Monday, November 1, 2010

Progressive Talking Point: Rob Ford's Davenport

Davenport (provincial electoral district)Image via Wikipedia
I've been thinking a lot about the left wing in Canada lately. I think I'd like to write a comprehensive 'action plan' for the Left (not that I am vain enough to think it would be considered), but it would be a lengthy work-in-progress, obviously. Something requiring rather more time than I'm able to give. In the meantime, I thought I'd start including some 'talking points' - notes, in effect, for such a grand composition. Bite-size observations or idea relating to the Left and its role in Canada.

I'd like to start with what I believe is a widely-misunderstood phenomenon: Rob Ford's electoral victory in Toronto. I think it's every bit as newsworthy as people make it out to be. I think it says a lot about a paradigmatic shit in Toronto - and perhaps more generally in Canada. But now that the shock has faded, I'm beginning to think that Toronto is still Toronto, and Ford's victory is not the victory for urban conservatism that people would like to make it out to be.

Toronto has been a vitally important line of defence against the encroachment of Harper's Conservatives in recent years. The 2008 election brought a Conservative minority with 143 of 308 seats, but of Toronto's 22 seats, 20 went Liberal and 2 went NDP. A Torontoless Canada would have returned a rather confusing situation where the Conservatives had won exactly 50% of 286 ridings. A majority... er, I think. I don't know how that one would work.

What I want to say is that I don't believe the 416 is ready to jump onto Harper's train any time soon. I think Tim Hudak will win seats in the 416, and I think a seat or two might drift blue federally, but what I mean is that the 47% of Torontonians who voted for Ford are by no means preparing to cast their votes for formalised conservative parties any time soon. What we need to see is that the 'anger' or whatever it was that pushed Ford over the top was based more on frustration with conventional politics and with a sense of 'entitlement' (and, importantly, élitism) than any real interest in American-style small-government politics. I would bet that if Ford made half of the visible service cuts he's talked about making, Torontonians would be up in arms, even in the suburbs.

I found it interesting to consider one of the Old Toronto wards that 'went Ford': Ward 17, the northern half of Davenport. It was hardly a landslide, at 41.7% not even a majority, but clearly a plurality. As one of only a scant few (three if memory serves) Old Toronto wards to give Ford more votes than Smitherman, it seems like a useful focus for the rightward shift in Torontonian politics, right?

Well... inasmuch as you can quantify it, the leftmost candidate for councillor, Jonah Schein, lost - with a healthy percentage of votes, but a loss nevertheless. To whom? To incumbent Cesar Palacio, who supported Pantalone. That's right: the more conservative of the two main candidates supported Pantalone. That's the kind of ward we're talking about here. The third-place finisher, Tony Letra, wasn't even a Ford follower, being roughly a Smithermanesque centrist. So one of the few Old Toronto wards that supported Ford didn't even have a local candidate on the right of the spectrum. There didn't seem to be a need for one.

With its Siamese-twin southern ward, which turfed out the incumbent councillor and went for Smitherman, the federal and provincial Davenport riding is hardly a hotbed for conservatism: federally, the Liberal candidate won and the NDP candidate came second, with a combined total of 77.1% of the vote. The local Conservative candidate managed a mere 11.0%, beating the Green candidate by less than 200 votes. Provincially in 2007 the situation was even more extreme, with the Liberal winner and the NDP second-place finisher tallying a remarkably similar 77.8% of the vote and the PC candidate finishing last in the riding, scraping a mere 9.5% of the vote, and even that was a two-percent increase from the laughable 7.5% the PCs pulled in in 2003.

 This is the new urban conservatism? I mean really... trends change, but could you imagine a riding like this, which federally has been Liberal since 1962, ready to jump into Steven Harper's waiting arms?

Let's be realistic: this is not a conservative part of town. This is not a place where what appealed about Rob Ford was his commitment to laissez-faire economics. If we hope to make any sense at all of Ford's victory and what it means to the Left in Canada, we have to stop pretending that we know why people voted Ford and start trying to learn why they did. And this neighbourhood, where the final two streets on Davenport Road travelling westbound are called, respectively, Miller St. and Ford St., is the place to start.

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