Tom Parkin is principal of Impact Strategies and has worked for the NDP in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Ottawa.
To hear it from Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives, Doug Ford’s landslide re-election in June was a result of character and communications: Mr. Ford convinced Ontarians that he’d changed, that he could speak clearly to the working class because he understood them.
But Mr. Ford’s victory wasn’t just about a character change and a communications win. Doug Ford and his PCs demonstrated a change of character through a key policy reversal that enabled a new alignment with a segment of the labour movement. And with that key reversal, and the construction-union endorsements it brought, the PCs built a campaign on the icons of working-class men – hard hats, high-visibility vests and heavy machinery – and summed it all up in a three-word slogan: “Get it done.”
With a leadership race now under way to replace Andrea Horwath, who resigned after 13 years as the leader of Ontario’s New Democratic Party, Mr. Ford’s policy and communications switch can be instructive to the opposition New Democrats. A new leader always represents a change in party character. But the NDP also needs a change of plan.
The old plan, after all, has a math problem: From now until the next election in 2026, the NDP can again try to squeeze Liberal votes to close the gap with the PCs, but it won’t add up to a win. The Ford PCs earned more than 40 per cent of the vote in the past two elections, and no party with that level of support has lost an election in the province since 1905. The NDP doesn’t just need to increase its own support, it needs to pry away PC support, too.
So while the NDP should see the PCs’ realignment to appeal to construction unions and working-class men as a threat, it can also be a case study on how a political party can change its voter coalition.
For decades, Ontario’s construction unions were more politically quiet than industrial unions. That changed when Mike Harris’s PC government weakened construction unions’ ability to organize new members and made it easier for unionized contractors to do jobs with new companies that evaded union contracts. In reaction to these threats to the trades system, construction unions led the creation of the Liberal-oriented Working Families coalition of public- and private-sector unions, which spent millions on a number of high-profile ads over the years taking aim at the PCs.
For the Liberals, which won four elections between 2003 and 2018, Working Families represented a critical political base. The unions’ motivations became more urgent when, under Tim Hudak, PC MPPs began to openly muse about ending the trades apprenticeship system. The PCs were channelling an anti-union sentiment and were backed by anti-union contractor associations.
But by 2018, the coalition – which largely sat out that year’s election – had failed in its mission. Not only were the PCs now in office, the Liberals’ catastrophic results made them an ineffective guardian of their interests. Working Families was adrift, and its constituent elements came into political play.
Mr. Ford’s PCs saw an opportunity. Though the PCs passed new laws that overrode signed contracts and froze wage increases in health care, education and the public service, they exempted construction workers from attack. They also reversed Hudak-era policy, supporting apprenticeship and expanding financial support to union-run skills and apprenticeship training centres.
The eight unions that endorsed the PCs this year represented only about 5 per cent of Ontario’s union members. But they were vital in creating the image of a new Doug Ford, friend of the working man. And with the backing of core members of the Working Families coalition, the PCs were able to take an unmoored political force and incorporate parts of it into a bigger tent.
If the New Democrats hope to lower PC vote share, they will need to find new bases of support in the same way. The NDP will have to either directly gain supporters from the PCs or reach out to former non-voters. The former approach has the added advantage of reducing the absolute number of an opponent’s voters, though.
As Working Families proved, every party’s vote coalition has weaknesses. If the NDP’s next leader really is focused on defeating Mr. Ford, he or she must constantly scan the PCs’ coalition for cracks and work to pry away voters with a better offer. And if that work successfully lowers PC support, nothing will unite the anti-PC vote more quickly.
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