Twenty-seven years ago today, Bob Rae was probably still pinching himself.
For the first (and so far only) time in Ontario history, the New Democratic Party had been victorious on election night, with Rae at the helm. And I don’t mean the party could claim another moral victory because it had survived to fight another day. I mean a full-out win. The NDP would finally be in power.
It was on September 6, 1990, that Rae’s New Democrats shocked the Ontario political establishment by capturing 74 seats and a majority government with just 37.6 per cent of the popular vote. David Peterson’s Liberals, who had looked invincible just three years earlier, having won an unprecedented 95 seats, lost 59 of them that night, including the former premier’s own in London Centre.
Rae’s victory seemed so improbable for so many reasons, not least of which was that he’d already led the party to two consecutive election defeats in 1985 and 1987. In fact, Rae’s seat count had actually declined from his first election to his second, from 25 seats to just 19. So it’s not as if Rae was on an upward trajectory.
In addition, it was simply one of the basic truisms of Ontario politics that New Democrats could never and would never win. After all, they never had. And only once in the province’s history had a party not called Liberal or Conservative ever won an election: the United Farmers of Ontario, in 1919. But a distinctive set of circumstances arose in 1990 that paved the way for an NDP win.
The question today: Are similar circumstances in place that might allow the New Democrats to win in 2018? Just as in 1990, the current NDP leader has led her party through two unsuccessful campaigns. In Andrea Horwath’s case, it’s been two consecutive third-place finishes. Like Rae, Horwath has always scored high in terms of her own personal popularity ratings. Also similar to 1990, the Liberals are in power but are vulnerable. (Of course, 27 years ago, the Liberals’ vulnerabilities didn’t show up until the election had been called.)
No two election cycles are ever the same, and one wouldn’t want to push the comparisons between 1990 and 2017 too far. Rae and Horwath are completely different leaders. Rae was a diplomat’s son who used to joke about having grown up in a “log embassy.” He was also a Rhodes Scholar. Horwath’s dad worked on the assembly line at the Ford Motor Company, and Horwath herself came up from the hardscrabble streets of Hamilton as a community organizer. Rae has for 40 years been one of this country’s most brilliant orators; Horwath, not so much.
But in an age when politics-turned-upside-down has become the norm, how many of us would truly be shocked to see the NDP win next year’s provincial election? After all, many have observed that Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals have been governing like New Democrats for more than four years now. Looking at both the federal and provincial level, it seems much of the public is comfortable having Liberal governments executing NDP policy. But in Ontario, there may also be an appetite for change after almost 15 years of one-party rule. Maybe in 2018 voters will opt for NDP policy to be executed by the NDP instead.
You never know.
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