It was after 12:30 a.m. when Jack Layton finally emerged—swinging his newly emblematic cane, grinning his old signature grin—to soak up the adulation of about 2,000 NDP supporters gathered here in Toronto.
Their cheers grew louder as he talked of his determination to work to lift seniors out of poverty, help families make ends meet, create new jobs. These were, he reminded them, the things they had voted for.
“And you voted to end the same old debates and political games,” he said, wrapping up that section of his speech to a huge roar.
Ending the games, yes. That was the underlying theme of the NDP campaign: “Fix Ottawa.” And it can’t be denied that Parliament Hill will be a different place now.
But will it be different in a way that Layton’s many new voters will find congenial? I can’t imagine how. He made his reputation as a pragmatic politician by playing the angles in successive minority Parliaments.
He pressed Paul Martin into spending $4.6 billion on NDP priorities like affordable housing and mass transit in the spring of 2005. He persuaded Stephen Harper to extend Employment Insurance benefits in the fall of 2009.
Those were deals cut with governments striving not to be voted out of office. The big news tonight is that Harper has won his long-sought majority. He doesn’t have to play by those rules anymore.
So will the “same old debates and political games” come to an end? Absolutely. A new sort of debates (in which the Conservatives need not pay overly much attention) and a different sort of games (in which opposition parties struggle to have an impact through means less reliable than the arithmetic of House votes) are about to begin.
“I will propose constructive solutions focused on helping Canadians,” Layton said. “We’re going to focus on lifting Canadians out of poverty. We’re going to focus on tackling the crisis of climate change.”
I don’t think those are priorities for the new majority Tory government, however—at least not the way New Democrats imagine they might help the poor and cut greenhouse gas emissions. What leverage will Layton’s much larger caucus have, for the next four years or so, in trying to force their perspective on these and other issues onto the agenda?
Layton closed with a heartfelt reminder to the predominantly young crowd that the NDP has a 50-year history, that many have struggled long in the party’s social-democratic cause. “They refused to give up often in the face of overwhelming odds,” he said.
As struggles go, it’s far better to toil as the Number Two party in the Commons than as Number Three or Four. Against what’s likely to be an uncompromising majority government, though, a struggle it will assuredly remain.