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Why London West Is a Microcosm for the Federal Election

10/13/2015 08:04 EDT | Updated 10/13/2016 05:12 EDT
Andrew Perez

On its surface, the suburban Ontario constituency of London West is like so many ridings in the province. Dotted with sprawling established neighbourhoods, the community's residents personify Protestant Ontario: reserved, small-c conservative and hardworking.

It's a classic bellwether riding the Conservatives have reliably won since 2008, and one the Liberals handily captured before that throughout the Chretien-Martin era.

But the economic landscape in London West has changed significantly since the Harper Conservatives took power almost a decade ago.

The Great Recession of 2008 ravaged the London region hollowing out the manufacturing sector, once a hallmark of Southwestern Ontario. At its height, my hometown's unemployment rate soared to 9.6 per cent in April 2013 -- the highest in the country.

But this past September, Canada entered its second recession of this decade according to Statistics Canada. The news was particularly grim for a city like London, which has yet to successfully emerge from the Great Recession that struck seven years ago last month.

For example, the unemployment rate in London remains relatively high at 7.3 per cent, while underemployment and youth unemployment remain chronic. Nearby urban centres like Guelph, Kitchener-Waterloo and Hamilton all enjoy lower unemployment rates.

With economic fears front and centre and conventional political wisdom out the window, this formerly unremarkable riding has quickly become a microcosm for the October 19 federal election

There are three central reasons for this.

First, for the first time in its history, the battle for London West is a genuine three-way race closely mirroring the electoral fight raging on nationally.

Ed Holder, a Harper cabinet minister is pitted against two strong local candidates: former local TV and radio personality Kate Young for the Liberals, and Western University's Matthew Rowlinson for the NDP.

Since its creation in 1968, London West has staggered its political representation sending Liberals and Tories to Ottawa; the NDP a mere afterthought.

But that all changed in 2013 when residents sent a bold message electing a New Democrat MPP to the Ontario Legislature in a hotly contested summer by-election.

This deliberate political breakthrough was due principally to the changing economic realities in London. Fuelled by the Great Recession and its devastating aftermath, Londoners moved unmistakably to the political left in response to their economic insecurities.

With October 19 now less than a week away, the contest for London West has become a proxy for the battle for Canada. In fact, David Akin, Sun Media's Parliamentary Bureau Chief, has ranked London West as one of only threegenuine three-way races across the country.

Second, and closely related to a bolstered NDP presence, is the clear divide on the centre-left of the political spectrum that has become intensified in London West in recent years, emulating political trends across Canada.

There is no better documentation of this trend than in London West. Whereas the NDP had traditionally placed a distant third in the riding, in 2011, the Liberals and NDP essentially tied for second place.

This predicament for Canadian progressives is no doubt a national political concern and one that is playing itself out prominently in this election. As Trudeau and Mulcair compete fearlessly for the anti-Conservative vote nationwide, so too are the two far lesser well-known Liberal and NDP candidates in London West where local polling suggests two-thirds of the riding want change.

The results echo national polling to a tee.

Lastly, if there is a riding in Canada that reflects the economic struggles Canada has confronted over the past seven years -- high unemployment, a transitioning economy, stagnant wages, increased household debt and overall economic uncertainly, it's London West.

London alone has lost more than 30 per cent of its manufacturing jobs over the past decade. The working-age population in the city rose by 40,000 during the past decade, yet nearly 6,000 fewer Londoners are employed today than were in 2004.

And while some Londoners' economic fortunes have improved over the past decade, this has not been the case for most. According to 2013 Statistics Canada data, the median household income in the city was $75,980, just below the national average. The same Statistics Canada data from 2013 shows the majority of Ontario cities enjoy higher median household incomes.

But it's a reality Justin Trudeau's Liberals are keenly aware of, and one they have attempted to tap into by committing to the largest infrastructure investment in Canadian history promising to nearly double federal infrastructure investments over the next decade to almost $125 billion should they form government.

And while the policy would require the Liberals to run modest deficits in the short term, it's policies like these that are resonating in communities like London West where the federal government's austerity measures post-2009 have had an acutely negative impact on London and its surrounding regions.

To their credit, the Conservatives have invested over $100 million in the London region since 2011. These critical investments have helped to support manufacturing jobs created by operations like the Dr. Oetker pizza factory on the outskirts of the city -- an investment the Ontario government also supported.

When questioned by the media recently, the Prime Minister reiterated his government's support for a controversial $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia -- an agreement that will account for millions of hours worth of new and sustained work at the General Dynamics Land Systems Factory in London, which employs 2200 people.

And so as the residents of London West prepare to go to the polls on October 19, jobs and economic growth will understandably be top of mind. And if history is any indication, my hometown riding will follow majority sentiment, for come election day, as Canada goes, so will London West.

Andrew Perez is a Toronto freelance journalist covering politics and public policy. Follow him on Twitter @andrewaperez.

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