Where did Jack Layton stand?

The current crop of candidates are measured against the late Jack Layton – but it’s complicated


In addition to a lack of specific policy debates with which to frame the discussion, the debate over the future direction of the NDP is complicated by the most recent point of reference: Jack Layton. What kind of party was the NDP under his leadership? Did he move the party to the centre? Or did he merely “modernize” the party’s rhetoric? Was he a pragmatist who leaned to the political left or was he a dedicated leftist who maintained at all times a pragmatic approach to politics?

Here’s something Megan Leslie argued to me recently.

I’m ticked at all the media commentary about Jack moving us to the centre. He never did that. He was radical. He just had a common-sense, folksy way of communicating that brought people to us. I trusted him, absolutely, to do this, and to keep us true to our values, even if (in moments) I was uneasy with a position. And he did it.

I hope that the next leader can be both a dynamic communicator, *and* stay true to our social democratic values. That’s the sweet spot that the new leader has to straddle.

Was Jack Layton a radical? Depending on your definition of the word, you could certainly make the case, pointing to his work on women’s rights, gay rights, the environment, homelessness and urban affairs. He was an early advocate in the fight against AIDS, he founded the white ribbon campaign, he championed same-sex marriage, he rode a bicycle everywhere and he turned his home into a model of renewable energy.

But then consider NDP policy on the environment. When Stephane Dion was pitching a carbon tax and Stephen Harper was pitching cap-and-trade, the NDP sided with cap-and-trade. On the one hand, the NDP championed the Climate Change Accountability Act. On the other hand, the NDP proposed a tax break on home-heating costs.

Meanwhile, here is the NDP platform for last year’s election. It’s entitled “Give Your Family A Break: Practical First Steps,” which sounds like it could have been the title of one of Jim Flaherty’s budgets. The second sub-section is entitled “Reward The Job Creators.” Frank Luntz would approve of that one and he would also cheer the NDP’s vow to “Fix Ottawa.” And maybe that makes the NDP platform subversive—a different kind of radical—in its politics. Social democracy sold as populism.

All of which is to say that Jack Layton was a fascinating political actor and Ms. Leslie might be on to something and it’s complicated. (And perhaps it’s too bad that there’s less than a week remaining in the NDP leadership race to explore this.)


Where did Jack Layton stand?

  1. Good stuff, Aaron.

  2. I am glad someone is bringing this up…..and it’s no mystery, the radical thing that Layton injected into the party is called populism, sheer abject populism and it didn’t jive with traditional NDP values, or their platfoms, but the media seemed to always overlook this.

    Another example was the whole EI reform thing in 2009….the Liberals and the NDP wanted very similar things up into the summer, the Conservatives wouldn’t budge and the Liberals threatened action.Instead of voting WITH the Liberals, they voted against (and tried to pretend they never bought it in the first place)…..it was a populist move desinged to weaken the Liberals and it allowed Jack to say HE got concesions from Harper where the Liberals couldn’t (of course he didn’t ……but no one called him on that either). In fact the media did a REALLY poor job of actually evaluating his platforms whihc was really lucky for him becuase they never passed the smell test.

    Not sure why you are claiming it’s complicated….he is an NDP, but used populist tactics to convince different people of different things (some would call that good poltics, some would call that lying…..and everything in between)……the real question is what is the real NDP IF they ever get into the PMs chair?

    • Fair enough question. But can’t that be asked of any party that takes power? Government-cutting Conservatives have grown the government and deficit under their watch. They’ve billed themselves as law & order, but find the election laws awkward to make orderly. Liberals signed Kyoto and then did little to implement. The Red Book and its implementation have been questioned repeatedly.

      I think people generally get that a Conservative government moves the country right, an NDP government would move it left. (Luckily we don’t currently have to guess which way the Liberals would move it for a while. Because that’s a bit tougher question.)

      • Thomaus you ask….But can’t that be asked of any party that takes power?

        I would say no. There is a big difference between not meeting your objectives (ie: Kyoto….and BTW? the Red Book, they implimented about 70-80% of it so not sure sure what failure you are citing there) and promising one thing on the campaign trail and doing another in office. It’s a shame we have rewarded the Conservatives for the past three elections for doing just that……but it certainly shouldn’t be the expectation or the norm.

