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August 30, 2011

Canada's Jack Layton (1950-2011)

The Canadian Charger

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Like a skyrocket, Dr. Jack Layton rose to the heights, only to fall suddenly back to earth. On his rise, he took his party to new heights, but fate does not respect optimism, ambition, or even accomplishment. Now is the time to look at what he has done, what he has not done, and what remains to be done.

Rising from a distinguished career as a reformer in municipal politics and a municipal government leader at the national level as well as head of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, he entered federal politics, running first unsuccessfully and later becoming an NDP Member of Parliament, leader of the party, and finally Leader of the Opposition.  That is as far as it goes.  No Prime Minister Layton.

During his career, Layton fought for many noble causes–housing the homeless, help for those with AIDS, redress for victims of the residential schools.  In what can only be described as totally out of character, when Stephen Harper issued the apology to residential school survivors, he publicly acknowledged Layton’s contribution to the drafting of the apology.

Passion was Layton’s driving force.  That passion was focused, as displayed in his building the NDP into a party to be reckoned with.  Dr. Jack Layton, Ph.D. in political science, focused on internal party dynamics, strengthening its structure and finances.  And as a strategist, he put water in his wine, as the French say.  Socialist?  Social democrat?  He shied away from all that terminology.

Political positions also changed to the more generally palatable, though with some shrewd understanding of where things were headed down the road. 

The party had talked about pulling out of NATO, but now it favored pulling NATO out of Afghanistan.  He took heat from the Tories as “Taliban Jack” for favoring negotiations with the Taliban, but then Taliban Jack’s position was adopted by the Conservatives.  In his push to get Canadian troops out of Afghanistan, Canada had decided to do so by 2011.  However, Layton was thwarted in this drive by former NDPer Bob Rae, who gave Stephen Harper another four years, albeit with a more limited role.

Layton’s deft opportunism played an important role in his conquest of 59 Quebec seats in the last election.  No to the Clarity Act.  Talk about eventually negotiating with Quebec to get it into the Constitution.  He played on the classical Quebec ambiguity expressed in the frequently cited words of comedian Yvon Deschamps: what does Quebec want?  “An independent Quebec in a strong Canada.”  Compare that performance to that of Ed Broadbent when he was the party leader and faced with the conflict over the right of pilots in Quebec to use French in the cockpit.  Broadbent dithered on the issue, where, had he supported the “Gens de l’aire”, there were sitting Quebec Liberals who would have crossed the floor. 

Politics is the art of the possible, but it is also a matter of, to use the French expression, how much water to put in the wine.  Put too much in and it loses its essence.  Too little and only the real connoisseurs –the died-in-the wool adherents–will drink it.  Layton jumped up and down on Libby Davies when she referred to injustices to the Palestinians back to 1948 rather than just 1967.  Was his reaction due to the “wine”, firm conviction, or the “water”, concern for continuing support of his Jewish constituency, largely Zionist?

To stretch the metaphor further, beyond the issue of how much water is added is the question of what is in the wine.  Layton knew housing, he knew residential schools, but he did not have a firm grasp on the area of crime and corrections.  He went part way with Harper on minimum sentencing, buying into outrage against the perpetrators.  He proposed a substantial increase in the number of police while not clearly addressing progressive alternatives to crime policy.  He wanted a modest injection of funds for prevention without a clear explanation of what that would mean, and he ignored restorative justice measures such as victim-offender reconciliation.

So where does his legacy leave the NDP and Canada?  The party needs now to choose a new leader.  It also needs to consider a shift in direction.  One thing Layton had shunned was any talk about collaboration with the Greens.  Beyond the question of who leads the party is the issue of what besides the charisma of the leader is needed to make that leap to “the Promised Land” of electoral victory. 

One element is the appeal to New Canadians.  The Conservatives have made a breakthrough with the traditionally Liberal recent immigrant groups by appealing to social conservatism.  NDP strategy needs to emphasize what the Tories are doing that are not in their interests–economically and in many cases in terms of foreign policy.  The other element is in terms of realignment.

The CCF became the NDP in order to bring unions into the primarily agrarian-oriented party.  In the long run, the effort has fallen short, as unions do not dictate what their members do at the polls and as unions have become weaker.  That realignment brought limited success.  Now there is another possibility, the Greens.

Green Party leader MP Elizabeth May is interested.  As well, the Green Party has policy positions that can aid the NDP.  On the issue of crime, the Greens focus on things like prevention and restorative justice, not minimum sentences.  The Greens have been listening much more to the criminologists on this issue.

Layton brought the NDP from the wilderness of near oblivion. Further progress may depend not just on a strong new leader but also on a realignment of forces, bringing the Greens on board.

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M. Elmasry

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