If there was any doubt about Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s resolve to follow through on his campaign promises, it has been quickly put to bed in the early days of his premiership.
With more reforms to come, Ford’s early achievements no doubt spell concern for those outside the borders of Ford Nation. With a majority government in hand, it appears clear that Ford will face few legislative hurdles in bringing substantive change to Ontario.
That means the opposition NDP and Liberals will need to develop approaches and strategies to undermine Ford’s agenda with Ontario residents if they hope to unseat Ford in four years.
One way to do that is to learn from other centrist and left-wing politicians from around the globe who have challenged right-wing populists.
Avoiding American-style mistakes
While a concerted effort was made by Kathleen Wynne and the Liberal Party to cast Ford as the Canadian cousin of Donald Trump, this framing ultimately proved unsuccessful.
Criticizing Ford as a Trump imitator and chastising those who support him repeats many of the same mistakes made by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S presidential election.
In an attempt to call out the bigoted undercurrent of Trump’s support, Clinton stated in a fundraising speech that “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.”
This comment proved to be a significant campaign gaffe as the deplorables label was embraced by Trump and his supporters, helping to consolidate Trump’s voting base. Clinton herself would later acknowledge the comment as a significant factor in her loss.
The important lesson to be learned from Clinton’s mistake is that disparaging right-wing populist supporters with blanket statements and insulting labels can work to reinforce populist support and anti-establishment attitudes.
Understanding Ford’s support
Rather than maligning those who support Ford, a more successful approach for Ford’s political opponents would be to root appeals within ideological and policy positions that speak to the challenges and issues facing Ford’s voters.
As outlined shortly after Ford’s election by Peter Graefe of McMaster University, his support lies among younger voters with lower incomes and less education. The age profile is different than support for right-wing populists elsewhere, which tends to be concentrated among older demographics.
While cultural resentments certainly play a role in support for Ford, it would also appear that Ford’s appeal lies among citizens of Ontario who are economically alienated and pessimistic about the future. For these voters, the existing political status quo has failed them, opening up the door for an anti-establishment leader like Ford.
The challenge then for the NDP and Liberals is to find ways to connect with these voters and regain the support of “the people” back from Ford and his Progressive Conservatives.
Lessons from around the globe
While there is no ironclad template for how Ford’s political opponents can erode his support, there are instructive international examples they can look to for insight.
For the Liberal Party, the success of French President Emmanuel Macron offers a touchstone for how it may successfully peel support away from Ford.
As a centrist politician supportive of free trade, the European Union and private-sector investments, Macron was able to successfully ward off Marine Le Pen’s populist challenge.
He did so by co-opting elements of a populist style of politics while maintaining firm adherence to centrist economic and political agendas. Macron was able to offer an appealing centrist option to voters by slyly portraying himself as a political outsider and distancing himself from the French political establishment.
More importantly, Macron did not ignore the issues plaguing the French people, and instead brought forward a welcomed message of democratic renewal while acknowledging and offering solutions to economic stagnation.
A similar strategy may work well for the Liberals. While it will be difficult to shed the baggage of scandals accumulated under former leaders Dalton McGuinty and Wynne, the Liberals will need to rebrand their party by offering a fresh alternative that speaks to the economic and social concerns tapped into by Ford.
NDP must offer populist alternative
For the NDP, a hopeful strategy for challenging Ford may be to offer a genuine leftist populist alternative.
In the U.K., Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who gained seats and won 40 per cent of the vote in the 2017 British election after running on an unabashed social democratic platform, should provide inspiration for the NDP to challenge Ford using a variant of “Left Populism.” Corbyn successfully positioned himself as a populist champion of “the people” by articulating the grievances of a wide number of social groups against the excesses of neo-liberal capitalism.
While campaigning around social democratic principles, NDP leader Andrea Horwath refrained from using populist discourse in the 2018 election, effectively allowing Ford to assert himself as the voice of the people unopposed.
As the official opposition, the NDP should offer their own populist alternative to Ford’s PCs, articulating the concerns and grievances of those most affected by Ford and using the language of populism.
Whichever route opponents take to oppose Ford, they must acknowledge that the factors fuelling his victory are real, and not merely the outcomes of a populist slight-of-hand engineered by Ford himself.
Reverting to the political status quo that wasn’t working for Ontario residents is not enough. Instead, a new ideological vision that acknowledges and confronts the contemporary challenges facing Ontario is what will drive support away from Ford.