‘Jack wouldn’t let us not carry on’

A sense of solidarity unites the NDP caucus

by Aaron Wherry

‘Jack wouldn’t let us not carry on’

Ryan Remiorz/CP

After Jack Layton had departed Parliament Hill for the final time last week, his flag-draped casket loaded into a waiting hearse and driven away as a large crowd applauded, those NDP MPs who had gathered to see him off fanned out to greet and thank the well-wishers and mourners. “What I kept on saying to people over and over again,” says Libby Davies, one of Layton’s two deputy leaders, “without even thinking, it was just instinct, was, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to keep working.’ ”

While they mourned their leader, New Democrats could hardly ignore the many questions left in his absence: about their viability, direction and meaning as a party without the man who seemed to define them. But if, in the wake of Layton’s passing, there was a certain fear for the future of the NDP—raised by any number of pundits who now deem the party doomed—New Democrats themselves claim only resolve.

“There isn’t any fear of the future in the caucus—from the new members through the experienced ones,” says Joe Comartin, the veteran MP from Windsor. “And in fact, I’ll say there is some resentment to the pundits and commentators who are tending to write us off. I think there’s a bit of a level of resentment because of that determination, because Jack wouldn’t let us not carry on. So we’re going to carry on.”

In his final days, Layton did what he could to ease the party toward an idealistic and determined future. In the open letter released hours after his death—what Stephen Lewis would call a “manifesto for social democracy” while eulogizing Layton—he encouraged his fellow New Democrats to continue the work, urged the public to give them a “careful hearing,” and even recommended that a leadership vote be held “as early as possible in the New Year.” In lieu of flowers, well-wishers were asked to make donations to the Broadbent Institute, a progressive think tank launched by former NDP leader Ed Broadbent that is due to begin operating this fall. Layton’s state funeral then became, climactically, a celebration of the principles and the “movement”—as it was often called in the day after his passing—that he personified and championed.

That Layton would leave something behind, whenever the end came, was an idea that first arose soon after he was diagnosed with cancer in July. The letter itself was crafted the weekend before he died, with the assistance of his wife, Olivia Chow, party president Brian Topp and his chief of staff, Anne McGrath. “It is something that we can look to,” says McGrath. “It helps with not just the grieving process, but it gives us an idea of where we go now and what we do now.”

What the letter cannot answer is perhaps the most important question now facing the party: who will succeed Layton as leader? Though, as of this writing, no one has formally declared their candidacy, media speculation has focused on deputy leader Thomas Mulcair, the prominent Montreal MP who was a provincial cabinet minister in Quebec, and Brian Topp, the party president and former campaign director. Both Mulcair and Topp have acknowledged that they are thinking about entering the race. Various veterans of the NDP caucus, including Davies, Chow, Paul Dewar and Peter Julian, as well as McGrath, have also been floated as potential candidates. Robert Chisholm, a newly elected MP who previously led the Nova Scotia New Democrats, says he is thinking about running. Comartin has ruled himself out, while former Manitoba premier Gary Doer, who has been cited as a contender, is reportedly unlikely to enter the race. If, given the party’s standing in Quebec, a fluent grasp of the French language is considered a prerequisite, the field may be narrowed.

Under Layton, the party, quite understandably, traded on his personal popularity. It was his face on the campaign bus and it was him at the centre of almost all of the party’s advertising. Public fondness for the man, especially in Quebec, is often given much of the credit for the party’s dramatic success in this spring’s vote. But any search for another Jack Layton is almost certainly futile, or at least short-sighted.

While the present circumstance of the NDP largely defies precedent, recent political dynasties in Canada have thrived while promoting new and distinct leaders, notes David McGrane, a political studies professor at St. Thomas More College and the University of Saskatchewan. The federal Liberals, for instance, went from Mackenzie King to Louis St. Laurent to Lester B. Pearson to Pierre Trudeau during a period of dominance that lasted, with two interruptions, from 1935 to 1984. The Progressive Conservatives in Ontario (from 1943 to 1985) and Alberta (from 1971 to the present) have similarly passed the torch to leaders who distinguished themselves in their own right. “It would probably be a better model,” says McGrane, who studied the NDP for The Canadian Federal Election of 2011, a political science review of the campaign, “to find that somebody that is not actually Jack Layton 2.0, but rather somebody who has their own vision of the country, their own personality, and then build up that person as essentially the prime minister in waiting.”

