The new NDP coalition Jack Layton constructed has not yet had time to congeal. Now that the political contractor has sadly departed, the future of the NDP as a truly national party remains unclear.
Mr. Layton wrought a political miracle. He became the first NDP leader to make not just a breakthrough in Quebec but to sweep the province. The majority of the party’s MPs are now from Quebec; the interim leader is from Quebec. Nothing like this had ever happened to the NDP before; it might never again without someone with Mr. Layton’s charisma.
Thomas Mulcair, the deputy leader and a Quebec MP, will almost certainly run to replace Mr. Layton, but he is not nearly as well known, lacks at least at first glance the former leader’s sunny ways, and remains unproven as a political commodity in Quebec, let alone elsewhere in Canada.
Coattails is something successful leaders have, and Mr. Layton had long ones in Quebec in the last election. Before that, he had no coattails to speak of. But in the last campaign, the fatigue with the Bloc, the further disintegration of the Liberals and the marginalization of the Conservatives – a marginalization that will proceed apace with moves such as bringing back the moniker “royal” for the military – gave the NDP the running room it had never enjoyed. With Mr. Layton sprinting around the province, the party beat all the others handily and propelled itself to Official Opposition.
It is too early to tell whether these new Quebec MPs will blend with their colleagues from outside the province. And it is too early to discern how the party leadership will stickhandle around the inevitable problems between strong nationalist MPs from Quebec and those from elsewhere. If anyone could have pulled off the feat, it was Mr. Layton. His departure leaves open the question of whether the new party can congeal.
The NDP, to its credit, does not throw leaders overboard if electoral success is not immediate. They stick with them for a while, in part because the party never considered winning an election a measuring stick by which to judge its leader. As time went by, then, Mr. Layton grew into the job. He was comfortable in his own skin, and comfortable with the job. He loved politics, day and night, and threw his considerable passion and energy into it, for which he was much admired by colleagues.
His farewell letter, beautifully crafted under the most difficult of circumstances, was true to the man. It recalled the themes of his political life, a thirst for social justice and more fairness, and an uplifting sense that the future can be better than the past. He had been fortunate, as the leader of the third or even fourth party, that his words were not parsed as carefully as they would have been had the NDP been contending for power. He understood after the last election that those days of unparsed promises and sometimes careless rhetoric were over.
The evident tragedy of his death, at an unfairly young age and for a man who always kept himself in excellent physical shape, is that it came at the moment not just of his greatest political triumph but of his accelerated maturation as a leader. He showed every promise of having an ever-ripening sense of the country, and of realistic, progressive policies to suit it. He likely would have been a formidable leader of the Opposition. He would also have been the only political leader in Canada with the political strength in both French- and English-speaking Canada to be called “national.”
The NDP, from the days of its precursor in the CCF, had longed to become truly national, to span all parts of the country, speaking in both official languages effectively and to a receptive audience across the country. No other leader of the party, admirable as they were, was able to accomplish what he did in making the party more national than it had ever been.
Four years is an eternity in politics, so speculation about the impact of his departure on the party’s electoral fortunes in the next election is idle. The loss of Mr. Layton for now will be intensely felt by those in his party, and other Canadians. As Ted once said of his brother Robert F. Kennedy, so it might be said of Mr. Layton – that he saw wrong and tried to right it, and saw injustice and tried to heal it.