From the Margins to the Mainstream - The Legacy of Jack Layton

By Douglas Rowland, Former Member of Parliament of Canada, Member of the Parliamentary Centre Board of Directors

Immersed as we have been in recent days in the unprecedented public adulation and outpouring of grief at his death, it is difficult to remember how Jack Layton was seen when he first appeared on the federal scene eight years ago.

He took over the fourth party in the House, a party barely holding on to official party status, a party largely absent from the news media, a party with little prospect of influencing the course of public policy. Moreover, he didn’t have a seat.

Jack’s first task was that of raising the profile of the Party in the media and among the public. He pursued the goal aggressively undertaking a gruelling schedule of speaking tours and attendance at a wide variety of public demonstrations.

He observed the House from the Gallery. But unencumbered by his lack of a formal role in the House, he often stole a march on the official spokespersons for the opposition by dashing down from the Gallery to be first into the media scrum. No matter what the issue, there he was in front of the cameras, making his point. So successful was he in stealing the spotlight that there were behind-the-scenes grumblings from MPs that his access should be curbed somehow as he had no seat and was usurping the time of those who were elected.

Official Ottawa, (including media pundits), was initially dismissive of Jack as it had been of other populist outsiders such as John Diefenbaker and the Schreyers. When he was mentioned in conversation there were often references to “used-car salesmen”, the “Energizer Bunny” and comments such as “He’s never seen a camera he doesn’t love”.

His unrelenting optimism and the energy with which he advanced his causes were often dismissed as simply an inveterate desire to gain attention. His ability to express the essence of complex issues in simple terms and his mastery of the thirty-second clip were taken as shallowness. The lack of urgency with which he approached securing a seat in the House allowed for speculation about the value he assigned to the institution and whether he could be expected to perform well, once there.

What got overlooked by those who didn’t dip beneath the surface was that, in Stephen Lewis’ words, “his unrelenting, ineffable, unquenchable enthusiasm” was perfectly genuine and a cornerstone of his character. What was often forgotten was that behind the brash, hyperactive exterior lay a highly educated (his doctorate was earned), sophisticated and subtle mind, shaped and honed by years of municipal political experience, work with civil society organizations and immersion in social issues.

He had served 21 years in municipal politics.  He had been deputy mayor of Canada’s largest city. He had been president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. He was closely identified with a number of issues which, although not front and centre in Ottawa, had important constituencies at the community level across the country: the white ribbon campaign against violence toward women, HIV/AIDS, LGBT rights, public transit and the cycling movement. This association added to his credibility as he worked to build and consolidate the Party’s base and to seek out and secure quality candidates.

In the general election of 2004, he fought an effective campaign, securing his own seat in the House and electing a significantly increased number of NDP members. His political experience, his background of coming from a political family and his time observing the current players from the gallery enabled him to move smoothly into his role in the House. He was an effective performer in Question Period both in English and French and an excellent debater. His presentations were tough-minded but respectful of his opponents.

His training in municipal politics, where compromise is the norm, equipped him well for the dynamics of minority parliaments. He was, in dealing with House business, pragmatic and action-oriented.  He was a problem solver focussed on getting things done and securing results – “making Parliament work”. He was an effective negotiator and used that skill to have a major influence on the shape of the fiscal policies and budget of the minority Martin government. The “thank you” for his assistance that Stephen Harper extended to Jack, in the course of his speech of apology to the First Nations for the residential schools policy, showed that Jack continued to be an effective behind-the-scenes operator after the change in government in 2006.

In the atmosphere of cynicism and vituperation that characterized Parliament during the time of his tenure, his civility and sincerity began to define him in the public mind and contributed to the moderating of earlier impressions which had focussed on his drive for public attention. Over his eight years in office, there gradually came to be an understanding, especially among “ordinary Canadians”, the people to whom he addressed his message and from whom he sought support, that, as expressed in one tribute, “his happy demeanour and the energy with which he advanced his causes were deeply authentic… and that, unlike so many, he never gave up his youthful idealism”.

As he travelled the country speaking, greeting, meeting, conversing, his genuine love for people, his sense of humour and of fun came to be known and, together with his optimism and openness, became an understood and accepted part of his public persona. He tapped into a yearning among Canadians for politics to be conducted in a different way.

In policy, his strength lay in the domestic realm.  He was rather less convincing when addressing matters of international relations and defence but fearless in his positions, once embraced. His advocacy of negotiations with the Taliban was ill-timed and opened him up to vicious attacks but he didn’t back down. Few would now disagree that such must be part of an eventual settlement in Afghanistan.

In parallel with his growth in reputation, his work with the party apparatus bore fruit. The Party was reinvigorated and increasingly confident. A strong party president with a well-developed strategic sense ensured that the improved resources available to the Party, both through the Chretien reforms to the electoral financing laws and through more advanced fund-raising techniques, were effectively employed. Strong candidates, with a special emphasis on women, were being identified and secured. 

