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A carved bust of Jack Layton rests atop his headstone in the Necropolis Cemetery in Cabbagetown, Aug. 21, 2012. (Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail)

A carved bust of Jack Layton rests atop his headstone in the Necropolis Cemetery in Cabbagetown, Aug. 21, 2012.

(Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail)

Can Mulcair’s new approach complete Jack Layton’s revolution? Add to ...

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They’re making a film about Jack Layton. Tributes are pouring in on a website dedicated to his memory. On Wednesday, thousands are gathering at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square and in other cities across Canada to mark the first anniversary of his passing.

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Why?

He was never prime minister, or premier, or mayor. The former federal New Democratic Party leader was not responsible for any great signature achievements in health care or the environment or, well, anything.

What is Jack Layton’s legacy, other than that he is remembered with love?

The answer lies not in who he was, but in what he may have made possible: a governing alternative to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

A year after his death, the Party That Jack Built rivals the Conservatives in the polls, with the Liberals languishing far behind. Thomas Mulcair, the new NDP Leader, is boldly wooing Ontario voters by blaming the Alberta-fuelled petro dollar for lost manufacturing jobs in Central Canada.

Would Smiling Jack, who, in his final letter to Canadians proclaimed “love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear” have endorsed such a divisive strategy? Perhaps not. But then, this is no longer Jack Layton’s NDP.

Mr. Mulcair is establishing his own brand: assertive, aggressive, polarizing. A Stephen Harper for the left.

If the NDP comes to government, it will be because it has moved beyond its old base: a collection of social activists, university professors and other heart-in-the-right-placers earnestly talking to each other about empowering the people, with strings pulled behind the scenes by union leaders, who once held many of the purse strings as well.

An NDP that takes power will be what a party that takes power in Canada must be: controlled out of the leader’s office, equipped with sophisticated fundraising and voter-identification machinery, targeting every message to key swing voters in suburban Ontario, where elections are decided.

Mr. Layton began that internal revolution. Mr. Mulcair, if he is to become prime minister, must complete it.

The party will always revere Jack Layton’s memory. But the party is moving on.

It is easy to forget that, until the final weeks of his life, Mr. Layton was simply the leader of the fourth party in the House of Commons. Even he could never have expected the breakthrough in the May, 2011, election that gave the NDP 59 seats in Quebec and official-opposition status in the House of Commons.

After all, when he assumed the leadership in 2003, the party “was in shambles. … It was a dismal, dismal time,” observes David McGrane, a political scientist at the University of Saskatchewan who has written extensively on the NDP.

Mr. Layton brought more than his relentless optimism about the NDP’s future to the job of leader. He began to bring the NDP into the 21st century. (It had largely skipped the end of the 20th.)

He reorganized the party, concentrating power in his office while marketing the NDP as a reasonable, centre-left alternative to the scandal-plagued Liberal Party and, after 2006, the tax-cutting, crime-fighting Conservatives.

For long-time NDP activist and commentator Gerald Caplan, Mr. Layton’s great achievement was “his refusal to reconcile himself to the glass ceiling that the country had imposed on the NDP.”

To smash that ceiling and increase the party’s popular support, Mr. Layton undertook to move the NDP closer to the political centre, to make it a responsibly progressive alternative to the Conservatives.

Mr. Layton also resolved to make the NDP matter in Quebec. Yet those efforts produced little, apart from Mr. Mulcair’s victories in Outremont, until all the other parties collapsed in the province in the 2011 campaign.

“It was a vote by elimination,” the pollster Jean-Marc Léger said. “People, in a campaign, want to love someone. And this time, it was Jack Layton.”

Such a victory can prove ephemeral. And yet under Mr. Mulcair, the NDP remains popular in the province.

“Despite the skepticism and cynicism, I think that the legacy is transferable,” says Stephen Lewis, the former NDP leader in Ontario. “Because people trusted Jack so much, those who succeed him can take it forward.”

In a strange way, the two leaders made a winning combination: Mr. Layton created the breakthrough that Mr. Mulcair, with his deep roots in the province, appears to be entrenching.

What’s more, Mr. Mulcair could add to this new base of socially progressive supporters in Quebec the votes of workers in Ontario if they become disenchanted with the Conservatives’ laissez-faire approach and buy Mr. Mulcair‘s “blame Alberta” explanation for the province’s troubles.

“People may say that Quebec was one election ahead of the rest of the country,” Mr. Léger speculates, adding that the NDP has “much work to do” to reach government.

That work involves making the party respectable to voters who, unlike Conservative supporters, look to government to respond to social and environmental challenges, but who also expect balanced budgets and to keep most of their paycheques.

That also involves making the Liberal Party disappear, or at least pushing it to the margins that the social democrats once occupied.

“One of the two parties will die,” Mr. Léger predicts. “Is it the NDP or is it the Liberals? Something will happen. But for the first time, the NDP will have a chance to form the next government.”

That shot at government meant rejecting Mr. Layton’s blueprint for succession that favoured former adviser Brian Topp.

When Mr. Mulcair challenged that, senior figures in the party rallied, including former leader Ed Broadbent, against him. But Mr. Mulcair prevailed.

Now he must make the party his own, by preserving the NDP’s sudden gains in Quebec, expanding its support in suburban Ontario, and building an electoral machine to rival that of the Conservatives.

But even as he does so, the party sets about beatifying its fallen hero.

“The left has a tendency to mythologize its leaders,” said Prof. McGrane. “There will be a Jack Layton myth that lives on.”

Whatever the NDP evolves into under Mr. Mulcair, Jack Layton will forever be one of its saints.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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