The Layton tendency

He’s urbanized the NDP but he still can’t resist bashing business

Jack Layton doesn’t like “NDP” so much—the abbreviation, that is, not the party. Even if it’s a comfortably familiar brand, his advisers say that to Layton’s ear “NDP” sounds impersonal. And it does too, when you say the three letters out loud, like NFB or CFL. So Layton has taken to using “New Democrats” most of the time, which sounds like he could be talking about human beings, rather than just an institution. He’s also hoping to borrow the positive connotations of the U.S. Democrat brand in this season of Barack Obama. Sometimes he puts the accent firmly on “New,” as if to imply, “This isn’t your bearded high-school history teacher’s party anymore.”

And maybe it isn’t. Rounding the turn of the 2008 campaign, the week of the critical televised debates, Layton is running a different sort of, all right, New Democrat race. No doubt he’s benefiting from comparisons with Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion’s momentumless effort. But there’s also an aura of command and control around Layton, as if he is not only calling the party what he wants, he has also called the shots to remake its machinery. If Layton really is poised for a breakthrough, at Dion’s expense, it’s the culmination of five years spent updating the perennial also-ran brand of federal politics.

Those renovations began with the way Layton took over back in early 2003. He was expected to face a close fight against Winnipeg MP Bill Blaikie, a pillar of the NDP’s parliamentary wing until he retired earlier this year, and a living symbol of its storied Prairie social-democratic roots. Instead, Layton, a smooth-talking, broad-smiling interloper from Toronto city politics, scored a crushing first-ballot victory. It was the first time the party had picked its leader by letting members vote directly, including Internet voting, rather than an old-style delegate convention. Layton exploited the newfangled system, reaching out beyond core NDP networks. Union leaders took note when he only fleetingly mentioned organized labour in his acceptance speech.

Layton is not rooted in the classic NDP blend of union power-brokerage politics and folksy rural populism. It’s showing in this campaign. Born and raised in Hudson, Que.—and son of a Brian Mulroney cabinet minister—he studied at McGill University in Montreal, and mastered the politician’s trade in nearly two decades of wheeling and dealing on Toronto’s city council. His base in the country’s biggest urban centre, still a focal point for resentment in much of the country, sets him apart. He’s not apologizing. “I’ve learned most of my politics and my convictions that we need real change right in this city,” he said this week at a rally in his downtown home riding.

Polling shows that his party’s chances to unseat Liberals in this race are coming in largely in urban constituencies. Harris/Decima reported on Sept. 27 that, among urban voters, the NDP had moved to just three percentage points back of the Liberals, whose big-city dominance is vital to their remaining the only viable alternative to Stephen Harper’s Tories. Ominously for Dion, Layton’s NDP had drawn even among urban women, arguably the most important Liberal demographic bastion. As well, the NDP was siphoning off urban voter support that had swung briefly to the upstart Greens.

It’s not just Layton’s citified style, of course, that has New Democrats dreaming of glory on Oct. 14. He and his coterie of hand-picked strategists are pitching a platform designed to reassure NDP loyalists, but appeal directly to voters who previously doubted the party would protect their interests. A telling example: in crafting a new child benefit proposal, the NDP decided to keep the Tories’ $100-a-month payments for every child under six years old, even for the wealthiest families. But they would then enrich existing benefits and fold them all into a single, tax-free monthly cheque of up to $400 per child. And they would even allow it to escalate: a family with two children making $100,000 would get $2,262 more a year, a bigger net benefit than the $2,140 a two-child family making just $40,000 would get. A senior NDP strategist explained the formula in blunt electoral terms: Layton wants to compete for votes in two-income middle-class households.

For his big promises to seem sensible, though, Layton needs to defend his proposal for paying for them. His “balanced and responsible” platform rests on a single massive revenue-generator: he would reverse this year’s Conservative corporate tax cut, which the Liberals propose to not only keep, but enhance. This one measure boosts what the NDP can plan to spend, without going into deficit, by a whopping $7.3 billion next year, rising to more than $14 billion at the end of a hypothetical four-year term. Layton argues cutting taxes for “banks and oil companies” doesn’t make sense. Harper and Dion say he doesn’t understand how countries compete for investment. Indeed, in the first five years of the 21st century, 24 out of the 30 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations cut their corporate tax rates, and none raised them.

Countering the charge that he wants to risk Canada’s chances of luring investment, just as the economy tanks, could turn into Layton’s toughest challenge in the campaign’s stretch run. He doesn’t shy away from a business-bashing message, leaning heavily on stump-speech lines about “policies for the kitchen table not the boardroom table.” At worst, it comes across as hackneyed class warfare rhetoric. At best, it’s a variation on the “Main Street vs. Wall Street” talk that’s so common these days among U.S. politicians trying to get on the right side of the financial crisis.

Any erosion of Layton’s claim to being a pragmatist could be damaging. He’s been portraying himself as a player, not merely a protester, in earnest since the spring of 2005, when instead of joining with the Tories to defeat the Liberal minority, he cut a deal with Paul Martin to shift $4.6 billion to NDP priorities like mass transit and affordable housing. A key architect of the bargain, Bob Gallagher, now Layton’s chief of staff, had only recently arrived in Ottawa at that time. He had previously worked for Layton’s wife, MP Olivia Chow, when she was a Toronto city councillor. (Asked recently if he is a “loyal family retainer,” Gallagher deadpanned, “More like an indentured servant.”)

Other key strategists in Layton’s backroom also tend to bring experience beyond the party’s Parliament Hill core, with its long tradition of honourable disappointment. Foremost among them is Brian Topp, a one-time senior aide to Roy Romanow when he was NDP premier in Saskatchewan, who is Layton’s campaign director for the second straight election. Under Layton, improved organization can be measured in dollars: in the first half of this year, the NDP raised $1.8 million, very close to the historically much richer Liberals’ $1.9 million, though far behind the Tories’ $8.5 million.

Layton plans to spend the full $18.5 million allowed in this campaign, keeping pace with the big parties for the first time. What dividends that investment will pay remain in question. The regional picture is mixed. Tories have tellingly switched to making the NDP, rather than the Liberals, their main target in B.C. Polls suggest NDP candidates are competitive in a handful of Montreal ridings where they never before stood a chance. Nationally, though, NDP support is up only modestly. Early this week, Harris/Decima put NDP support at 19 per cent, compared to the 17.5 per cent of the popular vote the NDP garnered to win 29 seats in 2006. If Layton is to do much better this time, the numbers still have a long way to go to catch up with the way he’s talking.

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