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August 30, 2011

Layton's impact on NDP will be deep and lasting

Chantal Hebert

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MONTREAL - Jack Layton leaves behind a party that is less self-righteous about holding a monopoly on social democracy, but more driven to advance its ideals.

As impressive as the results of his last federal campaign may have been, 59 Quebec seats and the berth of official opposition do not adequately capture the defining impact of his eight years in the federal arena on his party and the country.

His more lasting legacy to the federal NDP may have been to have given it a taste of power and a renewed appetite for the chance to get things done.

Over its decades as a second-tier opposition party, the NDP had grown complacently comfortable with moral victories. Too many of its members equated parliamentary irrelevance with ideological virtue.

But over his time in Parliament, — and, in particular, in the last campaign — Layton showed the New Democrats that ideals and pragmatism need not be flip sides of the political coin.

He taught his party that it was possible to win like Liberals and still act like New Democrats.

He also taught Canada’s jaded chattering class that retail politics and the attending appeals to the lowest common populist denominator need not be the only route to victory.

When all is said and done, his greatest gift to the country may have been to restore a measure of humanity to its national politics.

But at what price?

Contemplating the obvious toll the spring campaign took on their leader, many New Democrats and quite a few observers will ponder whether they should have pressed the issue of Layton’s health more aggressively rather than accept his assurances that all was under control unquestioningly (and somewhat selfishly).

In an e-mail I received on New Year’s Day, Layton described 2011 as a “decisive” year. Neither of us could imagine how gloriously and heartbreakingly prescient those words would turn out to be.

But if he had known, I’m not sure he would have done things differently.

In a business whose common currency is too often nastiness, Layton spent his last months on the scene in a rare state of grace.

The connection he established with Quebecers — on terms that go beyond the post-election reductive depiction of a cheap nationalist flirt — was a healthy source of pride, as was the party’s leap to official opposition.

But as his last letter to Canadians makes clear, Layton did not see the runner-up spot in the House of Commons as a final destination.

Nor did he underestimate the potential impact of repeat Conservative majority governments on Canada’s national fabric.

While he was well aware that he had very much carried the party to it new status on his shoulders, he scoffed at the notion that the messenger mattered more than the message itself.

This week the New Democrats feel orphaned — and even the most hardened political voyeurs feel a tinge of sorrow for what might have been. There will be ample time in the days ahead to look more closely at the way forward and the challenges that lay ahead for the NDP.

There will be many.

Among those, the ongoing rivalry between the Liberals and the NDP for the position of de facto alternative to the Conservatives stands out

Layton leaves his party in the opposition driver’s seat, but with his passing the NDP has lost its biggest asset. No longer can it bank on a decisive leadership edge to keep its rivals at bay, especially in Quebec.

Layton was fiercely creative in seeking out-of-the-box arrangements to advance his social-democratic priorities in the Commons.

He made co-operation his mantra throughout some of the most corrosive and divisive Parliaments in modern federal history.

He would not necessarily have wished a war to the finish between Canada’s progressive forces on his successor and on the country.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs columnist with Record news services.

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