Is that all there is?

Jack Layton hopes economic turmoil will help the NDP grow


Is that all there is?

Jack Layton barely seemed to break stride after the Oct. 14 election. Prime Minister Stephen Harper slipped from view as he hunkered down to work on appointing his new cabinet, and begin drafting the Throne Speech that will set his second minority government on course later this month. Liberals licked their wounds, mused about rebuilding, then began manoeuvring into position for the inevitable leadership contest to come. But Layton went on talking much the way he always has since jumping from Toronto politics to the national scene as New Democrat leader in 2003.

He called on Harper to support peace talks with the Taliban, an old Layton position, once ridiculed by the Tories, now solidly mainstream in Afghanistan. He urged Conservatives to come up with a plan for Ottawa to backstop company pension plans jeopardized by the stock market plummeting. He demanded that Harper co-operate more humbly with the opposition parties when Parliament resumes sitting. In short, Layton has sounded like he’s pronouncing securely from a position of strength. And with his NDP caucus expanded to 37 MPs, seven more than before the election, perhaps he is.

In an interview, he told Maclean’s he saw the NDP’s gains as “laying the foundations” for steady, if unspectacular, future growth. He argues global economic uncertainty offers him a historic chance to win converts to the party’s long-standing interventionist policies. There is, however, a gloomier way to read the NDP results. For the first time, the New Democrats spent as much as the Tories and Liberals on a campaign, yet they won just 18.2 per cent of the popular vote, only a shade up from the 17.5 per cent they took in 2006. Those 37 MPs, while up from 13 when Layton came to Ottawa, still number less than half the Liberals’ 76, and fewer than the record 43 the NDP elected under Ed Broadbent in 1988.

Robin Sears, who served as Broadbent’s campaign director in that election, praises Layton’s 2008 run as “flawless” and the party’s “most professional ever.” All the more troubling, then, that it wasn’t more successful. Slick TV ads, a nearly error-free performance by Layton, all stacked against a lacklustre centre-left rival in Dion—and still the NDP failed to threaten the Liberals’ status as the main alternative to the Tories. For Sears, now a communications consultant for the Toronto firm Navigator, and no longer a party member, the next step is obvious: he lays out the case for a Liberal-NDP merger in the upcoming issue of Policy Options, the journal of the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy, which is widely read among political insiders.

Sears discerns little daylight these days between Liberals and New Democrats on policy. Nevertheless, he doubts a unite-the-left push, even if the case for it is compelling, would succeed any time soon. “The tribal loyalties and hatreds of political life,” he said in an interview, “are greater than any doctrinal issues.” Indeed, Layton rejects bringing together the left-of-centre parties the way Harper united the right. “The Liberal party,” he says, “runs using quite a few of the ideas we talk about, but in government goes the other way.” He has often railed in the past about Liberal governments failing to make good on promises in areas like child care and greenhouse gas reductions.

So he proposes to keep painstakingly building up what remains the fourth-place party in the House. It looks like a long slog. In three tries as leader, he has added an average of eight seats per election; at that pace, the NDP would form a majority government after another 14 or 15 more campaigns. Layton, 58, laughs at the prospect of trudging toward power until he is an old man. He argues he’s laying crucial groundwork for swifter success, putting particular emphasis on how the NDP’s share of the Quebec vote has climbed from less than two per cent in 2000, the last election before he took over, to just over 12 per cent in last month’s test. Still, that was good enough for just one seat on Oct. 14, a close win by MP Thomas Mulcair in the Montreal-area riding he first took for the NDP from the Liberals in a 2006 by-election.

As a fluently bilingual, Quebec-born leader, Layton had stirred hopes inside his party for a more definitive breakthrough. The NDP’s Quebec wing holds its annual meeting Nov. 14-15 in Montreal, and early indications of its chances of keeping on building should come there. Will credible Quebec candidates, some attracted by Mulcair to run in the last election, stick around in executive roles to help organize for the next one?

If Layton was looking on the bright side about Quebec, he was frank in admitting his disappointment over the election outcome in Toronto, his adopted hometown. Only he and his wife, Olivia Chow, won ridings for the NDP in the country’s biggest city. Layton is reassigning his former chief of staff, Bob Gallagher, to begin figuring out what went wrong and to come up with new strategies. Considering Layton’s nearly two decades’ experience in Toronto politics, it’s a surprising weak spot. Just as unexpected, in a way, is his new strong suit: northern Ontario, where the NDP stole four seats from the Liberals, partly over discontent in depressed forest-industry towns.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Relying on economic anxiety in hinterland regions sounds like old-school NDP. Layton was supposed to usher in a more urban, up-to-date version of social-democratic politics. Loyalists still think he can fulfill that promise. University of British Columbia political science professor Michael Byers, a star NDP candidate in this fall’s election, ran third in his Vancouver Centre bid—more than 6,000 votes behind Liberal incumbent Hedy Fry—but he remains a Layton fan. He contrasts steady NDP growth under Layton to the Liberals’ loss of nearly 100 seats since Jean Chrétien’s last majority win in 2000. “I’m frequently asked when the NDP is going to co-operate with the Liberals,” Byers says. “But I see only one party that’s building substantially.”

