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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.)


 

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