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                  Horwath Hits All The Right Notes In Bid To Remain As Leader, 

                                       But Major Challenges Lie Ahead

 

 

 

By Susanna Kelley

Andrea Horwath, facing a crucial meeting of party activists angry about the Ontario NDP's performance in the last election, delivered exactly the messages she needed to Saturday in order to calm the waters before a review of her leadership in November.

The NDP leader delivered a passionate speech, painstakingly crafted to staunch the anger that had been simmering amongst some activists - but publicly articulated mainly by a few in the party's far-left Socialist Caucus and OFL President Sid Ryan - ahead of the November vote.


In the lead up to the provincial council speech, Ms. Horwath has played her cards carefully and cleverly since the last election, travelling almost constantly around the province, meeting with riding executives and activists to find out what they believe went wrong.

The earful she's gotten allowed party stalwarts to vent their anger already, and that has taken a lot of the hot air out of her critics' balloons, helping to dissipate it before the leadership review.

Still, Socialist Caucus activist Barry Weisleder has gotten a lot of press by calling for Ms. Horwath's resignation.

The Socialist caucus is a small group of people on the NDP’s far left and regularly causes trouble for every party leader.

Which is not to say, however, that there are not a significant number of New Democrats, particularly in Toronto and Northern Ontario, who think Ms. Horwath has squandered her leverage (holding the balance of power) by forcing the election.

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Right off the top, Ms. Horwath began her speech by admitting she made mistakes during the last election, in which critics charge that she allowed Kathleen Wynne's Liberals to usurp many NDP policies, such as a made-in-Ontario public pension plan.

"I have some things to learn as leader of this party. I have some things to learn from the past two years and I want to talk with you frankly about that today" she said, outlining three main lessons.

"The first lesson is that every member of our party, every single New Democrat, should be able to see themselves in our campaigns" she said.  "The members of our party need to see their values, their priorities, the things that are the most important to them reflected in what we propose, as well, as their day to day concerns."

This was targeted at those who accused Ms. Horwath of moving the party to the centre and even centre-right during the election.  A careful reading of the platform doesn't support this criticism policy-wise, but the strategy of trying to win back voters in some ridings they've lost to Conservatives over the last decades - like Oshawa - and hold on to those by-election seats they took from the Conservatives - did make many New Democrats uncomfortable.)  The loss of three important seats in Toronto - Michael Prue's Beaches-East York riding; Jonah Schein's Davenport and Rosario Marchese's Trinity Spadina seats particularly stung for long time New Democrats. 

Ms. Horwath also addressed head-on the feeling amongst activists that they had been shut out of any input into policy or strategy not only during the election but in the two years leading up to it.

"We must reach out as broadly as possible within our party to our allies and our movement when crafting commitments and our campaigns," she said.

"I want to tell you this is one of the key directives that I've give my new Chief of Staff, and you can expect to be hearing from him, and in fact you can expect to be hearing a lot from me. The reality is there are a lot of talented, talented people in this party so we have to broaden our reach, and specifically we have to do a much better job of broadening our reach than we did in this campaign."

This was clearly a shot at Ms. Horwath's former Chief of Staff and NDP campaign manager Gisele Yanez, whom many have accused of isolating Ms. Horwath and rebuffing attempts by even senior party experts to contribute their expertise on policy and strategy.

Some campaign managers readily take on the criticism for a leader's poor performance in order to shield him or her from criticism. Such was the case after the 2011 election when many blamed PC campaign manager Mark Spiro for leader Tim Hudak's poor showing.  That blame was clearly misplaced, as Mr. Hudak's loss of 10 seats with new co-campaign managers Leslie Noble and Tom Long in the 2014 contest show.

Such is not the case here, where it was undeniably Ms. Yanez' strategy to primarily fight the Tories in the 2014 election, a strategy activists say no one was able to counter because Ms. Yanez would allow only a very small circle of advisors around the leader.

The new Chief of Staff Ms. Horwath referred to is Michael Belagus, a seasoned party veteran who was Chief of Staff to former Manitoba NDP Premier Gary Doer and has been around the party and labour unions for decades.

Hiring Mr. Belagus' is seen as exactly the type of change Mr. Horwath needs to implement in order to improve her performance over the next several years. His deft touch was seen in the speech, which he had a strong hand in crafting.

Next, Ms. Horwath went on to defend herself from accusations she had abandoned traditional New Democratic values in her bid for power in the campaign.

"The basic principles of our party are my heart and soul just as they are your heart and soul," she said.

She acknowledged, however that the campaign failed to convey this.

"We need to do a better job than what we did in this campaign to articulate and advance our basic principles and our goals as well as our first steps."

Ms. Horwath then launched into a passionate articulation of traditional NDP values: a more equal society, public education, universal publicly owned and administered health care, public pensions, support for labour unions, a clean environment, and reducing poverty.

"We believe in addressing poverty, not just because doing so makes society better for everyone, but because we are our sisters keepers and we do owe all of our fellow citizens our solidarity and our help and our love."

Finally, she reminded the provincial council of the party's achievements since she became leader - four additional MPPs and highest proportion of the popular vote the party has had in 24 years.  A pointed reminder that they are better off than they have been in two decades. 

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Ms. Horwath faces another significant challenge in the next several years. 

When Kathleen Wynne became Liberal leader, Ms. Horwath lost her place as "the adult at Queen's Park."  In persona as well as policy, Ms. Wynne moved quickly into Ms. Horwath's territory.

But should Tory MPP Christine Elliott win the leadership of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, there will not only be three women leading the main political parties in Ontario, there will be three for whom social policies are paramount.

In a recent interview with ONW, Ms. Elliott said she wants to move her party back to its "progressive" roots.

That would mean three party leaders crowding the centre-left, centre and centre-right.

Should she remain as leader after the November review, differentiating herself from the Ms. Wynne and Ms. Elliott might be Ms. Horwath's biggest challenge yet.

Not only that, all three lead through consensus, preferring to find win-win solutions rather resort to the sort of knock-down, drag-em-out attack ad politics we've seen since Mike Harris brought that kind of politics to Ontario in 1995 and Dalton McGuinty' Liberals continued through their connections to the Working Families anti-Hudak campaign .

It could be very crowded in the middle come the next election, and difficult for Ms. Horwath to differentiate herself from the other two parties.

But that's the job of the experienced staff she's just hired.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Susanna Kelley

Susanna Kelley is Editor-in-Chief and Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for Ontario News Watch. A veteran political and investigative reporter, documentary-maker, host and media commentator, Susanna oversees and has final editorial control over all news production at Ontario News Watch. Susanna has reported for the CBC, the Canadian Press and served as Queen’s Park Bureau Chief for TVOntario for 13 years. She has also hosted a number of documentaries for CBC’s The Current, CBC Radio News and TVOntario’s Studio 2. Passionately dedicated to excellence in political journalism, and having covered both Parliament Hill and Queen’s Park, Susanna believes quality political reporting is essential to a healthy democracy. You can find Susanna here: @susannakelley
Posted date : September 15, 2014

View all of Susanna Kelley's columns
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