Canadian Social Democracy Study


The Neoliberalization of the Ontario NDP: The Limits of Social Democracy in the Current Era

The 2014 Ontario provincial election has certainly garnered a great deal of interest from those on the political left.  Unfortunately for Andrea Horwath and the Ontario New Democratic Party (ONDP), much of that interest has been a vocal criticism of the party’s abrupt rightward turn in its messaging and its platform. At the centre of this critique has been the ONDP’s apparent abandonment of its core constituency within the working class.  The now well-known letter from the 34 ONDP dissidents, for instance, argues that the party’s “rush to the centre” has led to the marginalization of working people, poor people, women’s groups, and immigrants.   

The Neoliberalization of the ONDP

In many ways, there is nothing new about the ONDP’s right-ward turn.  In fact, the neoliberalization of the ONDP has taken place over numerous years.  In 1972, ONDP leader Stephen Lewis pushed out the left-nationalist Waffle because it was seen as too radical for traditional social democrats.  When the party elected Bob Rae as its leader in 1982, it was seen by many as a deliberate attempt to move beyond traditional social democratic politics and modernize the party.  In government, Rae demonstrated that much of the “modernization” rhetoric was to align the ONDP with neoliberal policies that included the abandonment policies like public auto insurance and open attacks on the labour movement.  When Howard Hampton attempted to rebuild the party after 1996, he adopted an anti-Rae strategy to distance the party from its time in government.  This should not be interpreted as a dramatic turn to the left.  In fact, as Larry Savage demonstrates in his forthcoming book on Peter Kormos (Socialist Cowboy, Fernwood Press 2014), Hampton was the comprise candidate between Francis Lankin on the right and Peter Kormos on the left.  In many ways, the election of Andrea Horwath in 2009 continues this trajectory of neoliberal modernization.

Andrea Horwath and the ONDP 2014 Campaign

Horwath’s leadership has fully embraced the politics of neoliberalism.  This was demonstrated when the ONDP rejected the Liberal’s 2014 budget seemingly out of hand.  The party defended its actions stating that Liberals could not be trusted to keep their promises.  Yet, the budget promised a provincial public pension plan (something the ONDP had previously supported) and new spending on public infrastructure and transit.  Criticism intensified when the ONDP then chose to campaign to the right of the Liberal budget, making vague consumer promises around hydro and auto insurance rates, promises to “respect tax dollars” and seeks to reward “job creators” (i.e. large and small businesses) through aggressive tax cuts.

The immediate response from party insiders was visceral.  Some within the party claimed that the 34 signatories were not ‘real’ New Democrats. Others, such as Ontario Public Service Employees Union President (OPSEU) Warren ‘Smokey’ Thomas, bemoaned that the dissidents needed to “put down their white wine, get back into their work clothes and come to see how average people feel about the election.” Alice Funke provided an equally reductionist defense of the ONDP, dismissing critics as “purists” who “expected the party to run in an ideological straight jacket.”  At the core of these arguments is that “winning matters” and previous attempts in the 1990s to build a traditional social democratic platform failed miserably.  As strategic voting eroded ONDP support in the 2000s, it now fell to the party to create what Funke refers to as “a modern social democratic offer that balances fiscal responsibility with progressive working class populism.”  While it is unclear what “progressive working class populism” actually means, presumably it relates to pocket book issues such as personal tax cuts, and reductions in utility and insurance rates.

University of Saskatchewan political scientist David McGrane also weighed in, arguing that the ONDP is pursuing classic “third-way” positions pioneered by Tony Blair’s Labour Party in the 1990s.  Making peace with neoliberal capitalism, McGrane argues that the ONDP is willing to intervene in the economy “to promote the growth of a vibrant private sector alongside targeting new public services to reduce wealth inequalities.” He makes these conclusions by championing the party’s promise to reduce hospital wait times through partial new investment as well as tax credits, new bike lanes and transit, a tuition freeze and expanding some school and dental programs to low income children.

One does not have to be Karl Marx (or Thomas Piketty for that matter) to recognize that championing private sector power almost always leads to dramatic increases in poverty and inequality.  This has been true everywhere so-called “third-way” social democracy has been implemented. In fact, the OECD has tracked the rise in inequality across the developed world for almost a decade.   And in the United Kingdom, where New Labour governed for almost 13 years, the inequality is among the worst in the developed world! Given that fact, the continued defense of the “third-way” speaks to the ideological bankruptcy of social democracy in the current era.

Give these changes, how should we understand the Ontario NDP campaign in this election? On some levels, the criticism against Horwath alone is unfair.  Her campaign is not radically different from those waged by Jack Layton in 2006, 2008 and in 2011 when the federal party won the largest amount of seats in its history.  Layton’s campaigns also focused on pocket book issues such as credit card fees while also sinking a Liberal government that had negotiated a national childcare plan.  It should not be forgotten that the NDP governments of Roy Romanow in Saskatchewan, Gary Doer in Manitoba and Darrell Dexter in Nova Scotia all took similar neoliberal paths.  Given the electoral success of some of these governments (at least initially) the broader left (to which I include myself) also deserves criticism for not offering political and economic alternatives to these forms of social democracy.  The English Canadian labour movement must also be singled out for criticism here, as it has largely tied its political wagon to the NDP, no matter what its policies are.  It is not an exaggeration to say that both the left and the labour movement are too weak to make significant change beyond third-way or neoliberal social democracy.

