As we enter the last month of Toronto’s never-ending mayoral race, it appears that Olivia Chow, the former NDP MP and widow to ex-NDP leader Jack Layton, has fallen to third place after entering the election as the favourite. Ahead of her are Bay Street darling John Tory and right-wing city councillor Doug Ford, the brother of the current disgraced mayor. Given the anger and disgust around Rob Ford and his policies, why has Chow’s campaign been unable to pick up the desire for change from Toronto youth and workers?
These recent developments, according to the polling data available, are a radical reversal of what was previously unfolding in Toronto’s mayoral campaign. From the very beginning of the campaign, Olivia Chow enjoyed a healthy lead over both of the primary mayoral candidates, John Tory — the former leader of the Ontario Conservatives and former president and CEO of Rogers Media —and Rob Ford, the current embattled mayor of Toronto. Ford has since been diagnosed with cancer and dropped out of the mayor’s race, to be replaced by his brother Doug. But now, as the mayoral race heats up within the final weeks of campaigning, a string of successive polls has Chow trailing both Tory and Ford, and trailing badly with so far no improvement whatsoever.
Chow seemed to have it all in the lead-up to the election: big name recognition as a star candidate with deep roots within the city, as a former city councillor and NDP MP for Trinity-Spadina, and widow of former federal NDP leader Jack Layton.
The election was hers to win. Mayor Ford continued to crash and burn through personal controversies that have included being caught smoking crack cocaine twice on video, driving drunk, making repeated racist and homophobic comments, desiring to “stick it” to fellow mayoral candidate Karen Stintz, being caught on video drunk and imitating a Jamaican accent, etc., etc., etc. Ford’s embarrassing behaviour had become a liability for Bay Street and earlier this year, Ford was stripped of most of his powers by City Council.
Meanwhile, Tory is a repeated failed politician. As leader of the provincial Conservatives, Tory squandered a massive lead in the polls in the 2007 provincial election after coming out in favour of introducing public funding for religious schools in the province. He was unable to even win his own seat in that election. In 2009, he lost a by-election in Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock, one of the most secure Tory ridings in the province, which forced him to resign as Conservative leader. If this string wasn’t sorry enough, Tory also lost the 2003 Toronto mayoralty election to David Miller, and was the campaign manager for the federal Conservatives in the 1993 federal election which saw the Tories go from government to just two seats in the House of Commons.
During the four years that Rob Ford has been mayor of Toronto, workers and young people in the city have seen significant attacks to public programs and services. Recreation fees have increased across the city, making it harder for poor and working-class Torontonians to access community programs, particularly in the most vulnerable neighbourhoods in Toronto. Funding for public transit has not kept up with demand, and this had disproportionately affected those living in the inner suburbs who have no access to rapid transit to commute to work or school. Under Ford, garbage collection in the western half of the city was privatized. Most city departments have seen their budgets slashed with municipal workers seeing their wages frozen. Cuts to emergency services have seen response times by fire and EMS crews rise to potentially dangerous levels.
With all of these cuts and attacks, the door is wide open for Olivia Chow to present herself as the anti-austerity candidate, as the mayoral candidate who will govern in the interest of workers and youth rather than in the interest of the Bay Street elite. Instead, for the majority of the campaign, Chow has been trying to present herself as the “moderate” candidate who can appeal to all Torontonians. What this has concretely meant is trying to pander to Bay Street and to convince them that she isn’t some “scary socialist”. Her campaign has catered to entrepreneurs, small businesses and other businesses with tax cuts and enticing services; forming partnerships with the private sector and business groups including the Toronto Region Board of Trade and Toronto Financial Services Alliance, while further catering to business and entrepreneurs by examining “barriers that need to be dropped, rules changed or investments made” (which sounds like cutting red tape, or deregulation); and enticing the private sector with city revenue to hire and train young people through so-called community benefits agreements.
Chow even remarked in a Globe and Mail article in May that “I’m not running a revolution. We live in a free-enterprise system.” In the same article, her spokesperson Jamey Heath added “It’s not good enough for a progressive candidate to say: ‘I don’t hate business, I want to work with business.’ We have to actively prove the point.”
In fact, Chow hasn’t just been tailoring her platform priorities towards the private sector and business, but has openly courted, hired, or included both the bosses, their courtiers, and former Liberal Party politicians and strategists in her campaign. These include former RBC executive Charles Coffey; George Smitherman, who previously ran against Rob Ford in the 2010 mayoral election and was an Ontario Liberal cabinet minister; Margaret McCain of the multinational corporation McCain Foods; and former Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment chief executive Richard Peddie. Both McCain and Peddie are both campaign advisory committee members. Infamous Liberal Party strategist Warren Kinsella was running Chow’s war room until a series of missteps forced the Chow campaign to dump him.
What all of this has meant is that poor and working-class Torontonians see very little reason to vote for Chow. In fact, despite the harshness of the last four years’ worth of cuts and attacks, the most marginalized sectors of Toronto’s population seem to be turning back towards the Ford brothers! According to two different polls over the summer, the Fords are polling first amongst youth, first amongst the poor, first amongst Blacks, and first amongst those without a post-secondary degree or certificate. This is precisely the section of society that should be attracted to the Olivia Chow campaign. We have explained previously that the only reason why right-wing populists such as Rob and Doug Ford have any pull is a failure of leadership by the left and by the labour movement. By failing to put forward a program that captures the anger and discontent amongst the working class, right-wing demagogues such as the Fords are allowed to emerge.
