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Jack Layton set out to convert the federal New Democratic Party into a governing party.
More than this, Layton aimed to be prime minister, to elect a government and to steer Canada towards mainstream social democracy – a fairer, better, more equal Canada, one practical step at a time.
Layton aimed to modernize his party and its policies.
Layton aimed for a breakthrough in Quebec, the province of his birth – and for badly needed breakthroughs everywhere and anywhere else in Canada. The federal NDP was in ashes when he assumed the leadership. He aimed to return to the work of Tommy Douglas, David Lewis and Ed Broadbent, successful predecessors with similar goals.
So how is that all working out, a year after his passing?
Jack’s last words were a call to maintain our hope and optimism.
And there is, possibly to the surprise of our opponents, much for New Democrats to be hopeful and optimistic about today. Jack would like that.
But our tribe also must wrestle with some interesting challenges – the kind of challenges the NDP has always wanted to have. Jack would like that, too.
Things to be hopeful and optimistic about:
First, our opponents hoped that the NDP’s remarkable progress under Layton would instantly evaporate without him. But I am in an excellent position to testify that the New Democrats found a formidable replacement in Thomas Mulcair. Mr. Mulcair is a former Quebec cabinet minister who looks more comfortable at the Calgary Stampede than our Albertan prime minister does. Somebody who can do that has got the chops to provide Mr. Harper with a serious run for his money – and his office.
Second, our opponents specifically hoped that the NDP’s remarkable breakthrough in the province of Quebec would evaporate without Jack Layton. There is no evidence of this. Most Quebeckers remain determined to rid Canada of its current government and (always mindful that there are no certainties or entitlements in politics) see their formidable delegation of Quebec New Democrat MPs as their best means to do so.
Third, the underlying gears and clockspins of Canadian politics, many of them provincial, continue to line up helpfully for the NDP across Canada. Canadians are not looking to Fabian-neoconservatives to solve their problems with health care, education and other public services by stealthily wrecking them. These days, as in Alberta, even when “conservatives” win, they lose. Canadians are looking for something else.
Some interesting challenges, in no particular order:
What to do with Parliament? Mr. Mulcair’s irrepressible House Leader, Nathan Cullen, has done Canada (and the teachers leading school groups into the galleries) a signal favour by working to drive infantilism out of the House of Commons. But it is also true, as the New Democrat Official Opposition well understands, that peace and quiet in Parliament will re-elect the government. Boring works, at least for this Prime Minister.
The people of Canada gave the NDP the tools to set the public agenda. Using those tools, the New Democrats need to win the next three sessions on issues that will frame victory in 2015.
What does that look like? In a perfect world, something like the pipeline debate that broke the back of the St-Laurent government. Or the defense debates that cracked the Diefenbaker cabinet and helped plunge Conservatives into a generation of civil war. Parliamentary moments like those are combinations of luck (or, in any event, the artfully seizing upon of mistakes), meticulous research and a determined and sustained exploitation of every rule in the parliamentary book – at a decibel level sufficient to cut through and to credibly demonstrate that it is time for a change in Ottawa.
What is the alternative being proposed? New Democrats can safely be clear about what they are not. Not dismantlers of medicare. Not builders of pipelines, designed to ship our raw resources and our jobs to waiting industrial economies overseas and to the south. Not warmongers. Not reckless deregulators. Not fiscally reckless friends of the rich. Not climate-change deniers. Is saying this enough?
As political strategy, it probably is. Wise oppositions make the government the issue and keep the focus on its failures. The imponderable is this: if you don’t also say, pretty clearly and at the appropriate time, what you’re going to do and how you’re going to pay for it, do you have a mandate even if you win? And if you surprise voters with changes you didn’t talk about once elected, will they re-elect you to a second term – usually the necessary pre-requisite to ensuring that change is here to stay? That is going to have to be considered carefully.