Toronto Municipal Elections: Beyond Politricks

Yet in the midst of all the politricking, “ice bucket challenges” and community appearances there remains silence across the board when it comes to real and pressing issues facing communities in Toronto. So far none of the candidates have had anything to say about the growing economic and racial inequality in the city; the lack of subsidized housing; the absence of social programs; the violent police raids that leave many communities in disarray; or the gentrification of low-income neighborhoods that push people out of their homes. 

Instead, all we have before us are what Alan Sears called the “good cops” and the “bad cops” of neoliberalism. The “good cops”, like former Mayor David Miller, are the rationalizers of austerity whose role it is to sell the neoliberal program while convincing us that it is in our best interests. The “bad cops” – the “slash-and-burn wreckers” – like Rob Ford, simply come in and finish the job. 

Bad cops like Rob Ford come to power riding a wave of right-wing populism, feeding off the public’s disenchantment with the government and making empty promises about saving people money. They have no rational plan for the people or the city other than slashing and wreaking havoc on whatever menial protections the working class has left. 

If we are going to successfully turn the tide on the neoliberal agenda – one which has found ample support at all levels of government across Canada – it can only be through mass mobilization and organization, and not via the specified politics of an elected “leader.” Such initiatives don’t have to ignore corporate-controlled elections such as the one going on in Toronto, but can help to determine the terrain on which they stand. 

The Past Four(d) Years 

Given his continued relevance in this election, some reflection on the politics of Rob Ford is necessary for clarification and context.  Rob Ford – racist, homophobe and director of Toronto and Chicago based multinational labelling and printing firm DECO Labels – won the 2010 Mayoral election in a landslide victory behind the slogan of ending the “Gravy Train.” This message fit well with an electorate increasingly disenchanted with the political system, the lack of services and the seeming incompetence of government bureaucrats. 

Garnering most of his support from Toronto’s inner suburbs, Ford’s support for tax cuts and opposition to government-run programs has resonated with primarily working class and low-income communities feeling the crunch of the recent global economic crisis.  Relegated to the margins and largely ignored by all levels of government except the police, many folks in Scarborough, Etobicoke or East York have good reason to distrust government. 

Through his image as the “anti-politician” and his rhetoric of fighting for the “little guy” or of protecting “taxpayers” and “hard-working families” from the city “elites,” Ford has been able to give a voice to the “voiceless masses,” but as Chris Ramsaroop wrote: “not to build their collective strength, but to manage their discontent.” 

Though Ford may claim to be on the side of the everyday person, and may even back it up through answering phone calls or following up on the odd personal complaint, in his time in office he has done everything he can to make life more difficult for the working class. Since coming to office he has made cuts to social programs and community centers, privatized public services, prevented the provision of much needed housing for the homeless, and attacked public sector unions and workers’ right to strike. 

Justifying his attacks against public sector unions has been more easily facilitated at a time when working class solidarity is at an all-time low and when unions are more often than not concerned with preserving themselves rather than extending solidarity to low wage and non-unionized workers – the same workers whose condition Rob Ford is able to feed off. 

If Ford has been successful at anything during his term, it has been in furthering the program of neoliberal capitalism by pushing through an anti-worker, anti-poor, pro-rich austerity agenda aimed at eliminating public services and replacing them with private for-profit institutions. For many low-income families the privatization of these services often means having to do without. 

Yet even following his pro-rich track record and the tabloid-like revelations around his drug abuse, support for Rob Ford still lingers on. In the most recent election poll Ford has surpassed Olivia Chow and is second to John Tory – another “bad cop” of neoliberalism whose campaign slogan of “One Toronto” should really be “Toronto for the One Percent.” 

Keeping Ford afloat so far, despite the turbulence, has been the agenda of tax cuts that continues to resonate with an alienated electorate that is lacking political clarity. What is missing in this election is a radical alternative that is able to challenge the flawed notion that taxes are the issue and that is able to bring to the forefront – and act on – the real issues facing the working class of this city. 

A Lesser Evil 

What could have been a refreshing alternative to Rob Ford in the form of Olivia Chow has proven disappointing though not surprising. Chow has never identified as a “radical,” nor would her politics while a Member of Parliament during 2006-2014 have given such an impression. Though the election of a woman of colour to the position of Mayor of Toronto would be a ground-breaking achievement in this city’s history, her current campaign clearly demonstrates that nothing significant would change in terms of improving the living conditions of those she seeks to represent. 

The “colour hair and bone” of any one candidate should not lead to assumptions about their solidarity with respect to the racialized working class – this becoming clearer as the Obama administration continues its unremitting assault on people of colour down south. Nonetheless, greater diversity is much needed at City Hall given the fact that in a city as diverse as Toronto only four out of 44 current city councillors are people of colour, only one of which can be considered “progressive.” 

With nothing significant to offer as an alternative to constituents and progressive supporters in this city, Chow risks losing momentum at the polls. Her three point platform of children, transit and jobs promises to improve the lives or Torontonians but reads like more of the same political conjecture when it comes to rooting out the systems of oppression that govern our lives – if at all. Though such initiatives may slow the tide of the austerity agenda – guaranteeing some protections for the working class and slowing the “slash and burn” – they ultimately fail at challenging the wave of neoliberal restructuring at its roots. 