He’s right about who’s growing, of course, but what about those frequent questions he has to field about uniting the left? The fact that it keeps coming up must signal something. Sears says many voters tend to lump together the Liberals and New Democrats, and even the upstart Greens, as a blur of alternatives to a single Conservative brand. “Unless you present that broad image,” he says, “people won’t vote for you.” Barack Obama’s success in expanding the U.S. Democrat base, Sears adds, makes the fragmented Canadian left look, by comparison, even less appealing.

Yet Layton says he sees a historic chance to set the NDP apart in the coming months. He doesn’t propose changing the message much. Instead, he says the NDP’s long-standing advocacy of more interventionist government should win converts, as economic upheaval casts doubt on the free-market orthodoxy that’s dominated since the Reagan-Thatcher era. His recent pitch for a federal move to safeguard private pension plans is one example. He cites the NDP’s five-year-old plan for revamping the auto sector to manufacture more fuel-efficient cars as an overlooked idea that now seems prescient. “I hate saying I told you so,” he says, “because that doesn’t help anybody, but we need that kind of thinking. We’ve got to intensity our efforts.”

It’s not at all clear, however, that voters will seize on NDP policy as a lifeline in tougher times. They haven’t before. Even Byers, who plans to run again, suspects the market collapse during the fall campaign hurt the party. “The pitch Jack was making was a substantial change in direction,” he says. “I can’t help but think that there were voters watching their savings and pensions evaporate, and they weren’t thinking this was the time to change their voting patterns.”

Somehow Layton needs to persuade Canadians to make that leap. So far, most New Democrats seem content to let him keep trying, focusing, like their leader, on the modest gains they reaped on Oct. 14. It’s left to outsiders, like Sears and all those persistent questioners Byers finds he has to answer, to wonder how many more elections a divided left will go on facing a united right.

IN NEXT WEEK’S MACLEAN’S: The challenges facing the Green Party of Canada


Is that all there is?

  1. Eventually Jack will leave, and I suspect the NDP gains will wither once more. Especially once Canadians get serious about replacing the CPC. The NDP aren’t going to be positioned to do that, even with Jack at the helm.

  2. I see the NDP having close to 100 seats in the next election. They will have to take seats from the Conservatives, the Liberals and possibly the BQ. The Liberals are unpredictable. They have poor leadership choices, no money, no vision and the Brand is getting long of tooth. There is no doubt the NDP layed out this election campaign as the launchpad to their next. Noticed how clearly they predicted the demise of Dion and the liberals lost again in search for a new leader. Not a normal election spot for a television add, but they did it because they knew the direction of the Canadian electorate and the failings of a political party losing its relevance to Canadians.

  3. So the Liberals are going to be nearly wiped out? Sorry, but you are almost certain to eat crow on that one.

  4. The NDP never seems to understand that there are just as many people who are horrified of giving them real power as there are of the Cons.

    Also, if Jack! wants to win some more seats in his hometown, he should try not demonizing the citiy’s most important industry for half the campaign.

  5. Why do the Liberals get called a party of the left?

    The current leadership front-runner, who has written of Canada as a ‘junior partner’ in an American-led ‘Empire Lite’ has said that the party is not a party of the left (somewhat contradicting an earlier statement, but that’s par for the Ignatieff course).

    Under the outgoing leader’s direction, the Liberals back-tracked on pro-union legislation at the behest of Bay Street, they supported an extension and escalation of the war in Afghanistan at the recommendation of the continentalist John Manley, they gave their support to Harper’s last budget–which favored corporate tax cuts–and then said in the final days of the campaign that, given the economic realities, child care and health care investments might have to wait (though, of course, corporate tax cuts wouldn’t).

    When Layton challenged this kind of record and approach in the election, Stephane Dion (supposedly a left-leaning figure) called Layton a dangerous socialist job-killer, sounding like no one more than Stephen Harper when he denounced Kyoto as a ‘socialist scheme.’ (Or maybe Ralph Goodale had given him a copy of Jimmy Gardiner’s greatest hits from the 1930s.)

    Of course, this anti-left attitude was no surprise coming from the party that, more than a decade after promising a child care program, was spending at the lowest level in the OECD, reckoned as a share of national wealth. Child care had never been a serious priority for the Liberal government, though promising child care to win elections certainly had.

    In following this pattern, they proved Alan Blakeney right, who once said that Liberals have just two priorities: First, get elected; second, get re-elected.

    To continue with the child-care example, in its final budget, the last Liberal gov’t in office did promise $5 billion over five years for a child care program, which would have moved the needle a bit, but that death-bed investment should be set beside the $13 billion over five years that was available to boost military spending, if you want to get a real sense of this supposedly left-leaning party’s real priorities.

    The Liberals aren’t a left-wing party. They don’t call themselves one. They don’t act like one. Why do journalists and pundits continue to place them there on the political spectrum?

  6. Ironically if Canadians were asked what it means to be Canadian what they’d recite the founding principles of the CCF errrr NDP.