That said, however, Horwath’s campaign has rightfully been criticized for its enthusiastic (and unapologetic) embrace of neoliberalism.  Under Horwath, the party has appropriated the style (and even language) of the most visceral neoliberal reformers in the province’s history, borrowing the common-sense rhetoric from Mike Harris’ 1995 campaign.  The party’s romanticizing of private sector “job creators,” moreover, is borrowed directly from the speaking notes of the US Republican party. 

A Missed Opportunity

Rhetoric aside, the party’s real failure has been to ignore two of the most pressing issues facing Ontario today: structural inequity within the labour market and the ongoing crisis of climate change.  On the first issue, the party has done little to reach out to the social movements that long-championed progressive reform, remaining silent on the living wage while actively shying away from aggressive labour law reform.  These two issues are intimately connected, as new research demonstrates that an increasing majority of workers (and a vast majority of young people) labour in the precarious sector, often working multiple jobs to make ends meet.  Reforms that would make a difference for these workers include increases to the minimum wage, stronger employment standards protection, easier access to unionization and public pension plans.  Wrapped within this question are also issues pertaining to equity and justice, as women and people of colour are more likely to work in these sectors.  Given that some of the party’s strongest voices (including Parkdale-High Park MPP Cheri DiNovo and Davenport MPP Johan Schein) have been champions on these issues, it is a real missed opportunity.  Alongside strengthened public services, a progressive champion could see important gains amongst those workers who have little to no voice at Queen’s Park.

To be sure, the issue of climate change reaches far beyond Ontario.  Yet, the party’s virtual silence on this issue is troubling.  There are numerous policy options available to a left-wing party that can speak to the issue of climate change.  The party could press for new public institutions to manufacture wind turbines and solar energy, it could enter into agreements to build new transit cars in Ontario, while pushing for free transit in the GTA, London and Ottawa.  Yet, there is little discussion on these issues.  Instead, the party champions a decrease in auto insurance rates, a policy that actually contributes more to green house gas emissions!  Given that Toronto-Centre MPP Peter Tabuns is one of the most progressive voices at Queen’s Park on this issue, it is again a missed opportunity.

Watching the Ontario campaign from a distance, it is troubling to see the ideological bankruptcy of the Ontario NDP as it moves aggressively away from its core constituency.  It is also troubling to see that the party’s turn to the right could result in some of the most progressive voices within the Ontario NDP caucus lose their seats.  The party had a real opportunity to raise issues that could make a difference to working people across the province.  Instead, it has chosen to embrace the language of the political right, focusing on fiscal austerity, tax cuts, and reducing hydro rates.  In some ways, Horwath has done progressives a favour in demonstrating that the ONDP offers no alternative to neoliberalism.  That fact alone, however, provides cold comfort to the thousands of workers who will have little voice at Queen’s Park after June 12. 

Postscript: Social Democracy and Neoliberalism

It is important to recognize  that the ONDP’s embrace of neoliberalism has not occurred in a vacuum. The limits of social democracy have occurred because of a dramatic shift in the global political economy.  In Europe and North America, neoliberalism has transformed the politics of most countries.  As Bryan Evans and I write in our forthcoming book on provincial political economy from University of Toronto Press, neoliberalism is simply an economic system that promises greater economic freedom by unleashing competitive forces designed to promote individual entrepreneurial initiatives.  In order to promote this specific form of freedom, neoliberals actively promote an ideal type of “free” market through the promotion of free trade, enhanced private property rights, deregulation—particularly in the financial industry—and privatization of public assets.  Since the financial meltdown in 2008 no party has broken from the elite consensus of expanding the financial system through tax cuts and imposed austerity.  

At its most basic, neoliberalism seeks to apply a market approach to governance and as such represents an ideological shift in the role of government in economic and social development. It is based on principles of competition, laissez-faire, efficiency, productivity, profitability, and individual autonomy.   In other words, neoliberalism views the state’s sole role as facilitating “conditions for profitable capital accumulation on the part of both domestic and foreign capital” (David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, 2007, page 7). Under neoliberalism, social democratic parties almost everywhere have been transformed.  In the UK, France, and Germany social democratic parties have either actively championed market reform or entered into right-wing coalitions to champion the conditions for capital accumulation.  Even the Nordic social democratic countries have witnessed a weakening of the welfare state at the expense of greater marketization, privatization and atomism. 

Given this reality, one should not expect social democratic parties to offer real alternatives to neoliberalism.  In the current environment, all policy proposals will be vetted by their abilities to strengthen returns for private sector investors.  This is the stern reality for progressives everywhere and certainly raises political issues that extend beyond the 34 signatories critical of the ONDP and Andrea Horwath.  The real challenge is to think critically about what social democracy really means in the 21st Century and then to contemplate the best way for progressive alternatives to replace it.  That is the political project necessary today.   

Charles Smith is an Assistant Professor of Political Studies at St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan. He is the author of several publications that examine social democracy, the Canadian labour movement, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.




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University of Saskatchewan St. Thomas More College, U of S

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