        • So, you are saying in dealing with the parties in power that the NDP never got a compromise that pushed the policy in a more progressive direction? Either to the left, or at least less to the right? Instead, he sold out party interests and then lied about it? If so, I guess you are right about Layton.

          Layton never held power, so you can only draw conclusions based on how the NDP could bargain with either the Liberals or Conservatives from a relatively weak position. So whatever Jack pulled off was a compromise. (There was never a chance that an actual substantive NDP platform plank was going to be adopted by Parliament.)

          Jack was a politician (arguably a good one), so wasn’t it his job to take the parcels that the party could accomplish and spin them into something that would make the NDP look good?

          I don’t get the harm in this. If he was less effective in popularizing the NDP’s record — you’d like him better? Or if Jack had worn socialism on his sleeve and stuck to historical dogma you’d cut him some slack?

          I would say, that after the NDP picks the leader and a couple years of party-building take place, the larger base will come to a consensus and a platform will emerge. If they are granted a majority in the next election, Canada should count on a majority of that platform to be enacted (maybe even 70-80% as you claim for the Red Book). If they win with a minority they would probably get much less passed. And if Layton was still alive and leading the party it would probably play out the same way.

          • True, and I think sometimes it isn’t the politicians so much as it is our expectations.  The sheer stupidity of no politician ever being able to say “If we form the government, there is a good possibility some taxes will be raised” even when some taxes need to be raised.   That isn’t their fault, its our collective fault.

            And of course, the reality of the situation is often different than the perceived reality from the opposition benches.

    • Frankly I think genuine leftism is always populist, and that’s not a bad thing.  It’s about, like, the now-cliche 99% getting a better shake; what is that but populist? 
      I’ve never really understood what makes “populism” a dirty word.  Sure, some populists are fooling the people.  But then, so are most technocrats.

  3. I am a lifelong NDP voter who was never happy with Jack Layton. 
    His true colours came out during the Dion years. He  spent huge effort and energy on attacking another strong progressive, well left of centre voice in Stephane Dion. During this time he cosied up to Harper and played footsie in an unspoken agreement that both would be better off with a weakened Liberal Party: Harper majority and Layton Opposition leader. His unprincipled unfair attack on Ignatieff during the debate was just another example of his pro Harper strategy. So it was successful in the short run, but still a total abandonment of principle and an example of cynical Harper style politics. In the long run it was a losing strategy as we now see a Harper  majority and nothing in his way for four years.I know, there was the coalition experiment which was a loser and doesn’t compensate for Layton’s overall cynical approach in his unspoken deal with Harper. Somebody else can explain Layton’s thinking on that one!I’m pleased to see by the way that the third party Liberals are maintaining their focus on attacking the Conservative Government and not trying to destroy the credibility of the their fellow progressives  in the House. Rae more brains and class than Layton.

    •  I agree with you and Guesty on pretty well everything you’ve noted here. For myself, I could never quite overlook the fact that Jack was the son of a Tory minister and seemed more comfortable with them than with the Liberals. And I ccan never support his 50% + 1 policy on Quebec independence. As long as that’s NDP policy, I will vote Liberal or Green.

    • Stephan Dion is progressive, but he was never a strong progressive. He attracted attacks by everyone, including his Liberal team. I happen to be a person who would accept the economic reality of a carbon tax. But I know that there is no way a majority of Canada would ever vote for that no matter how strong the leader is. And Dion was not strong.

      Jack’s shot at Iggy was probably cheap, but it wasn’t a lie. As a Toronto-Danforth constituent, I remember that a common criticism of Jack during re-election was that he didn’t spend enough time in the riding. He defended that charge well enough to keep attracting more votes. And the charge was only partly true. Iggy did actually have a horrible attendance record. But, if he couldn’t justify why to the country, he didn’t deserve to be elected.

      I am not a lifelong NDP member. I just joined the party last year — inspired by what Jack had helped the party achieve. I thought that finally we could eventually elect a party that would tilt the political power in this country to the left and re-make the government in a more progressive fashion. To win elections a party has to point out the good they can do, and the bad the opposition has done or could do. I have no regrets over how the party conducted itself during the last election. (Contrast the NDP campaign with the shameful attacks the Conservatives sponsored and continue to sponsor.) Jack won with one of the most optimistically positive and supportive campaigns that have been run in recent years. And the result was successful.

