3 min

Why Toronto progressives still can’t win

What does a progressive Toronto look like? The left doesn’t know either

Toronto Mayor John Tory speaks to supporters after being re-elected in the Ontario municipal election in Toronto, on Oct 22, 2018. Credit: The Canadian Press/Frank Gunn

Four years ago, after John Tory won his first mayoral election and when Xtra was still a print newspaper, I asked, “Can progressives shut up, listen and actually win?

In the time since, it seems Toronto and Ontario’s progressives have only attempted the first part.

Jennifer Keesmaat may have been a better mayor than John Tory has been but her candidacy was doomed months before it began, and the city’s progressives decided to focus on council races instead of putting forward any serious challenger. That was always a dubious strategy: “we can offer no compelling city-wide vision to challenge Tory, so instead vote for our local candidates instead of the conservatives who side with him.” That’s how we ended up with another Tory mayoralty and a Tory-dominated city council.

While Tory may have had an incumbent’s advantage over any opponent, the complete failure to put forward any challenge gave a sense of a bankruptcy of ideas on the left. Although Tory has shown no shortage of flaws as a city leader, for the last four years, the left on Toronto city council and in the community as a whole has essentially given him a clear runway to define himself as the only competent and credible option for the city. It was as if we were all so glad to have a mayor that marches in our Pride Parade again that we simply decided to overlook the actual damage he was allowing the police to do to our community.

Sure, the left may have banded together and voted against his worst policy ideas, but it was hopeless. They consistently failed to credibly connect the city’s decreasing affordability, increasing crime, failing infrastructure and worsening social divisions to Tory and his policies.

And it would have been so easy. Whenever Tory’s done anything positive for the city, it’s only been after he’s been dragged kicking and screaming by the left to do things he mocked while campaigning for mayor — things like increasing bus services, advancing the downtown relief line, or taking partial steps to improve street safety.

A competent opposition would have painted these policy turns as costly admissions of failure, but instead, the council left has let Tory claim these as major victories.

Let’s contrast this with how conservatives work against their opposition. Right-wing politicians and their surrogates wasted no time to define Dalton McGuinty, Kathleen Wynne, David Miller and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as dangerous and inept radicals in the Toronto Sun and on social media. “Failure” is the word conservatives have landed on for Trudeau. The same fate befell Olivia Chow and Andrea Horwath when they became credible opponents.

Meanwhile, Horwath and the Ontario New Democrats appear to be too busy celebrating their loss in the provincial election this June to bother coming out hard against Premier Doug Ford and those serving him in the Progressive Conservative caucus.

The left on the Toronto city council is not a perfect match for the left in Queen’s Park or Parliament, given that council doesn’t have official political parties. That didn’t stop the right wing of council from organizing under Miller or the left from rushing to draft Keesmaat at the last possible minute.

Tory, Ford and their allies have made it abundantly clear that they don’t care about the most vulnerable in our city and province.

They don’t care about those struggling to pay rents or mortgages in an increasingly expensive city. They don’t care about people who are precariously employed or struggle to make ends meet. They don’t care about non-white people who are routinely harassed by the police, or LGBT people who do not feel safe around them. They don’t care about pedestrians and cyclists whose bodies are bruised and broken because they momentarily inconvenienced a distracted driver. They don’t care about children who desperately need inclusive education.

If the left wants to win again, it needs to respond now to these men’s failures to place to the needs of the people above narrow partisan interests and corporate donors. It needs to credibly argue that what these politicians are doing is harmful to the people they’re supposedly serving. It needs to present a credible, positive, alternative vision that speaks to the actual needs of all the people.

And unless the left wants to lose again in 2022, it needs to start that work today.