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Socialist Worker | issue 524 | November 2010

Why Ford won

By Pam Frache

According to the mainstream media, Rob Ford “swept” to mayoral victory on October 25 with a 47.1 per cent majority in Toronto’s municipal election. The “unprecedented” voter turnout was 52.6 per cent, compared with turnouts ranging from 36.10 per cent in the 2000 elections to 39.3 per cent in the 2006 election.

But Rob Ford “won” with less than 50 per cent of the votes and with support from less than 25 per cent of eligible voters. As a per centage of Toronto’s population, only 3 of every 20 people voted for Ford.

The results cannot be interpreted as a dramatic shift to the right by Toronto voters, or even in the suburbs. Over half of all Labour Council-endorsed candidates were elected, and some who lost did so by margins of less than 600 votes. There were even wards where the majority voted for both labour-backed candidates and Rob Ford.

Anger

There’s no doubt people are angry. In October, the TD Bank Financial Group released an economic report with the headline: “Toronto’s economic recovery leaving many behind.”

The report highlighted the worsening conditions in which thousands of Torontonians were living: good, well-paying jobs displaced by low-wage, precarious ones; official unemployment at over nine per cent; dramatic increases in social assistance caseloads; an explosion of people waiting for subsidized housing; a bankruptcy rate at triple the national average; and record-breaking proportions of poverty.

The challenge for progressives is to connect with legitimate anger and ensure it is directed at those who are responsible, not at unionized workers, immigrants, cyclists or other potential scapegoats.

Part of Rob Ford’s success was that he framed the debate early: “Toronto doesn’t have a revenue problem it has a spending problem.” He never veered off-message.

Progressives countered Rob Ford’s campaign of anger by highlighting the positive aspects of Toronto’s governance over the past seven years: low taxes, balanced budget, great services, green progress, expanded public transit, and more. This was a welcome change, but defending the spending record of the previous council only challenged half the equation. It didn’t explain the very real revenue problem facing the city, nor highlight the provincial and federal policies that are responsible for the deteriorating living conditions of so many living in Toronto.

For instance, Toronto continues to pay for provincially mandated services that were downloaded to the city under the Conservative Mike Harris regime. City Hall budget officers estimate that Ontario should be paying an additional $273 million annually. Yet while the Ontario Liberal government refuses to pay its fair share to cities, it has handed corporations a gift of up to $2.4 billion annually in tax cuts. When fully phased-in Ontario’s combined provincial and federal corporate tax rates will be among the lowest in the OECD.

By accepting the terms of debate, progressives were handcuffed by existing financial constraints, which in turn reduced progressives’ ability to imagine something better for the city’s inhabitants. Defending Miller’s spending record also meant accepting and legitimizing his attack on unionized workers, when he demanded cuts in sick leave and other concessions and provoked the 2008 strike.

By promoting the narrative that workers were responsible for Toronto’s financial problems, Miller threw the door wide open to Ford’s anti-worker message.

Strategic voting

By summer’s end, it became clear Rob Ford was leading. Pantalone was in third place. In response, George Smitherman shored up his right wing credentials. He released a list of high profile Conservative endorsements that included Tory senators and former Mike Harris-era cabinet ministers.

The perception that Smitherman was better than Ford should have been laid to rest when Harris-era cabinet members lined-up with Smitherman. Yet shortly thereafter, well-known left incumbent Joe Mihevc joined Tory senators and cabinet ministers in endorsing Smitherman.

Other progressive incumbents like Sandra Bussin, Pam McConnell and Adam Vaughan did likewise abandoning a fellow labour-backed candidate who had mounted principled opposition to the privatization and cutback agenda of Ford and Smitherman. In the end, strategic voting clearly hurt Pantalone who, despite polling as high at 16 and 17 per cent during the campaign, garnered only 11.7 per cent on Election Day.

Strategic voting is a strategy that seeks to blur the distinctions between workers and capitalists, creating a cross-class alliance to defeat a particular candidate. Theoretically, strategic voting is supposed to apply even when a labour candidate has a better chance of being elected than a bosses’ candidate. But since working class consciousness is uneven and rarely shared among a majority, strategic voting usually results in greater numbers of workers voting for capitalists. Extended to the provincial or federal level, the strategy is a disaster for the NDP.

Socialists & elections

For many people, elections are the highest form of politics; voters are seen as passive subjects whose lives are shaped by those who hold elected office. Winning a seat (or preventing someone else from getting it)—by any means necessary—becomes the modus operandi. Too often candidates tailor their message to fit with the dominant consciousness among voters.

Most progressives aspire to manage capitalism’s affairs in as humane a manner as possible, but not to fundamentally challenge its logic. If, after winning office, they turn on unions, cut services, freeze hiring, or increase user fees, they do so reluctantly, hoping to manage the particular crisis before them and deliver something better down the road. In reality, they side with capitalists and help undermine their own base of support.

By contrast, Socialists see change as coming from below, from ordinary working people. In this context, the key question during an election is not which platform or other is best (though that informs our vote) or which individual has the best chance of getting elected. It’s about how the election is going to affect the confidence and willingness of working people to fight back. When there are labour-backed candidates we often support them against capitalist opponents.

But Socialists also know that every person elected, regardless of their labour credentials, will eventually have to choose between what’s in the interests of workers and what’s in the interests of capitalism. The pressure from above is intense. Without pressure from below, even the best can succumb. As such, the workers’ movements themselves are the best form of insurance before, during and after an election. History shows that labour and social movements from below have stayed hands of the mightiest capitalist leaders.

Prospects

As the recession drags on, existing anger can only deepen. But this anger has the potential to propel thousands into action. While in Toronto we haven’t experienced the kind of breakthrough in struggle seen elsewhere in the world, Socialists understand that every strike and every resistance movement holds potential.

That’s why progressives must support rank and file resistance to Neoliberalism and rebuild labour solidarity wherever possible. And in the many important struggles that lie ahead, there’s no doubt we’ll find ourselves shoulder to shoulder with people who voted for Rob Ford. Our job is to give them the ideas, tools and confidence to keep them fighting on our side.

Socialist Worker issue 524