the Left rally around such a challenger and join the Ontario New Democratic Party (ONDP)? Is the problem facing the Left simply a lack of radical policies or a specific leader?

There is little doubt about the benefits of left-wing leadership at the party’s helm. However, it is dangerous to think that a simple change in leadership can turn around the NDP’s fortunes or —more importantly — advance broader left-wing ideas in the province. Some will argue that a left leadership can galvanize the party’s left flank and that this rising tide can help social movements along the way. Constructing an electoral project under the misapprehension that it will magically help build movements in its slipstream is fanciful.

Ontario’s left, especially the socialist left, is small and divided. Asking people to prioritize things like the ONDP leadership is tantamount to asking people not to spend their time building movements. Of course, the party faithful will disagree and argue that a leadership campaign or the ONDP itself qualifies as a movement. For people already rooted in the NDP this sort of thinking may be worthwhile. However, for socialists outside of the ONDP, a more effective use of time is to concentrate on a fundamental problem facing the Left: the relatively weak state of our movements.

Socialism, at its core, is about empowering workers. It is about collective control over all aspects of our lives. It is about the radical expansion of democracy and collective ownership of all the wealth of society to meet the needs of all the people in our communities. The core of such a project is people themselves. As Marx beautifully put it, “The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves; that the struggle for the emancipation of the working classes means not a struggle for class privileges and monopolies, but for equal rights and duties, and the abolition of all class rule.”

There is no shortcut here. We need to build big movements, ones that involve workers in fights for reforms that build their capacity, political experience, and confidence to fight for more. This is the best bet to create the conditions for the Left to advance inside and outside the NDP.

A common refrain claims that to achieve any sort of political change, one must enter the NDP. But the modern ONDP, outside of a handful of riding associations, is structured almost exclusively around elections. This means that organized sections of the Left outside the NDP have a greater chance to influence the political discourse than those inside the party. Just look at the NDP platform this election: the call for a $20 minimum wage and ten permanent paid sick days did not come from party insiders, a new leader, or the left within the party. These demands came from movements — mobilized both inside and outside the party — that pushed party leadership to accept them.

Those who seek to blame union leaders or the ONDP for the flagging fortunes of the Left must be profoundly demoralized. Only deep despondency can account for this sort of scapegoating. It is not like the party or unions are monolithic structures that can deliver large battalions of activists. This pessimistic outlook is sometimes simply cover for inactivity. We must dispense with these Eeyores of the Left and look to those who are willing to fight, organize, and lead through action. If we want a more radical and militant trade union movement, we have to build one. If we want bigger movements, we have to organize them. No one is going to do it for us.

Just because a government has a weak mandate does not mean they will not try to see their platform through. Ontario, like many other regions and countries, looks like it is headed toward a recession. The ruling class is aiming to rein in inflation by raising interest rates, which could cause the economy to stall. Such a scenario would play into Ford’s hands — opening a path for further cuts and attacks on workers.

For example, Ford’s temporary paid sick days expire in July. When this happens, Ford will effectively be cutting paid sick days for the second time, which will disproportionately affect low-wage frontline workers — that is, exactly the people that Ford has been praising during the pandemic. It’s true that a minority of eligible voters did cast ballots for Ford. But a much stronger majority of eligible voters support paid sick days and needs to keep mobilizing on this issue. We must remember that it was movements that put Ford on the defensive and won concessions on minimum wage and paid sick days. Movements have pushed against a Ford majority before — it can be done again.

This election has been a wake-up call. If we are going to take on the big business lobby and advance the struggles for a better world, we need to get to work in building the mass movements and campaigns that will make that possible.