The Liberals’ budget, tabled on March 28, highlighted a number of new spending promises: a drug and dental-care program for people without existing coverage, an OHIP+ pharmacare program and new spending for seniors, a very modest increase in social assistance rates, new money for healthcare and most impactful a free childcare program for kids over 2.5 years. The budget contained no new taxes on the wealthy, but on balance it cemented the Liberal strategy of tacking to the left in the lead up to the election.
How should progressives and labour respond? The NDP claim this tack is pure Liberal opportunism, a cynical response that downplays movements and emboldens the right. Instead we need to understand the importance of movements in building workers’ confidence to push governments and employers—in the lead up to and after elections.
Liberals tack left
The promise of new spending, of a rhetoric that shifts the political debate to the left, is a good thing. Raising people’s expectations of what people deserve and can have is undoubtedly a positive. For for millions, promises of childcare, OHIP+ and a version of pharmacare are seen as a step forward.
This is not to say we should believe the Liberals, or any government’s promises. After all, the Liberals have a long track record of back-to-work legislation, privatization, corporate handouts and policies that consistently favour Bay Street. But we must understand that it is far better for the working class when politicians feel the pressure to tack to the left rather than right.
The Liberals did not dream up a $15/hr minimum wage as a pre-election scheme. It was a demand by the Fight for $15 and Fairness, a demand the Liberals (and NDP) initially refused to consider, and one that only became a reality and an election issue because of a mass campaign that pushed the NDP and Liberals to support it. Years of on the ground organizing created the conditions for this to be popular and pushed both the ONDP and Liberals to adopt some of the demands of $15 and Fairness. However, the ONDP leadership and some of its party activists saw in this announcement only the opportunism of the Liberals.
The ONDP’s response was muddled. They simultaneously stated that the Liberals stole their ideas, while clamouring for business offsets and claiming that if the provincial government had acted sooner to increase minimum wage it wouldn’t have such a pronounced impact on the farming community. The message was that this was an ill conceived last minute ploy by the Liberals that was too fast and too soon and was causing an unnecessary disruption for businesses. Rather than championing the policy and defending it from the business lobby, NDP politicians simply framed the issue to highlight the opportunism of the Liberals. While ONDP has better policies on the issues, their response prevented them from being seen as champions on decent work issues.
The response from the NDP and others on the left repeated the same mistake in response to the Liberal budget, failing to go beyond a partisan lens. Calling the Liberal budget opportunistic, a mere last minute election ploy, is to set the table without serving the meal. Of course it is opportunistic, but to focus on a partisan attack and not focus on the issues is self-defeating. As Nora Loreto noted when the NDP criticizes the childcare announcement, “it makes it sound like free childcare is an unreasonable, impossible demand.”
When Horwath called the free childcare announcement “a little bit of help,” it diminished not only the hard work many activists had put in on this front, it also diminished the substantive impact of this policy would have for many working class women and families. If it is only a little bit of help then it is only a little thing that can be ignored.
The problem with cynical responses like this are they do nothing to build the political base of support for these ideas and policies. It may be a strategy that could win some votes, but it is ultimately a losing political strategy for the left when it comes to the issues. If voters only see or understand a $15 minimum wage, free childcare, and a version of dental care as a last ditch promise to win votes then the conclusion is simple: these ideas are unachievable, they are wild promises not to be believed.
Embolden the right or build the movements
The political outcome of this cynical line will be to embolden and empower a right-wing narrative. When policies that benefit workers are painted as a cynical vote-grabbing ploy it is only Ford’s narrative of “stopping the gravy train” that stands to benefit. Because of years of Liberal austerity, there is tremendous working class anger against them—and Ford is trying to channel that anger to the right, against the gains of the movements: stopping the $15/hr minimum wage, restricting abortion access and attacking sex ed curriculum. If the NDP simply echoes the cynical anger against the Liberals rather than magnifying the movements that create the basis for reforms, it only serves to bury the lessons of why the Liberals feel the need to tack left, while encouraging Ford’s push to the right.
As trade unionists we should argue that reforms are achievable, that we can squeeze out reforms from employers and politicians when we organize as a class. We also know that promises are not cheques we can cash, and that to actually win and defend gains we need movements to push all parties—before, during and after elections.
Some on the left are too willing to assume legislative victories or tacks in government rhetoric and policy are solely the product of the whims of political machinations from above. This cynicism, which is often a product of sectarianism from actual working class movements, robs workers of perhaps our most valuable lesson—that when we organize and fight, we can not only win tangible gains, we can redefine what is politically possible.
A version of this piece was first published on socialist.ca