Solomon and Farshad were the campaign managers for the Toronto Centre NDP campaign and are supporters of Fightback magazine.

Toronto Centre has traditionally been considered untouchable territory, with the federal and provincial Liberals dominating the riding. Within the New Democratic Party (NDP), it has even been considered unwinnable by some, particularly at the federal level.

The 2011 election campaign, which was significantly directed by the energies of the Toronto Young New Democrats and the Esplanade Community Group, showed results that have disproven this long-held opinion. Bob Rae saw his support decline by 18%, to 41% of the vote; on the other hand, Susan Wallace more than doubled the NDP vote in the riding, winning 30% support, well within striking distance of Bob Rae. In this campaign, the NDP gained over 9,000 supporters for a final vote of 16,818.

The pessimism is understandable from one standpoint. The typical way of looking at a campaign would examine the finances and resources of the campaign in terms of dollars and staffers, and also of the “name brand” of the candidate. These are not unimportant factors, but looking at the Toronto Centre campaign in terms of these factors, and the general level of support of the NDP, would have led somebody to expect perhaps a 20-23% vote at best.

The question is, what was so different about the way this campaign was run?

Starting from scratch

The majority of the riding association executive for Toronto Centre abandoned the campaign as soon as the writ was dropped, with many finding jobs on more “priority campaigns”. This robbed the campaign of many experienced and high profile organizers.

It forced us to work from scratch and to build a fresh campaign base of organizers. That meant going to the traditional base of the party, which is workers and youth. From the first day of the campaign, the launch party, this situation was apparent. The campaign launch of over 50 people was packed with youth, workers, unionists, and even a local jazz/funk band! Everybody immediately got to work going door-to-door in nearby co-operative housing. The central issue of our campaign was adequately funding and massively expanding public housing.

From the first moment, the activist energy and political resonance of the platform gave the NDP significant momentum in Toronto Centre. This was in spite of the several negative factors including that we had no time to prepare, were abandoned by much of the riding association, and many of our youth were caught in the middle of the busy exam period.

How to run a grassroots and activist campaign

A real activist campaign is different from a typical election campaign. It does not rely on funds and paid staff (though these things are also important). Instead, it must rely on political ideas and sacrifices that people are willing to make to build a better society that addresses the pressing needs and problems of the day. People must have a sense of ownership and stake in such a campaign.

Many youth in the NDP are turned off when they get a typical electioneering campaign — where getting the vote is made an “end” in itself. Unfortunately, even our own labour party in Canada is not immune from this type of campaign. We should ensure that our party serves its original purpose, to assert and push forward the political power of workers, and end the domination of Canadian society by a rich minority. On a more interpersonal level, youth and workers are turned off by being relegated to a secondary status where their opinions are not considered, and are instead given strict orders.

The NDP has an unfortunate habit of recruiting and losing progressive youth at a rapid pace. The Toronto Centre campaign changed all of that. It engaged youth. It trained them. It created new leaders. It discussed politics and oriented to building movements. If people raised criticisms of the party, we engaged them, listened, debated, and brought them into to the party. Often their criticisms of the NDP were quite valid, with many pointing to the traitorous history of the right-wing section of the NDP (who are really just Liberals in disguise, i.e. Bob Rae). The campaign wasn’t an end in itself; rather, the campaign was a tool to engage the working class of the riding and prioritize their interests on an ongoing basis. It was in this way that we built and recruited a large and active youth base, possibly the largest of any election campaign in the entire country.

“Vote working class”

Toronto Centre is perhaps one of the most class-divided ridings in Canada. Along the outskirts of the riding lie the million-dollar mansions of Rosedale and the luxury condos along Bay Street. This can be contrasted with the heart of the riding along Sherbourne Street, on which lie working-class neighbourhoods such as St. jamestown, Moss Park, the Esplanade, and Regent Park. From the outset, the intention of the campaign was to reach all of these communities and make them a priority for organizing.

This meant putting forward demands that would echo the pressing needs of the working class. These included adequately funding and expanding public housing, free post-secondary education, universal affordable childcare, the expansion of health-coverage to pharmaceuticals, and a defence of youth rights (in contrast to a law-and-order agenda). The key slogan of the campaign, “Vote working class, vote NDP,” was used to draw a clear class line between our party and the pro-business parties. This slogan was quite popular and helped to place our party as an alternative to the status-quo. We showed, in practice, that a working class socialist message was not unpopular — it enthused people to get active and gave people ownership over the campaign. This is how we doubled the NDP vote.

Furthermore, we contrasted the electoralism of the other parties (and unfortunately, some other NDP campaigns, as well) with the commitment to grassroots organizing on a neighbourhood, campus, and workplace-level. Many residents are tired of the empty electoralism where political parties are only seen every four years.

At times this meant even drawing a line of criticism against official party policies. The campaign never misrepresented the NDP’s election platform, but it did make it clear that the NDP, as a big-tent labour party, had many different ideological trends. Out in the Toronto Centre riding, New Democrats were overwhelmingly on the left-wing of the party, and were enthused about putting forward socialist demands. It is worth noting that these more left-wing policies are at “home” with the legacy of the CCF and Tommy Douglas, and that the more right-wing and Blairite trends in the NDP are quite alien, and anti-worker, trends of thought within the labour movement.