Chow, of course, was a prominent MP and voice within the federal NDP, and her mayoral campaign has been an exact personification of the right-wing electoral campaigns utilized by the party at both the provincial and federal levels over the past two years. As the losses continue to pile up for the NDP, Chow could be next. The NDP has lost provincial elections in Ontario, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Saskatchewan. Most recently, NB NDP leader Dominic Cardy, who has openly embraced a Blairite shift within the party, was humiliated in the New Brunswick provincial election when the party failed to capture a single seat (even the Green Party won a seat in the election). Cardy was forced to immediately resign. In addition, the federal NDP has lost nearly all by-elections called since the 2011 federal election, with the exceptions of the ridings of Toronto-Danforth and Victoria, which the party retained in 2012.
The right populist campaign of the Ontario NDP and leader Andrea Horwath, who promised to create a government ministry responsible for cutting $600-million in government spending per year, particularly affected NDP forces in Toronto, where the party lost three seats at Queen’s Park. This has undoubtedly affected Chow’s campaign. The subsequent by-election loss of Chow’s very own seat – the Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina — has also caused a symbolic damage in the lead-up to the mayoralty campaign. The Liberals won the riding handily with Toronto City Councillor Adam Vaughan trouncing NDP candidate Joe Cressy (although voter turnout was very low). Vaughan has been a very big name and recognizable fixture within Toronto as a political reporter for City-TV, and staunch opponent of Mayor Ford at City Hall. Cressy meanwhile was a virtual unknown outside of NDP circles: a back-room strategist and occasional television partisan pundit, who was in essence anointed the candidacy in a coronation, rather than a healthy nomination race featuring debates, a contrast of priorities, and so on. Even so, the perception exists that Chow personally selected Cressy, who previously worked on her 2011 federal election campaign and more or less was her right-hand man. This was a considerable disaster and the symbolism of this by-election result was quite telling heading into the municipal election.
As hard as Chow and the NDP may try to distance themselves from the working-class roots of the party, small business owners, entrepreneurs, and the private sector as a whole will never trust the party or its candidates, precisely because of the base it represents. The only thing that results from the NDP catering to the bosses’ interests is disillusioning its own rank-and-file and giving them very little reason to vote. After a long day at work with either a family to feed, other responsibilities or much needed downtime, why would your average worker be compelled to go to a polling station and vote for Chow? With no inspiring policies nor vision which would make a substantial difference in the lives of workers, Chow has provided no compelling reasons to vote for her, other than the fact that she’s not Rob or Doug Ford, or has a better transit plan than John Tory. She has been going out of her way to cater to those who are only interested in accumulating profits for their individual gain, while neglecting the serious crisis of child poverty which is now at “epidemic” levels.
Since late August, when it became apparent that the Chow campaign was in serious trouble, Olivia Chow has tried to save her left flank by offering a litany of small reforms, but these promises have been too meagre to really make much of an impact, so far, in the election campaign. While Chow is offering workers and youth more than Tory or Ford, her promises do not really address all of the problems and demands of the poor, of workers, or of young people in Toronto, and it hasn’t been enough to change the rightward narrative of her campaign. In addition to a subway relief line, Chow has promised to spend $10-million to immediately improve bus service throughout the city. However, this still does very little to alleviate the chronic overcrowding and interminably long commutes that workers in the inner suburbs have to deal with on a daily basis. As well, it doesn’t address the skyrocketing cost of public transit that continues to eat into workers’ stagnant wages. Chow has also promised to increase the land transfer tax on properties that sell for $2-million, and direct that money towards school nutrition programs. This is an admirable goal but one that still doesn’t provide a real solution to the “epidemic” of child poverty in the city. Chow has also promised to build 15,000 new affordable housing units, but there are currently almost 100,000 people in Toronto on waiting lists for rent-geared-to-income housing in the city.
What Chow and her campaign fail to realize is that the majority of society — the workers, the poor, the youth — are angry. They realize that the current system provides little hope or prospects for them. They want to hear political candidates offer real change, real reforms that addresses the exploitation and oppression that they face on a daily basis.
There is still time for Chow to turn her campaign around and win. It is not an impossibility. Chow could present an inspiring anti-poverty and anti-austerity socialist program, featuring: living wages; increased protections for vulnerable and exploited workers; massive investment and development in impoverished areas to combat rampant child poverty; genuine democratic community control (including over Toronto Community Housing (TCHC) and Toronto Police Services); increased public ownership and workers’ democratic control and management of city assets; massive investment in affordable housing; free public transportation; more green spaces, public parks, community farms and gardens, and so on.
If Chow and her campaign continue on their current path, then it is very likely that Torontonians will face another four years of cuts and attacks from either Ford or Tory. In fact, the real danger is that those who (rightfully) wish to see the Fords thrown into the trash bin of history will turn to John Tory, given the lacklustre Olivia Chow campaign. Unlike the Fords, who are populists at heart, Tory is a creature of Bay Street. The austerity that we faced under Rob Ford will be nothing compared to the cuts, attacks, privatization, and deregulation that John Tory is sure to implement.
Toronto desperately needs a champion of the working class who will oppose austerity, combat poverty and inequality, through a socialist program, which can actually address the crisis of capitalism. This is what Toronto’s workers and young people are demanding. And this is how we will stop the Tory/Ford agenda.