Like many Canadians, I was horrified to hear the news that federal NDP leader Jack Layton had passed away from cancer on the morning of August 22nd. As the outpouring of emotion continues throughout the week, and his absence begins to sink in, I found myself thinking about the amazing legacy he left Canada, and how things changed in his 8 year stint as leader of the federal NDP.
His accomplishment is remarkable considering the shape the NDP was in during the early 2000s. Barely at official party status, it was marginalized by being the fourth party, and between the larger narratives of the Liberal-Reform/Alliance horse race, or the horse race between the Liberals and the Bloc in Quebec. Nobody gave the NDP much chance. In the summer of 2002 Layton, then a Toronto city councilor without much of a national profile, jumped into the race to replace Alexa McDonnough. Not having a seat in the House of Commons would prove to be an asset, as being on the outside allowed him to mobilize support and bring in the people who would lay the groundwork for big change at a time when the party craved fresh energy and ideas.
Layton’s hard work would pay off, as he won convincingly on the first ballot, despite not having a seat and Bill Blaikie having overwhelming support from the Caucus. And even though the NDP would remain small numerically, Layton was able to force the spotlight onto the NDP, first when the Liberals were predicted to win big under Paul Martin, then later on as the dynamic moved towards a Liberal-Conservative polarization federally, and his breakthrough in Quebec.
How did Layton pull this off? He put the tired clichï¿½ of “doing politics differently” into practice. He focused on the core issues that Canadians constantly tell opinion pollsters are important to them, but never implemented federally, bringing the “results oriented” approach to the federal scene, and to work with other parties to push forward the agenda, as is done at the civic level where formal partisan arrangements are often absent. When Harper and Ignatieff were asking for majority governments in the 2011 election, Layton knew that an NDP majority was not in the cards, was fine with that, and said so, and this earned him respect.
I argue that the seeds for the Orange Crush phenomenon were planted on April 21, 2005. The Sponsorship Scandal had engulfed Parliament Hill and was threatening the Paul Martin minority government. Martin took to the public airwaves to plead his case, and all the opposition leaders demanded responses. While Martin, Duceppe, and Harper all focused on the scandal, Layton touched on it but lamented that Parliamentarians were not working on the serious issues facing the country, and calling out the other parties for digging in their heels in their partisan trenches. I remember my respect and admiration for Layton going up, and Canadians were relieved by this breath of fresh air. Layton would go on to extract concessions from Liberal and Conservative governments. When the intransigence of the Harper government reached a head following the 2008 election, he played a key role in the coalition negotiations that proved unsuccessful at removing Harper. The inclusion of the Bloc showed Quebeckers that the federal Parliament was capable of putting their social democratic values into action, and that they could be part of the federal system to make that happen.
The road forward was a long, difficult slog, but Layton was very patient and committed. He pushed forward in the face of great odds, even when it didn’t apparently make sense at the time and the NDP remained stuck at the 15-20% range in the polls. His first test was how he would respond to not having a seat in the House of Commons. Rather than muscle aside an incumbent in a safe seat, he followed through on his commitment to his home community by waiting for the general election to run in his home seat. As this was held by Dennis Mills of the Liberals, there was a great risk, but he won in 2004, and was able to put a positive spin on a campaign that hadn’t netted as many seats as he had hoped. He was ridiculed for opening the 2008 campaign by asking Canadians to elect him Prime Minister, but came out of that election with MPs in 8 provinces, effectively cementing the NDP as a national party. Locally, I appreciate that this commitment took him to the staunchly Conservative rural Manitoba riding of Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette in the November 2010 round of by-elections. It never made a dent in the Conservative vote, but did vault the NDP as the clear alternatives to the Conservatives in that riding, and I can only hope that these efforts will bear fruit somewhere down the road.
Above all else, he reminded us of what was important, and taught us to dream, and encouraged us to break old habits.. I can think of no better summary for Layton’s legacy than his own words which concluded his final press conference:
“If I have tried to bring anything to federal politics, it is the idea that hope and optimism should be at their heart. We CAN look after each other better than we do today. We CAN have a fiscally responsible government. We CAN have a strong economy; greater equality; a clean environment. We CAN be a force for peace in the world.”
Yes Jack, you did. Thank you. Rest in peace.