A case-in-point was the fact that Susan Wallace, at almost every debate (with the exception with one in Rosedale among a bourgeois crowd) drew massive applause for her program. This was directed particularly at her proposed national housing strategy, which called for funding and the expansion of public housing.

A mass campaign & organizing tool

The result of these aspects of the campaign was that every day about 10-20 youth were active on the campaign. Many of these youth were recruited off the streets, from local campuses and communities. High school youth were some of the most disciplined activists for the NDP. This allowed for immense amounts of work to be done across the riding, from door knocking in the large apartment complexes to massive leaflet drops.

The Liberals and Conservatives (and even the Greens) ran campaigns with massive budgets, well-paid staff, and glossy literature to be distributed through paid delivery. Our campaign, lacking these finances, printed youth-designed literature in black and white, to be delivered on foot. With our activist base we were able to cover much of the riding, and almost all the working class districts. Susan Wallace, instead of a paid assistant, would answer every call and inquiry into the office and was there to greet random passersby. Many new recruits would indicate that they were impressed at the contrast between our campaign and the pro-business parties, in terms of our activists, our program, and even the fact that our literature was low-budget!

Our campaign made activism a priority. As much as our activists would call for an NDP vote, they would also explain the necessity of workers organizing themselves into unions, community groups, and into the NDP itself to assert their interests.

An example of this was during the anti-Rob Ford demonstration at the beginning of April. The Toronto Centre campaign office became a mobilizing centre by promoting the rally, acting as a delegation meeting spot, as well as a place to design banners. Perhaps a half-dozen youth and workers who we met during the rally would return to the campaign office after the demonstration, and continue the fight back against the right-wing during the following weeks by organizing with the Toronto Centre NDP campaign.

We even sent a delegation out to the 4-20 marijuana rally at Dundas Square, raising not just the issue of decriminalization but also of over-policing, youth rights, free education, and the G20 mass arrests. We were met with enthusiastic cheers and calls for an NDP vote. Several of these youth would get active with the NDP as well.

In another incident, a local youth was getting harassed near the NDP office by police officers. We sent our activists as observers to ensure that his rights were not breached — and then explained the need to organize around police brutality and harassment (and our civil rights initiatives on the Esplanade). Our campaign was undoubtedly the only one to reach out to the youth shelters in the area from which we drew new activists.

Similarly, we connected with the local urban indigenous communities, putting forward our support and solidarity with the struggle for indigenous self-determination (and also explained how several of us had been active with political actions organized by aboriginal communities). In this way, we gained recruits to what Susan Wallace, the federal candidate, described as “a campaign that had a sense of purpose.”

Sweeping the working class districts

On Election Day, we were able to mobilize over 100 youth and workers to pull out the vote and act as scrutineers at the polls. Though our information is not complete, the polls we observed suggest that the NDP swept the vote in the Esplanade, St. Jamestown, Regent Park, and Moss Park, winning all the working class districts. Many of these areas were considered Liberal strongholds. Our committed activism in these neighbourhoods, coupled with the growing class-consciousness across Canada, mean that this is no longer true.

Furthermore, there was undoubtedly a rise in election turnout in the areas we focused on. In the 2008 federal election, voter turnout in the riding matched the national average (of 59%), while during this election, voter turnout in the riding was 5% above the national average (66%), and those extra votes overwhelmingly went NDP.

One of the great weaknesses of the New Democratic Party is that much of its base of support among youth, students and workers do not vote. There are two reasons for this; soft-peddled NDP campaigns often refuse to orient around the issues of these communities (due to a desire to stay close to a supposed political “centre”). As well, there is little attempt to reach out and organize these communities. In Toronto Centre, the working class areas alone can win an election for the NDP. These neighbourhoods must be made a priority in the coming years and decade. Our campaign showed, in practice, that all those who write off these communities because they “will not vote” are wrong. They will vote, but only if we wage a campaign that gives these people a reason to, and does not pander to a non-existent “centre”.

Lessons and moving forward

The success of our campaign, to the surprise of many (including the Liberals themselves, as well as fellow party members), points the way forward for future campaigns. It is absolutely vital that we build electoral campaigns around the pressing needs of working class people. That is, we should not shy away from socialist politics. In fact, far from pushing people away from the NDP, these policies can inspire and mobilize people towards the party. People will come out to vote, and even make sacrifices to build the party, when they see a political party uncompromisingly standing on the issues that affect their families and neighbours.

To those who ignore electoral politics, or who (correctly) point to the flaws of the NDP, this campaign showed the immense organizing potential that can occur through running a socialist electoral campaign. Furthermore, it shows that despite the right-leaning policies of some of the leadership of the NDP, that there is significant room for debate and discussion within the NDP and that much of its base it quite receptive (and may only show its support in the context) of more concrete socialist policies being put forward.

The way forward is to move away from bureaucratic electioneering. We should not adopt the failed strategies of the other parties. We should build a movement that puts the interests of working people first. Nor is building the party a task for election time. It must be built 365 days a year. If we can do this, we will be well placed to beat back the coming Conservative austerity and win victory for working class people at the next election, and in the streets.

Build Canada’s labour party!

We, the NDP, must lead the fight against Harper, McGuinty and Ford!