If the party proceeds along the timetable recommended by Layton, New Democrats will choose a new leader a full year before the Liberals do. He or she will then have three years to prepare for the next election. That leader will confront the same challenges that Layton was faced with: inexperienced caucus members who must be groomed; a sizable Quebec constituency that must be represented without pushing away voters in the other provinces; a “movement” that must continue to build wide support without alienating its more traditional supporters; a party that must reinforce its gains and establish itself as the primary option for centre-left voters. But that leader will also have a chance to benefit from Layton’s hard-won gains, including the largest caucus in party history, a healthy fundraising base, and a wounded Liberal party. “Definitely losing the leader when you’ve put literally millions of dollars into building up his brand is quite devastating for the party,” says McGrane. “However, if you look at the entire history of the CCF/NDP in Canada, the party’s in amazingly better shape than it’s ever been. Anybody who does come to take over the NDP has a lot of assets built up already that they can take advantage of.”

It is difficult to say what mood will prevail when Parliament returns in the fall. The Tories will likely, argues Conservative strategist Tim Powers, keep their attention on the economy—the issue that propelled them to victory in the last election and one that remains foremost in the minds of Canadians. Whenever the NDP selects a new leader, the government will then have to make a decision, based on public sentiment at that point, about how aggressively it engages (think here of how quickly the Tories moved to attack and brand both Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff). “I think you have to have your finger attuned to the pulse of the nation and part of that is paying attention to how aggressive character definition of your opponents may play out,” Powers says. “I think it’s fair game to identify challenges in the narrative that your opposition looks to bring forward, but you can’t have a tin ear. Whenever the Prime Minister or anybody in the government has had a tin ear, it’s usually blown up in their face.”

Though the last year may leave the impression of a dramatic ascent, Layton was, in perspective, an overnight success story that took eight years to write. And while he is gone, many of those who constituted Team Layton—including Topp, McGrath, principal secretary Brad Lavigne and press secretary Karl Belanger—remain. Kathleen Monk, his director of communications, will soon move over to the Broadbent Institute to become its executive director. And within a caucus that remains mostly unknown to the country, Layton also leaves behind a core of experienced parliamentarians, including 19 MPs with at least five years’ experience in the House of Commons.

“There will be those who will try to persuade you to give up our cause,” Layton wrote to party members in his last letter. “But that cause is much bigger than any one leader.” He then turned to the 102 members of the NDP caucus. “It has been my role to ask a great deal from you. And now I am going to do so again,” he wrote. “Canadians will be closely watching you in the months to come. Colleagues, I know you will make the tens of thousands of members of our party proud of you by demonstrating the same seamless teamwork and solidarity that has earned us the confidence of millions of Canadians in the recent election.”

A sense of solidarity was already said to have taken hold amid the June filibuster that delayed passage of back-to-work legislation for Canada Post employees. The loss of their leader and inspiration is now said to have united the caucus all the more. “When you go through a tragedy like this—it’s that old saying, ‘What doesn’t kill you is going to make you stronger,’ ” says Comartin. And in this case, there is, strengthening that resolve, a clear sense of responsibility. “Every single caucus member that I’ve spoken to, there’s the same absolute, resolute feeling that we are united, that we’re together, that we have to carry on Jack’s work,” says Davies.

When it came time for McGrath to sign one of the books of condolences for her departed boss—a man she had spoken to nearly every day for the last three years—she chose to put her commitment in writing. “I love you, I miss you, I know what you want from us,” she wrote, “and we’re going to do it, you can count on us.”

‘Jack wouldn’t let us not carry on’

  1. Mr Wherry, are you an official spokesperson for MacLeans? I think you’ve become one. Whatever else you are, you appear to be today’s torch bearer to keep the Layton flame alit. FGS, MacLeans, let the man rest in peace.

  2. This party is beginning to sound like a religious cult. Is this the same bunch of phonies that took shots at Harper and Stockwell Day for their religious beliefs?The have  now with the help of the media raised an ordinary decent guy to where he is now sacrosanct with the help of the media especially the CBC.

    • Newsflash: all parties sound like religious cults. Every single one of them.

  3. Give it a rest already Komarade Wherry…………………..

  4. How come the NDP isn’t setting aside 25% of the votes in the leadership race for Quebecers?  Why is their policy for Canada, not good enough for the NDP?

    And why are all the members of the NDP national council not bilingual?  That is their policy for the Supreme Court.  Why not for the supreme body of the NDP?

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