Horwath’s NDP swinging back to its roots
After 8 years as the party’s leader, she is popular and her message is resonating
Is Andrea Horwath coming home again?
After wandering astray for years as a false prophet of populism, the leader of Ontario’s New Democrats is slowly circling back to her movement’s progressive roots. And getting a hearing.
Horwath made headlines with a pharmacare program for all Ontarians that won cheers at the NDP’s latest convention. Earning plaudits from experts, it pre-empted the government’s own pharmacare plan in the spring budget.
The NDP also prodded the government to extend rent controls. And it proposed a 30 per cent cut to hydro rates, grabbing the spotlight just days before the government announced its own 25 per cent cut.
Horwath’s new-found fidelity to the party faithful may be bearing fruit. She scored an impressive 89 per cent endorsement from delegates in an automatic leadership review at last month’s pre-election convention.
That vote of confidence from the party rank and file contrasts with the recriminations she faced two years ago when Horwath sought absolution for her uneven performance in the 2014 election. And it beats the dismal 48 per cent vote that sank federal NDP Leader Tom Mulcair in 2016.
Horwath remains the most popular of the three major party leaders in public opinion polls. And with the Liberals flirting with third place in party preferences, the NDP is getting a second wind, albeit far behind the resurgent Progressive Conservatives who are coasting on vim more than vision.
Which is why Horwath kept repeating, as she spoke to the party’s true believers last month, that New Democrats are “running to win in 2018.” The exhortation to “win” cropped up no less than 20 times in her speech as she unveiled the party’s 40-page vision document for the next election.
That vision is anchored in pharmacare and hydro care. But also bolsters unionization and boosts the minimum wage.
“This is the bold and progressive change you can expect from a bold and progressive NDP government,” she promised delegates.
That marks a change from the party’s recent past, when Horwath strayed from NDP orthodoxy by courting small business at the expense of the working class and lost its voice on the minimum wage. But the NDP may be late to the progressive game, playing on a more crowded field.
As Horwath discovered in her unsuccessful 2014 campaign, Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals are always mowing her lawn. In the last election, Wynne grabbed hold of pension reform after the NDP dropped the ball. Now, the Liberal government is running hard on pharmacare while planning major workplace reforms to support unions and a higher minimum wage.
But providence is smiling on Horwath. After eight years leading Ontario’s NDP, she has a higher profile and better ratings than her elusive opposition rival, Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown. And she is profiting from public disenchantment with 14 years of uninterrupted Liberal rule.
The true godsend, as Horwath finds religion again, has been Wynne’s slow sell-off of Hydro One’s transmission lines, which progressives deem a breach of faith. The NDP has also reaped a harvest of hydro confusion, because many voters believe it’s the old Ontario Hydro that is being sold (it was broken up years ago by a PC government, leaving Hydro One primarily as a transmission company that owns power lines). Horwath claims rates will soar in private hands, conveniently ignoring the Ontario Energy Board’s role in regulating rates.
But all’s fair in politics and war, and the NDP is bracing for the battle ahead. After the disarray of 2014, Horwath has surrounded herself with a more professional team, led by party warhorse Michael Balagus, that is making fewer mistakes.
Deft convention organizers dodged a few bullets, such as an inflammatory resolution proposing a boycott of “the Zionist state,” and a perennial appeal to eliminate separate school boards. The party also averted a vote on a “new technologies corporate tax” that would target innovation and automation, and avoided debate on the Leap manifesto that would stifle the oilsands.
Does all this mean Horwath can strike a better balance between old-style New Democrat dogma and her electoral expediency of 2014 — easing up on pocketbook populism while pushing more progressive policies?
As the NDP leader braces for her third (and perhaps final) provincial election, Horwath is hewing closer to home.