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Jack Layton secures his place in NDP - and Canadian - pantheon

NDP Leader Jack Layton speaks to reporters in Toronto on May 3, 2011, after bringing his party to Official Opposition status for the first time in its history.

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

On Saturday, Canadians said goodbye to their Leader of the Official Opposition and one of the most popular political figures in the country. New Democrats laid to rest the most successful party leader in their history, and a man whose name will likely be repeated in future with the same reverence as that reserved for Tommy Douglas, first head and spiritual heart of the NDP.

The 2011 election was, by far, the NDP's best result in its 50 year history. Even against the standards of the Liberals and the Conservatives, Jack Layton's achievement on May 2 was remarkable. At 103 seats, Mr. Layton tied for the fifth largest opposition ever sent to Ottawa in the 41 elections that have taken place since 1867. But even before 2011's historic result, Jack Layton stacked up well against the party's two other great leaders.

Though he took 13 per cent of the vote in his first two elections, Tommy Douglas's last two federal elections in 1965 and 1968 ranked as some of the NDP's best until the 1980s. In 1965, the NDP won 21 seats and 17.9 per cent of the vote. In 1968, Mr. Douglas increased his party's seat count to 22 but slipped to 17 per cent support, dropping seats in Ontario but winning 16 seats in the West – a number Jack Layton was unable to surpass.

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In 1972, David Lewis won 31 seats (a proportion of seats in the House not bested until 1988) but took less of the vote than Mr. Douglas's 1965 campaign, and after the 1974 election the NDP caucus shrank to only 16 seats.

Under Ed Broadbent, the party took 26 seats in 1979, 32 seats in 1980, 30 seats in 1984, and 43 seats in 1988, topping out at 20.4 per cent support in that last election – one that would stand as the NDP's best until this year.

With Audrey McLaughlin and Alexa McDonough at the helm in the 1993, 1997, and 2000 elections, the NDP never won more than 21 seats or 11 per cent of the vote. In 1993, the party was reduced to only nine seats and 6.9 per cent support, the worst result in its history.

When Jack Layton became leader in 2003, the NDP had not been a major factor in Canadian politics for a decade. In his first test as leader in 2004 he increased his party's seat total to 19 from 13 and its share of the vote to 15.7 per cent from 8.5. Mr. Layton took 4.6 per cent of the vote in Quebec, the best result since 1988, held on to Ms. McDonough's strong levels of support in Atlantic Canada, pushed his party back up to over 20 per cent in the West, and won seven seats in Ontario with 18.1 per cent support – a dramatic increase over the one seat and 8.3 per cent that the NDP received in the 2000 election.

Jack Layton's maintenance of good support in Atlantic Canada is one of the more under-appreciated ingredients to his success. Until Ms. McDonough, a former provincial NDP leader from Nova Scotia, New Democrats had never won more than two seats in the region and were shut out in eight of the 11 elections between 1962 and 1993. Mr. Douglas never had more than 9 per cent support in any of the Atlantic provinces, while Mr. Broadbent had success in the region only once, in the 1979 election. Though Mr. Layton never bettered Ms. McDonough's eight seat wins in Atlantic Canada in 1997, he increased support in the region in every election, reaching 26 per cent in 2008 and 29.5 per cent support (an all-time best) in 2011, winning six seats.

In the 2006 election, Mr. Layton won 29 seats and 17.5 per cent of the vote, the party's best result in both seats and votes since the Broadbent years. Support in Quebec increased to 7.5 per cent and Mr. Layton won 13 seats in the West, again the best result since the 1980s. But if there was one electoral weakness in Jack Layton's armour, it was here. Though he would win 15 seats and 28.3 per cent of the vote in the four western provinces in 2011, that was still fewer seats than Mr. Broadbent had ever won in the region and behind Mr. Douglas's 1968 election in a smaller House of Commons. Nevertheless, Mr. Layton increased his party's seat total in the region in each of his four elections.

In 2008, Jack Layton kept his party on the rise, winning 37 seats and 18.2 per cent of the vote. It was the party's second-best result in its history, and groundbreaking in that the NDP won seats in Newfoundland (which had occurred only once in a general election in the short-lived minority Parliament of 1979) and Quebec (which had also occurred only once in a 1990 by-election). Support increased to 12.2 per cent in Quebec and the NDP won 17 seats in Ontario, the greatest haul in its history at the time.

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The 2011 election was Jack Layton's crowning achievement, with all-time best results in Atlantic Canada (in vote share), Ontario, and Quebec, and a competitive performance in the Conservative-dominated West. Canada's most populous province elected 22 NDP MPs, eclipsing the 13 elected under Mr. Broadbent in 1984 and the nine under Mr. Douglas in 1965, and gave the party 25.6 per cent of the vote, well ahead of the party's previous best (21.8 per cent) in 1980.

But it was in Quebec that Jack Layton's breakthrough was most astonishing. Decimating the Bloc Québécois, which had won a majority of seats in the province in every election it contested, was in and of itself remarkable and a feat that neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives had ever come close to achieving. The NDP won 59 seats, the most since Brian Mulroney's 63 seats in 1988, in a province that had never elected a New Democratic MP in a general election before the arrival of Jack Layton. With 42.9 per cent of the vote, Mr. Layton towered over the bests of Tommy Douglas (12 per cent in 1965) and Ed Broadbent (14.4 per cent in 1988). Even the Bloc only won more of Quebec's vote twice, in 1993 (in the heated post-Meech, pre-referendum days) and 2004 (when the sponsorship scandal was breaking).

The 103 seats won in the 2011 election was 11 times larger than Ms. McLaughlin took in 1993, almost five times the size of either Ms. McDonough's or Mr. Douglas's best results, three times greater than Mr. Lewis's 1972 result, and more than twice as large as the best Ed Broadbent had done.

The sad passing of Jack Layton leaves the future of the NDP in question. But whether Mr. Layton is remembered as the NDP's most successful leader or the man who started the party on the path to government, his place in the pantheon of the NDP's – and even the country's – greatest political leaders in history is secure.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at

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