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NDP Leader Jack Layton speaks to reporters at a post-election news conference in Toronto on May 3, 2011. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
NDP Leader Jack Layton speaks to reporters at a post-election news conference in Toronto on May 3, 2011. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

What Jack Layton has to work with Add to ...

The New Democratic Party first ran for office (as the CCF) in 1935 and has contested every federal election since - three-quarters of a century of electoral history.

It is therefore not a small thing that Brad Lavigne holds the gold medal as my tribe's most electorally successful NDP national campaign director. Or that Anne McGrath co-holds that award as the most electorally successful NDP chief of staff (the Hon. Bill Knight and Robin Sears hold the silver medal as co-national campaign directors in 1988. Your humble blogger is the bronze winner in that role in 2008… for the time being).

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Jack Layton is a man of many abilities, including his ability to attract some of the best political talent currently working in Ottawa.

To their eternal credit, Mr. Lavigne and the NDP campaign team didn't try to rerun an old playbook in this campaign. They wrote a new one - a brave thing to do in politics. There were voices in our tribe insisting that it is a fundamental mistake for a federal NDP leader to say he is running to be prime minister; or to say he would like to lead the federal government; or to argue he has the better plan for the economy as well as for social programs; or to take on the Bloc Québécois in Quebec; or to build a new fundraising system; or to build a new organizing network; or to reach out to some of the best communication and advertising professionals in both English and French; or to do many of the other things this campaign did.

But the 2011 election proved something that I think New Democrats will never forget: If you leave behind your old playbook and write a new one, you just might leave behind your old results and get new ones, too.

We have much to be proud of in our history book. Mr. Layton and his team have chosen to write a new chapter. A gold medal performance!

(Here's another notable medal series: Bronze medal for the NDP's 1988 by-election victory in Chambly, it's first elected Quebec MP. Silver medal for the 2007 NDP victory in Outremont. Gold medal for the 2011 NDP sweep in Quebec. All three won by the same riding and then regional campaign director - Raymond Guardia - who, remarkably, managed all of these victories.)

What then to make of the results? No progressive can welcome the election of a majority Conservative government. But in our best long-term interests, we shouldn't be too churlish about it either. When the time comes, hopefully in a few short years, we will be looking to Conservatives to accept their replacement by a fearlessly (if prudently) progressive government, without raising existential issues about the country or our democracy. With an eye to setting a good precedent, Mr. Layton was therefore wise to congratulate Stephen Harper on his victory, and to pledge to work co-operatively with the new government where possible, while working diligently to offer Canadians what will be (by our lights) a much better alternative.

What does Mr. Layton have to work with to do that? A remarkably good hand - if played well , that's what.

In his period as leader, Mr. Layton has synthesized the federal NDP's optimistic, sunny idealism with the step-by-step, fiscally prudent pragmatism of successful NDP governments at the provincial level. He emphasized this point in his acceptance speech Monday night, pointing to the strong record of both achievement and fiscal responsibility by NDP governments (Douglas, Lloyd, Blakeney, Romanow, Schreyer, Pawley, Doer, Harcourt, Dexter, etc. - a very strong tradition of good government indeed) and pledging to carry that tradition forward into federal politics.

To this Mr. Layton has now added the Liberal Party's former core electoral base, with a much healthier additional presence in Western Canada.

French-speaking Quebeckers and English-speaking progressives from B.C., the Prairies, the North, Ontario and Atlantic Canada now come together to work on federal issues through the New Democratic Party - now one of Canada's two main national parties. NDP MPs are the mainstream alternative to Conservatives in every region of the country and in every major metropolitan centre - Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, Halifax - in both official languages.

These are the bones of the national coalition that used to keep the red team in office, for the most part, for a century. They are an excellent foundation for the NDP to build out from, as it settles into its new role, holds the government accountable in Parliament as its mainstream alterative, and gets ready for next time.

* * * * * * * * *

Critics, of course, are already out with their peashooters. Since one of the orange team's cardinal rules in to leave no shot unanswered (a principle Michael Ignatieff would have been wise to share from the beginning of his career), let's take a quick look at two of the peas and what there is to say about them.

'The NDP elected the Tories' - This is a complaint from Liberals, who are looking at their defeated incumbents and complaining that the NDP did well in those ridings, supposedly providing the Conservatives with their margin of victory.

I offer five points in reply:

1. It might be wise to now stop saying that voting for third parties is a wasted vote.

2. Since the Liberal campaign focused on driving the NDP down into the single digits - not really a very friendly objective - it is a bit odd to then complain to New Democrats that this didn't work. Surely the failure is their own.

3. On that theme, if the Liberals wanted help from the NDP in Liberal incumbent ridings, perhaps they should have asked the orange team to run the Liberal campaign as well as the NDP one. Would things have worked out worse?

4. And if the Liberals wanted help from the NDP in Liberal incumbent ridings, perhaps they also shouldn't have reneged on the 2008 coalition agreement. Would things have worked out worse?

5. As a final point, many of the same people complaining that the NDP did too well in Liberal incumbent ridings also argue that NDP and Liberal voters don't mix - that "one plus one does not equal two." This is the principal argument advanced against a merger of the two parties. You can't have it both ways. On this logic, Mr. Layton's voters would not have voted for Mr. Ignatieff's incumbent Liberals - so Mr. Layton was not committing an injustice by giving them a New Democrat to vote for.

The truth of the matter is that Liberal incumbents were defeated because not enough people voted for them. That's what it takes to win. Not unearned help from a competing party.

'The NDP's Quebec caucus has normal people in it' - Yep, that's true. The NDP's Quebec caucus is not made up of corporate lawyers who look on their party as a job fair.

Instead, the new team is made up of former cabinet ministers, municipal leaders, diplomats, artists, businesspeople… and some young people, including young women making their way through the early stages of their careers, just like most young women do.

This lively, interesting cross-section of Quebec is the majority of a 71-member Quebec delegation committed to making Canada work - the first overwhelmingly (almost unanimously) federalist delegation to Ottawa that Quebec has sent in 20 years.

So listen, friends. In the grand scheme of things, is it really smart to greet these new friends with buckets of mud and sneers of contempt?

What did it say about Canada that most of Quebec's seats were held by ethnic separatists? What does it say about Canada that this is no longer true? Isn't an enthusiastic young person a good trade for what was there before? Shouldn't they be welcomed with open arms, as a wonderful and refreshing change after a full generation of deadlock?

Yes, there is a 19 year-old francophone Quebecker in that delegation. Judging from his interviews, he is an articulate, bright young political leader with a fifty-year career ahead of him. What do we want his first real impression of federal Canadian politics to be like? What do we want him saying to the folks back home next summer - the people who used to vote for separatists, and are now reaching out and offering to work together with the rest of the country again?

Jack Layton's success in Quebec is good news for all of Canada, including Quebec. His team has things to learn, and they know it. They'll be ready when they need to be.

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