Under his leadership the NDP grew from the 13 seats he inherited, to 19 seats in 2004, when he was elected in Toronto-Danforth, to 29 seats in 2006 and 37 seats in 2008. On September 17, 2007 came his first breakthrough in Quebec, the first evidence that all the quiet work could pay off, with the election of Thomas Mulcair in a by-election in the riding of Outremont.

Always there were attention and resources devoted to Quebec – some thought fruitlessly and to the detriment of the party’s fortunes elsewhere. Jack, however, was determined that the NDP would become much more than a perpetual but respected minority in the House. His goal was securing the power to bring the Party’s principles and values into force. He believed that that could not be accomplished without representation from Quebec. He was equally convinced that there existed in Quebec a strong social democratic inclination within the political culture.

Born and raised in Quebec and sensitive to the nuances of its political culture, Jack sensed opportunity. The fundament of Quebec politics was being subjected to a series of shocks and tremors that were dislodging Quebeckers from their traditional political homes, prompting them to seek new residences for their loyalties: the Gomery enquiry; recurring allegations of corrupt practices within the provincial Liberal government; Duceppe himself calling into question the relevance of the Bloc by surrendering and then reclaiming its leadership within 48 hours; the Parti-Quebecois, rent by internal divisions about the relative weight to be given to governance issues and the drive to separation; and the Harper government taking positions on several social issues such as gun control, support for the arts, crime and punishment, specifically young offenders, that were anathema to much of Quebec. The strong social-democratic stream within Quebec which, faute de mieux, adhered to the PQ and Bloc was showing fatigue with having its politics defined by debates over degrees of separatism.

These factors left a vacuum in Quebec at the federal level and simultaneously a lack of strong direction at the provincial level. Where were committed federalists to go? Where was the best opportunity for the progressive left to see its values advanced? Which of the leaders best understood and represented Quebeckers? As the 2011 election approached, past scandals, policy missteps and a loss of vocation among the parties that had previously claimed the support of Quebeckers created a partial vacuum at the federal level and permitted a shifting of loyalties. Jack’s roots were in Quebec and his party’s social stance was one that was compatible with a broad cross-section of the Quebec electorate.

In the circumstances that Jack left behind, it should now be safe for social democrats and others on the left to confidently vote their conscience while those normally inclined toward the Liberals may be tempted to cast their ballot for the NDP for the same “strategic” reasons that have hitherto motivated some of those on the left to vote Liberal. Then there were the 2011 leaders’ debates where he performed well and showed a competence that generated confidence and the Radio-Canada “Tout le monde en parle” interview where his warmth, openness, sincerity and commitment to social justice shone through.

Fifty-seven seats in Quebec were the result.  Unquestionably, a few of the winners were unprepared for the victory and its consequences. However, Jack and Thomas Mulcair, over a number of years, had been assiduously identifying, cultivating and securing talented people to run. There is not only a lot of raw talent in that caucus but also a considerable base of solid experience and varied expertise.

Partly as a result of the halo effect of the astounding polling results coming out of Quebec but more importantly due to Jack’s credibility as a leader and some hard organizational efforts, the NDP realized a 25% gain in seats and an increase in popular vote in the rest of the country. 

Now, with the 2011 election showing that the NDP, with 103 seats, is positioned to be a government-in-waiting, it is in a position to overcome one of the greatest hurdles to its growth potential: the progressives who vote tactically, but give their actions the much grander title of “strategic voting”. Fearing the political right, they vote not for whom they want in but for whom they believe has the best chance of keeping the party on the right out. In the circumstances that Jack left behind, it should now be safe for social democrats and others on the left to confidently vote their conscience while those normally inclined toward the Liberals may be tempted to cast their ballot for the NDP for the same “strategic” reasons that have hitherto motivated some of the progressive left to vote Liberal.

Jack Layton took a party becalmed and put wind in its sails. He left it well administered, financially sound, with a very strong and talented caucus having representation from all regions of the country.

The results of the election caught everyone off-guard. The up-swelling of emotion generated by Jack’s death was no less astounding and may have ongoing political impact. What comes next is uncertain but one senses a strong resolve on the part of Party stalwarts to realize Jack’s vision as presented in his last letter. One senses also an openness to his ideas on the part of a growing number of Canadians, especially those young Canadians who see an opportunity for a significant change in the political culture. If the caucus can continue to adhere to Jack’s dictum that its members are to conduct themselves with civility, respect and decorum as they go about their business; and if the imputed talent of this enlarged caucus, one-third of whom are women, is realized; and if they can avoid or manage, as other parties have, the possible internal divisions along linguistic or provincial lines, then the breakthrough of 2011 may permanently define the Canadian political scene.

September 2011


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