By Nora Loreto
The thing about the Ontario Liberals is this: they’re clever politicians. They understand what is popular and how to win elections.
When you’re a social movement activist, this means two things: it’s near impossible to force their hand in years two and three of a mandate, but in years four and one, the door opens slightly. Sustained social movement pressure can make the Liberals to do things they wouldn’t normally do.
This was how they started their mandate, way back in 2003. They made big promises to oust the Tories, like injecting a lot of money into education. One of the few promises they actually kept was to freeze tuition fees, which they were forced to do, for 2004 and 2005.
The story of how students dogged the Liberals in those early days is great. It involved building the public pressure necessary to force the Liberals to deliver on this promise. As they got more comfortable and managed to out maneuver the student movement, they started a vicious attack on public funding in higher education. Tuition fees have since doubled.
It’s an instructive story: pressure is the only thing that bears fruit. Any activist worth their salt knows this. If you are engaged in the long-term fight for anything, your tactics change with the political climate, and you exert pressure in traditional and creative ways.
When you win, it’s all the more sweet because you know that it’s truly a victory. The Liberals hand us nothing out of benevolence.
The relationship between the Liberals and social movements should be influenced by the existence of the NDP — ostensibly the political arm of social movement demands. Over the years of Liberal rule, the NDP has not played this role. Rather than taking on the demands of social movements, the NDP has opted to angle for power through ineffective means. This couldn’t be more obvious in how many NDP activists reacted to the Liberals’ historic childcare announcement yesterday.
There are many reasons for why the NDP should be taking its lead from social movements: within social movements is where consensus and left-wing power is built. This is the power that you need to not only win elections, but also govern with credibility. If you win by hiding under some coats and hope that no one notices you, you will not be able to implement even modest reforms. Social movements do the heavy lifting to create the social license, the NDP should then capitalize on this social license through promising movement demands.
It’s like really, really basic.
When a progressive political party moves away from social movement demands, things start to get weird. In 2011, the Ontario Liberals promised to reduce tuition fees by 30 per cent. We knew that there would be a scheme behind this promise, but the money that they were injecting into the system was significant. To undercut the announcement, we begged the NDP to promise something more: ideally, to start talking about free higher education. Impossible. Unreasonable. The criticisms of the Liberals’ “30 off” program weren’t easy to explain and with no political party backing us up with a legislative alternative, our demands were easily ignored.
Then, as calls for free education across North America became louder and more consistent, it was the Liberals, and not the NDP that jumped onto the promise and implemented a scheme to give some students free higher education. Staring down the 2018 election, the NDP’s promise to do away with student loans remains insignificant both in the face of a Liberal promise of “free” higher education and as tuition fees continue to rise.
Enter the calls for strategic voting: what’s the difference between these parties anyway, when Doug Ford is our real opponent?
This spiral makes me feel like Frank Grimes grabbing ahold of live wires.
The childcare announcement was broadly embraced by childcare activists (in stark contrast to various tuition fee scheme announcements), and for good reason: promising to give free childcare to children 2.5 years and older is a radical change. Ontario needs this.
Rather than welcome the announcement and then promise to take it further, NDP activists have mostly spent their time deriding the Liberals: they’re liars and cheats, they can’t be trusted, and so on. This is all true. However, what about the promise of free childcare? What happens when the NDP ignores a historic announcement to take pot shots at the Liberals? It makes us cynical. It makes us tune out.
And what’s very dangerous: it makes it sound like free childcare is an unreasonable, impossible demand.
Reaching first to “the Liberals can’t be trusted” demonstrates the extreme anemia that plagues the political orientation of too many NDP activists: progressive public policy doesn’t happen because we sit back and trust that politicians will act on their promises. All political parties, the NDP included, will backtrack on promises if they think it will help their popularity.
Anyone with a modest understanding of how politics work in Canada predicted that the Ontario Liberals would have a major childcare promise and I genuinely hope that the NDP has plans to deliver a promise that is even more significant than this.
But the clock is running out for the NDP to leverage social movement power the way that a social democratic party is supposed to: stop sniping from the sidelines, or inventing claims like those of us who have fought for 25+ years for public education are supporting private childcare. Take up the demands of social movement activists and offer a clear and different option to Ontarians.
This article first appeared at Nora’s Medium page.