    To the rest of the world we are defined by our ‘universal healthcare’ for example, a policy stemming from Tommy Douglas, the founder of the party.

    I could go on and on about ‘progressive’ ideas, but they’d only be ignored; just like the conditioned Canadian electorate through ‘mainstream media’ are influenced to believe that only Liberals or Conservatives are the voice of all of us. Lies, lies, lies.

    But thanks must be given to Newsweek for at least offering a modicum of positive spin regarding Jack Layton and his formidable team of NDPers elected to Parliament. This is a rare occasion indeed and must be given more than a modicum of applause.

    It appears Jack Layton has been poignantly ‘visionary’ with regard to what is and has been for some time coming to fruition. Sadly, Canadians did not listen to his insight, so we are stuck once again with a ‘neocon’ minority government representing a thin wedge of the majority of our nation, the elite.

    Bravo Jack, I’ve your back. “Peace in all dimensions” is my cry.

  7. “To the rest of the world we are defined by our ‘universal healthcare’ for example, a policy stemming from Tommy Douglas, the founder of the party.”

    Actually, we are probably best defined by our love of ice hockey and, if Monty Python is anything to go by, the forests products industry. Although I also know many foreigners who think we all love beer and maple syrup. Surprisingly, healthcare policy never comes up.

  8. sbt: Actually I’d say that the one thing American liberals generally know about our politics is our healthcare policy, maybe because they aren’t that impressed by our forests, since they have some too. And the number of times I was obliged, while living in the States, to glower at Americans who asked if I meant “ice hockey” would horrify you. I think you’re right about our hockey & forestry in the rest of the world’s eyes, but Neil is right about our socialist image in teh USA.

  9. Iggy as leader would sure be a gift to the NDP. The could really attack the Liberals in good conscience then. Seems to me the NDP’s fatal flaw this last election was that all their energy went into demolishing the Tories, which did no more than counteract Tory assaults on Dion — i.e. shore up the Liberal base. But the Igginator would remove any need for the NDP to drift to the centre. Not that that’s necessarily good for the NDP, but it would mean they wouldn’t have to take any hard decisions.

  10. Liberals are centrists. Dion is a centrist. Perhaps slightly centre-left.

  11. “I see the NDP having close to 100 seats in the next election.”

    This made me smile.

    Let me try one too, just for fun:

    “And I see 22 fo them being in Aberta”

  12. Scott B – you made me choke on my coffee. Great post.

  13. Andrew wrote:

    “Liberals are centrists. Dion is a centrist. Perhaps slightly centre-left.”

    Thanks, Andrew.

    Such simple, straightforward assertions about the Liberals–unsupported by any facts–have for too long formed the basis of public discussion of this political party’s agenda.

    Thanks for drawing our attention again to the typical Liberal nonsense.

  14. Will someone please lend this to Layton getting tired of him operating on old news


    NDP are so out of touch with what is, he really expects the 4.2% un-employed
    to make him king leader??? Would really like to see the NDP grow up
    and start talking that Canada is already a great place, we need to export this
    greatness to others than the U.S. Consumers. Tax the Banks, Tax Canadian Energy
    when our Gas prices are already Twice that of the US is useless
    For the GM auto Industry story ….these cars would be selling as usual if the US had places to get loans
    for them in the first place Jack…
    Left/ Right / Center wing politics is so old School it drives me nuts its all emotional based.
    never backed with fact, never researched. And we get a Jack or a Dion or a Bob to try it all over again

  15. PS for Jack’ lets talk to the Talaban – Lets send Jack himself – Can’t hurt

  16. Jack – visionary? Good grief. I watched a speech very much like Jack Layton’s recent speeches – it was by David Lewis in “1972”. They’ve said the same thing forever.

  17. Jack Layton rented an airplane, flew over the tar sands, looked out his window and pronounced them bad. With in depth analysis like that, how can he not be credible.

  18. Am following with interest the musings and opinions of others for the first time and realize that canadians are still much divided on the polital systems we have.
    Being an “oldtime socialist”, which in the USA seems to be a “dirty word”, the only effective politician in my book was Tommy Douglas, a true “reformer” and great human being. Saskatchewan much benefitted from his 17 years premier-ship.
    Where are people of his kind hiding? Are truly good people not coming to the fore because our present political system is a rather comical mess with people like Dion and Layton?
    Having “reform” ideas made me a grassroot member of the Reform Party. Stephen Harper, actually a nice guy, took the audacity to change the policy ( which was my motion adapted unanimously at a convention to hold federal elections once every four years),because it could give him another term at a for “him” preferred time. Plain selfish move of a now somewhat powerhungry “politician”. Sussex Drive must be a good place to live. He should have waited another year to call that last election. I like the man and family, but he was politically incorrect. What do other readers think?

    Jack A van Meenen, 709 Sagueney Drive – Saskatoon – SK S7K 5T4
    presently in California 760 – 619 – 3243

    • Ha die Koos,
      Helaas bleek het e-mailadres wat ik op de Prinsendam noteerde niet juist. Toch wil ik je graag eeb bericht sturen. Laat svp even van je horen.

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