Rob Ford and the Mayoral Election in Toronto

By Daniel Serge

Stefan Kipfer’s article on Rob Ford’s campaign is a breath of fresh air after the mealy-mouthed pandering to the Right that most of the 2010 Toronto election analysis has been. His essential point — that the ground for Rob Ford has been prepared by the social democrats in power — is lost on the mainstream press, who can’t see past tactical voting. By supporting the social democratic mayoral candidate Joe Pantalone, Now Magazine has positioned itself to the Left of the rest of the liberal press. The Star is endorsing Liberal Party stalwart George Smitherman, while Eye Magazine has distinguished itself by trashing the deficit-hysteria arguments of the Right but calling for tactical voting — which, in practice, means supporting the very people, like Smitherman, who support those arguments. Many people are scared of Rob Ford and his plans to gut city services in the name of taxpayer fairness; but few acknowledge how he’s managed to shift the debate to the Right, making him sound reasonable. Smitherman, capable opportunist as ever, has tacked hard to the Right to steal some of Ford’s support; yet the anybody-but-Ford sentiment has only succeeded in rewarding Ford’s bluster by supporting a candidate who shares his agenda.

Kipfer takes this sorry mess and contextualizes it. He dissects right-wing populism by showing the grain of truth at the centre of it: Ford can play on the anger created by departing mayor David Miller’s pro-growth agenda that ignored the needs of local residents in favour of developers, and the continued underfunding and attacks on unionized workers that have degraded the quality of city services. In other words, the Left has caused Rob Ford as much as the Right has: by creating a cross-class coalition that tied labour and progressives to capital, Miller has put the Left in the unenviable position of defending social liberalism, neoliberalism with window-dressing. Voters have every reason to be angry, even if Ford will bring them more of the same.

I have only one disagreement with Kipfer’s analysis. He states at length that we must be on our guard against assuming Ford is the lesser evil: that, since he shares an agenda with Smitherman, it would be better to have the unalloyed face of capitalist rule in Ford, rather than a more pleasant-sounding version. The danger, Kipfer says, is that this allows the Right to set the tone of the debate, like it has during the election campaign, further marginalizing the left.

As an argument against complacency, this is true. Kipfer is correct that hard-right populism is on the march and needs to be confronted, warning that “A generation of electoral successes by the populist hard right should have taught us a few lessons about  underestimating the danger of apparent simpletons with harebrained agendas.” He lists some of the heroes of neoliberalism as examples: “Margaret Thatcher, George Bush, Jörg Haider, Christoph Blocher, Silvio Berlusconi, Nicolas Sarkozy, Preston Manning, Mike Harris.” However, these figures did not emerge in a vacuum: they came from the ability of the soft Left to implement neoliberal policy. Figures like the UK’s Callaghan from the Labour Party, Mitterand for France’s Socialists, and Bob Rae for Ontario’s NDPers, were instrumental in demobilizing the Left, paving the way for a hard-right reaction. We’re seeing the same process happening, albeit in a much paler form, in the U.S. midterm elections, as President Obama’s failure to do even the small things he promised has demoralized his base and emboldened the right.

Kipfer provides ample evidence of how Miller ruled in the interests of capital, through promoting privatization and deregulation, naming it as “Third Way Urbanism” i.e. urbanism that brings labour and capital together to help the latter. Ford and Smitherman are, as Kipfer shows, “fundamentally agreed about the need to constrain or cut public services, promote privatization and public-private-partnerships (P3), beef up police services, and further deregulate real-estate development.” The problem is that, in practice, the argument to oppose Ford has not been framed in terms of politics but Ford as a — particularly nasty — individual. If Smitherman gets elected, he will do everything Ford wants, pace tearing up bike lanes, and the Left will remain as confused by the old feint of the ‘lesser evil’ as it was by Tony Blair in the UK and poor Ralph Nader in the 2000 U.S. election. It’s true, now more than ever, that you defeat the right by opposing it, not appeasing it. The challenge for the Left is to oppose all neoliberal agendas, and that means two things: 1) seeing Ford as part of a spectrum, not an anomaly or even the biggest enemy; 2) mobilizing outside the ballot box, to defend public services no matter who is attacking them.