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Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath speaks with women who attended the Canada2020 luncheon during a campaign stop in Ottawa on May 23. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath speaks with women who attended the Canada2020 luncheon during a campaign stop in Ottawa on May 23. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Ontario NDP rift over shift to right goes public Add to ...

A rift in the Ontario NDP over Andrea Horwath’s leadership deepened Friday as a group of 34 high-profile party members released a letter warning her she risks losing their support.

The group chastises Ms. Horwath for rejecting the Liberal budget – which they call “the most progressive budget in recent Ontario history” – triggering the June 12 election. The missive also attacks her populist policies, saying they go against party principles.

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The letter brings to a boil simmering discontent with Ms. Horwath’s leadership among grassroots organizers angry that she has left behind ambitious social democratic policy for small, centrist promises.

“In this election, we are seriously considering not voting NDP,” the letter reads. “From what we can see you are running to the right of the Liberals in an attempt to win Conservative votes. It is not clear whether you have given up on progressive voters or you are taking them for granted.”

The letter, dated May 23, was signed by some of the party’s prominent members. Winnie Ng, a former federal NDP candidate; Janice Gairey, a director with the Ontario Federation of Labour; and Michele Landsberg, wife of former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis, all signed the letter.

It comes mere hours after a similar open letter from long-time organizer Gerald Caplan was published on The Globe and Mail website, arguing the NDP had abandoned its principles.

Asked about the most recent letter as she left her plane in Windsor, Friday evening, Ms. Horwath said she had not seen it. “We’ll have to talk about it tomorrow. I have no idea,” she said.

Earlier in the day, when asked about Mr. Caplan’s letter at a campaign rally in Ottawa, Ms. Horwath said the changes she is making to the NDP are necessary to win.

“I wish Gerry were here today right now – because what New Democrats want to do is we don’t only want to talk about our good ideas, we don’t only want to rail about our good ideas on one side of the legislature, we actually want to be on the other side of the legislature implementing our good ideas and delivering our good ideas,” she said. “We’re running for government.”

The revolt among rank-and-file could damage the NDP’s ground game, robbing them of volunteers to help get out the vote.

The New Democrats could be in danger of losing some left-leaning ridings – particularly Trinity-Spadina and Davenport in Toronto, which they won last time by slim margins – to Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals. Only one of Ms. Horwath’s Toronto caucus members showed up for her platform launch Thursday.

The NDP platform included much of the Liberal budget with a sprinkling of populist pledges including a freeze on university tuition and a pledge to hire more nurse practitioners.

But the platform omitted one of the Liberals’ biggest left-leaning ideas: a provincial pension plan. Ms. Horwath also spent the first half of the campaign pitching centrist ideas to save money and balance the province’s books, boasting a “respect for tax dollars” and a mission to “cut the waste” at Queen’s Park. It’s a tactic that offended the letter-penning NDP group.

“You seem to be giving credence to [PC Leader Tim Hudak’s] policies by adopting a more moderate right-wing program focusing on balanced budgets, austerity or at least public service cuts and ‘common sense,’ ” the letter continues.

“It seems in your rush to the centre you are abandoning those values and constituencies that the party has always championed,” the letter said.

Ms. Horwath has previously defended her strategy, saying she is easing the party into the next era.

“These are some of the steps I’ve taken to move the NDP into the 21st century,” she said. “You can’t just throw everything on the table and achieve all these utopian goals.” And she was already aware of brewing criticism. Multiple union heads, including the OFL’s Sid Ryan and Unifor’s Jerry Dias, had expected NDP support for the budget and questioned Ms. Horwath’s decision to pull the plug.

Party co-chair, MPP Gilles Bisson, responded to the letter Friday night, saying their strategy is working and still holds true to NDP values.

“Progressives cannot turn a blind eye to corruption because it weakens the very foundations of our democracy. We need to renew democracy by guaranteeing transparency and accountability,” Mr. Bisson wrote in a statement.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant. The support our leader is getting from people has never been warmer, our ranks never been stronger.”

Follow us on Twitter: @adrianmorrow, @KaleighRogers

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