Guaranteeing the wellbeing of our children will take more than reserving funds for nutrition programs or afterschool activities. Though support for such initiatives is crucial, unless they are backed by a committed anti-capitalist politics – one that is willing to hold the rich accountable for their crimes, that is willing to protect racialized youth from police violence, that recognizes the necessity of a liveable wage for healthy households, that opposes the grasp of big business and speaks out against racial and gendered inequity in this city – they present us with limited reforms that leave many families and communities with no change for improvement. 

Campaigns focused around jobs, children or transit should be audacious enough to demand more. Part of countering the narrative of tax cuts and the immobilization of a disenchanted electorate is building a sense of entitlement that would settle for more than just the crumbs. We shouldn’t have to settle for “affordable housing,” but demand guaranteed housing (for all). We don’t just want any jobs – we demand good jobs with decent pay. The right to food, shelter, housing, education, safety and employment are some of the basic human rights that must be guaranteed for all. 

Granted an Olivia Chow victory would be a better outcome of the three, her campaign is still a long way from a progressive alternative that is divorced from the interests of the capitalist class. At this juncture Torontonians are left with having to choose among different versions of the austerity agenda. 

The case of Olivia Chow is a reminder that we should not rely on the actions of elected representatives to determine the nature of our resistance. Change is unlikely to come from the top. Whether politicians vying for power are “progressive,” “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” or “bad cops,” the ongoing organization and mobilization of communities to defend social programs and oppose the depredations of capitalism must be our priority. We need to mobilize from below and shake capitalism from its roots. 

Political alternatives: mobilizing and organizing 

The austerity agenda did not begin with Rob Ford, and it will not end with him. The issue at hand goes beyond Ford and implicates a much broader systemic scandal that has been festering at the core of our social and economic system. Understanding the political terrain of the current election requires a sobering realization about the condition of the working class in this period of neoliberalism/capitalism/robbery, or whatever one wants to title it. 

As Todd Gordon pointed out, the working class has experienced successive defeats in the last 30 years, facing rollbacks on hard fought gains, experiencing stagnating wages and for many of the workers in Toronto’s inner suburbs, living through some of the harshest effects of a racialized neoliberal restructuring. Compounding this situation has been the reality of an almost defunct, small and splintered left in the city that is unable – or in some cases unwilling – to organize and mobilize for an alternative. At a time such as this when workers’ sense of injustice and anger is channeled through populist leaders like Ford rather than through collective mobilization against corporate power, the alternatives to the regime of capitalism seem unimaginable. 

The class consciousness of the working class is never a given. People must be organized and mobilized toward political clarity. This does not mean going into low income neighborhoods and “teaching” or imposing decisions on people, but providing support, listening to people’s concerns and collectively – side by side- working toward liberation. 

This requires a committed activism that goes beyond the odd rally downtown in front of City Hall. It requires a willingness to work within communities and unions, organizing around specific issues consistently and over the long term. 

Elections as a mobilizing tool 

Given the farcical show that is the Toronto elections, it is difficult to convince oneself that they are worth engaging with. None of the candidates – either running for mayor or city council – are willing to run on a platform that puts people first. The very structure of the government that candidates are vying to lead is undemocratic and confines “politics” within the realms of city hall. At most, participating in elections upholds the illusion that people actually have a “say” or have a role to play in what is actually a capitalist institution ruled by the rich. 

But, as Jackie Esmonde notes, elections do matter for large numbers of people. For many in society, elections act as their “core political reference” point. Elections provide a unique moment when political discussion is on the public agenda and when people feel that their opinions actually matter. This period of political debate and discussion, when “politics” is actually discussed in the mainstream, provides radical activists with an opportunity to organize around specific issues. 

In some cases municipal elections have become the focal point of “radical” or “socialist” engagement, to the point of running candidates for either Mayor or city council. A recent example of progressives successfully running for election at the city-level is Kshama Sawant, an independent socialist elected to the Seattle City Council last year without any corporate backing. Another example is the late activist and human rights lawyer Chokwe Lumumba who helped build a grassroots campaign that got him elected as the Mayor of the largest city in Mississippi. 

Both candidates built their electoral campaigns from the ground up, mobilizing and organizing in the community, and both sought to use their political position for the advancement of social and economic justice. For Sawant, her first task has been to use her position in City Council to push for a $15 minimum wage – the highest in the US. More recently she used her position to put forward a call to divest from Israel. 

Are these also viable paths of action? Could a genuinely progressive campaign offer an alternative to Rob Ford’s right-wing populism? More importantly, how deep can a socialist alternative engage with a flawed system of representation without losing sight of its radical principles? 

The experience of fighting for key reforms that can improve the quality of people’s lives provides a glimpse of what radical alternatives might look like, and builds confidence in the scope of demands. Granted, the state must be overturned, but this is not an immediate prospect. In the meantime social housing needs to be protected, transit needs to be improved, a minimum wage needs to increase. 

With two months left till election day there is still enough time to help shape the terrain on which the candidates come to the plate. Such organizing is never easy and requires a politics that is rooted in the concerns and ideas of communities and unions, and not above them. 

Salmaan Khan is a member of the Toronto New Socialists and one of the editors of the New Socialist Webzine.