Ontario’s Liberals “tend to steal” her party’s ideas, and with one year left until the next provincial election, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath says they’re doing it again.
In the 2014 election, Horwath faced criticism from her party’s rank and file that her platform wasn’t left enough, and that her campaign ran to the right of Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals, who ended up winning a majority government.
But despite the criticism — and her party’s disappointing third-place finish — the 54-year-old politician managed to survive.
Nothing has changed, a defiant Horwath said in a recent interview.
“We know what we stand for and we know what we believe in,” she said. “Those things haven’t changed, ever.”
Horwath is not deterred by the governing Liberals’ recent announcements, including a $15 minimum wage, union-friendly labour reforms and free tuition for low- and middle-income students — measures that fall right into traditional NDP territory. Another Liberal promise — a pharmacare program to make drugs free for Ontarians under age 25 — was announced mere days after the NDP unveiled its universal pharmacare plan earlier this year.
“It’s a funny thing about the Liberals,” said Horwath. “They tend to steal our ideas and then really fumble the ball when it comes to implementation or getting it right. So they like to take our ideas and then mess around with them so that they don’t actually come out to be exactly what we would hope.”
Many observers believe there is an appetite for change in the Ontario electorate — the Liberals have been in power for 14 years — which bodes well for Horwath’s party and the Progressive Conservatives.
However, some New Democrats acknowledge that having the governing Liberals on their ideological ground could pose a problem for their party.
Author and activist Judy Rebick warns the NDP will find itself in the same squeeze as last time around, particularly as the Liberals have the backing of organized labour.
Rebick was one of 34 long-time NDP supporters who wrote Horwath a letter in the middle of the 2014 election campaign, accusing her of trying to win Conservative votes while abandoning the party’s progressive base.
She now believes the party has learned its lesson, citing some of the very ideas that the Liberals have adopted, such as the $15 minimum wage and pharmacare — as evidence the NDP is on the right track.
“I think the NDP’s only chance for success is to be bold, on the left of the Liberals,” said Rebick.
But a former top NDP official thinks that’s a dangerous game.
Getting into a “bidding war” with Liberals to see who can go farthest left will end up with the NDP losing credibility in the eyes of voters, who have held former premier Bob Rae’s unpopular NDP government against the party since the 1990s, said Karl Belanger, a former national director of the federal New Democratic party.
“The key challenge, of course, is to appear as a competent party that can take over the reins of power and govern for the common good,” he said. “The reality is that the Liberals… can manage to go hard left and still appear credible, while the NDP are carrying the weight of the previous NDP government.”
Instead, Belanger said, the NDP needs to propose policies with broad appeal.
“It doesn’t mean you’re going against your values,” he said. “It means you’re listening to communities, listening to their people on the ground and their concerns, and trying to bring forward policies that will help them in the end.”
Genevieve Tellier, a political science professor at the University of Ottawa, said the NDP has long had tension between left and centrist voices within.
“It’s a difficult question of balance,” she said, “where to fit on this ideological spectrum.”
Tellier said the Liberals’ strategic turn left likely indicates they believe public has an appetite for that shift.
However, she said that instead of trying to outmanoeuvre the Grits, the NDP should focus on convincing the public they can be good managers of the province, without the scandals and apparent sense of entitlement of the governing party.
The popularity of the NDP leader — a recent Forum Research poll found voters gave Horwath the highest approval rating among the three leaders and found her the most trustworthy — could be an asset for the party heading into the June, 7 2018 election. But, Tellier said, she is also now a veteran on the job, which can make it harder for her to convince the public that she represents the change they’re looking for.
Despite the Liberals’ penchant for her party’s ideas, Horwath believes only the NDP can deliver on those promises.
“We believe that people need a break, that folks need to build a decent quality of life,” she said. “But we don’t just believe that on the eve of an election, we believe that all the time.”