      And remember, if he hadn’t been successful, almost no one would be paying attention to the NDP convention this weekend. Or much of anything else about the NDP.

      • You do realize that it is quite common for the leader of the opposition to have the highest absentee rate in the HOC next to the PM don’t you?  Layton sure did because not only did he use that against Ignatieff he used it against Dion and Harper and you know what – he was right in every single case because that is the ‘norm’.  But Sellout Jack didn’t want to let that cat out of the bag did he?  Don’t believe me, go back and look at the previous Layton debates even better go back into the history of parliament’s and I bet you will find that to be the case in almost every one of them.

        Jack Layton was the worst thing that ever happened to the left in Canada and this life long leftie will never ever forgive him for selling us out.  And we can lay the Harper Government right at the feet of Jack Layton & the NDP and they can avoid owning up to this all they want it still doesn’t change what they did.

  4. All interesting questions. Myself, I haven’t much of a clear idea to this day what social Democracy means – it’s close to being a tautology, isn’t it? Or at least unnecessarily repetitive .

    Interesting to compare Jack’s radicalism to someone like Trudeau, who used to use the phrase: the radical middle, the extreme centre. He sat more or less in the middle but kept opponents off balance by reaching outside of it to bring radical options toward himself and the centre; Jack seemed to start from the other end, bringing the centre toward him when he could. Both populists in their own way; Both successful but yet oddly similar approaches. The two men were very different in other ways of course. But they did share one odd and probably coincidental thing. Charles Taylor is said to have been Jack’s mentor, but he was also Trudeau’s long time friend, philosophical sparring partner and even competitor, briefly. Just pointing out the political world is a small one really.

  5. I love Megan Leslie but I think she’s slightly off base here.  There was a positioning under Layton to firmly establish the NDP as a centre-left party… not an entirely left-wing party.  Where was “tax the rich!” under Layton?  He dropped that.  Or take a look at issues like mandatory minimum sentences in our justice system for gun crimes that Layton supported.  Take the issue of pot… Jack said we needed a “full debate” on it instead of a firm decriminalization statement which was party policy.  And the proposal to change the NDP constitution from democratic socialism to social demcracy was under Jack as well.  He attempted to make the NDP more palatable to Liberal voters.  He certainly didn’t sell himself as a “radical”. 

  6. William F. Buckley argued that in elections, conservatives should elect the most conservative candidate who can win and do the job. Jack Layton reflects the social democratic side of that equation. Layton ran as a fairly left-wing guy, with a few populist positions. He wasn’t above playing hardball politics, which sometimes meant going after the Liberals. And in case you noticed, he came far closer than any other NDP leader has to winning a national election. 

    Of course to the usual chorus of yellow Dippers (the sort of people that will say “oh of course I admire the progressive ideals of the NDP… but”) that is sacrilege. To them, the NDP betrays then progressive cause when it makes itself electorally relevant. Because, of course the Liberals are great progressive champions…never mind that they slashed the health and social transfer, cut EI payments, didn’t follow through on their anti-NAFTA position, signed up Canada for its first shooting war since Korea, and cut corporate and income taxes. Jean Chretien was arguably Canada’s most conservative Prime Minister ever.

    The old reality is this – when the NDP was not an electoral threat to the Liberals, the Liberals had a free hand to move to the right. When the NDP has been a serious force, the Liberals have shifted to the centre left. And now with the NDP as the official opposition, not even the old argument for strategically voting Liberal holds up. 

  7. Jack Layton certianly had his charm and ability to communicate.  He also spoke out on a number of issues before they were part of the zeitgeist.

    However, he was not a Saint.  He was a human being and a POLITICIAN.

    At the federal level his legacy must include:

    – killing the Kelowna Accord,
    – killing a National Childcare System,
    – stopping action on Climate Change,
    – poisoning the well with regard to any fixing of our fiscal system to lower personal taxes in favour of taxing waste,
    – tag-teaming with Stephen Harper in hopes of killing the Liberal Party, and
    – NINE YEARS of Stephen Harper rule.

    • Considering all the things above, you’re talking about Harper, not Jack Layton.

  8. Now it seems common sense is “radical”