In 2004, a year after winning the NDP leadership, he ran again for Parliament – this time successfully – in the riding of Toronto-Danforth.
Like the reformist Toronto municipal politicians with whom he had such close relationships dating from the 1970s – people like Sewell and David Crombie – Layton more probably fit the label of Red Tory than anything else, that historic Canadian political culture that envisioned, in philosopher George Grant’s words, “a country which had a strong sense of the common good … that was possible under the individualism of the capitalist dream.”
In the calibration of his political legacy, effectively answering the siren appeal of the conservative playbook will be near the top of the list. Brian Topp, the party’s federal president, said that at a July meeting of Socialist International he attended in Athens, Layton’s electoral success in May was a central topic of conversation. Everyone wanted to know how he’d done it. Topp called him a once-in-a-generation politician.
He will be remembered for his footprints into Quebec. “He shook up the deck in Quebec, and Quebeckers aren’t inclined to go back in time,” said Will Straw, director of McGill University’s Institute for the Study of Canada. The NDP is now a serious player in the province, not a will-o’-the-wisp that will vanish with Layton’s death.
He will be remembered for successfully re-shaping the party into his own image. He was not out of organized labour’s ranks, or the West’s social gospel movement or the academy’s socialist salons. Jack Layton’s NDP has become something new – broader, less ideological, more inclusive, a party whose next leader likely will be able to declare, like its last leader, that she or he is in the running to be prime minister.
He revived the party. He gave it profile.
In the 2004 federal election, his first as party leader, he declared that Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin was responsible for the deaths of homeless people by failing to provide funds for affordable housing.
He advocated talking to the Taliban as part of giving Afghanistan stable government.
He called for the repeal of the Clarity Act, setting out the precise terms for Quebec to separate from the rest of Canada, and promised instead to recognize any declaration of independence by Quebec following a referendum yes-vote.
In 2008, he tried to assemble a Liberal-NDP coalition with the support of the Bloc Québécois as a constitutional alternative to the minority Conservative government should it lose the confidence of the House of Commons – an action that infuriated Western Canada and fractured the Liberals.
He succeeded in the last federal election in winning official opposition status for the NDP – with 103 seats – the first time in its history, and capturing the majority of constituencies in Quebec. In the previous election, in 2008, he’d brought the party to 37 seats, just six short of the previous all-time high.
His message eschewed anger and attack ads, which he knew women voters didn’t like. For the NDP to use those tactics, he said, would merely motivate the Conservatives’ base while turning off its own. Polls showed that Canadians saw in him the image he wanted to project: warmth, approachableness, an absence of cynicism, positiveness.
He offered voters – especially in Quebec – an alternative political agenda to the Conservatives that stepped outside the mantra of tax-cutting and balanced budgets and talked about better pensions, education, health care and the wrongs of economic inequality. At the same time, he avoided a culture war with the Conservatives. He repeatedly told his party’s inner circle that he didn’t think the Conservatives were evil, just misguided.
“The growth in the NDP’s vote share and seat count under Layton’s leadership was no fluke,” said Patrick Muttart, former deputy chief of staff to Stephen Harper. “Layton and his team professionalized the NDP and made it a much more research-driven, voter-focused and tactically innovative political organization. He skillfully held his party’s base while expanding its accessible universe – piece by piece, election over election.”
And Layton was determined to demonstrate to Canadians over the next four years that the NDP was ready to lead the country.
Instead, the cancer that until a few months ago he thought he was defeating launched a devastating, final assault on his body. He had promised the country in July he would be in his seat in the House of Commons when Parliament resumed on Sept. 19. Early Monday morning he died, at the age of 61.
He is survived by is wife, Olivia Chow, son Michael, daughter Sarah, and granddaughter Beatrice.
Special to The Globe and Mail