Voters will have to decide between a populist Conservative-leaning premier or a lifelong hardcore NDP leader
Ontario NDP MPP Marit Stiles officially became the party’s new leader on Feb. 4.
She didn’t have to go through a rigorous leadership race. No other candidate was able to meet the entry requirements by the Dec. 5, 2022, deadline, including a $50,000 registration fee and gathering at least 100 member signatures. Stiles was immediately acclaimed, and the NDP moved up her confirmation by an entire month.
This isn’t to suggest she doesn’t deserve her role as Leader of the Official Opposition in the Ontario legislature.
Stiles has plenty of political experience. She worked on various provincial and federal NDP campaigns. She was a researcher for the federal NDP’s Ontario caucus. She was a Toronto District School Board trustee from 2014 to 2018 and president of the federal NDP from 2016 to 2018.
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She’s also been a two-term NDP MPP for the Toronto riding of Davenport, winning 60.27 per cent of the vote in 2018 and 57.06 per cent in 2022.
There’s another unique component to her experience. She used to be a political pundit.
That’s where I first met her. Stiles is an old sparring partner on TV. We’ve appeared together on several political panels over the years.
I always thought she handled herself quite nicely. Intelligent. Well-spoken. Knowledgeable. Solid debater. The ability to launch into small buzz clips and longer policy analyses at the drop of a hat.
Did I ever agree with her? Not very often. I’m sure the feeling was mutual on her end!
We also chatted about other issues. Her tenure as ACTRA’s policy director. My years as a columnist. Tours of political duty in Ottawa. Our families and children.
These weren’t long, in-depth discussions. Nevertheless, I have a pretty good sense of what her leadership style will likely entail and what Ontario Premier Doug Ford will need to do to effectively oppose her in the Legislature and on the campaign hustings.
Here are some early observations.
Stiles will be a more formidable political challenge for Ford than the previous NDP leader, Andrea Horwath. The Newfoundland-born Stiles uses a folksy, common-sense approach in her speeches, messaging, constituency work and choice of issues du jour. She uses a certain type of political speak, or a combination of quick sound bites and eye-catching sentences and paragraphs, to get eyes and ears on her ideas and policies. She has the unique advantage of a weakened provincial Liberal Party and greater access to progressive votes. Her media-savvy outlook enables her to reach reporters with certain tricks of the trade that Horwath never possessed in her political arsenal.
These are all effective leadership traits. Many of them would match up decently against a conventional Conservative Premier. While it wouldn’t necessarily guarantee victory for Stiles, it would make her competitive.
Here’s the problem she faces. That’s not who Ford is or what he represents.
Ford is a Conservative in some ways and a populist in others. The Premier is also a retail politician like his late brother, former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. He can blur ideological lines and effectively sell a message, idea or policy to a much larger group of people than a conventional Conservative leader.
Ford’s folksy, common-sense political model, Ford Nation, is, therefore, the perfect counter to Stiles’ folksy, common-sense approach with a Newfie twist.
Here’s another advantage. While both Ford and Stiles use language and tactics that appeal to the common man, only Ford captures this type of support across the board.
Stiles is respected by some Conservatives, but she’s too much of an NDP partisan (or “lifer”) for most of them to consider voting for her. Ford is respected by some New Democrats, and because his relationship to Canadian conservatism is neither traditional nor specifically partisan, some NDP loyalists would consider voting for him – and have already done so.
While he succeeded in winning over some NDP supporters during his successful 2010 run for Toronto city council and unsuccessful 2014 Toronto mayoral run, that’s easier to accomplish at the municipal level. Yet, he also won over some New Democrats in the 2018 provincial election, and NDP supporters and a few union members in 2022.
If Ford can do this against Stiles, she’ll be at a huge disadvantage.
What about Liberal voters in Ontario?
Some will remain loyal to the party, although it’s become a rump caucus over the past two elections. A significant number of Liberals will likely shift political allegiances (again) in the next provincial election. Many left-leaning Liberals will go to Stiles, and many right-leaning Liberals will support Ford.
Liberal centrists will have to decide whether a populist Conservative-leaning premier makes more sense than a lifelong NDP leader. The former option seems like a better bet.
It’s early days in the current Ontario legislative session and my political analysis for the province. There will be more to come in both instances.
As of right now, Ford’s best political strategy against Stiles is to do more of the same.
Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.
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