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NDP Leader Jack Layton listens to a question during a campaign stop in Winnipeg on April 27, 2011. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
NDP Leader Jack Layton listens to a question during a campaign stop in Winnipeg on April 27, 2011. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Jeffrey Simpson

We never saw the NDP surge coming Add to ...

No one saw the NDP surge coming, not even the NDP. Where the surge will end on election day is impossible to know, but nobody at the start of the campaign thought it remotely possible that the New Democrats would win more votes than the Liberals.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn't see the surge coming, since he authorized millions of dollars of party money to run disgusting attack ads against Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, impugning his patriotism, casting aspersions on his integrity, and questioning his motives. Mr. Ignatieff, for his part, never saw the NDP as a mortal threat, or he wouldn't have spent months blasting the Harper government and saying nothing at all about the NDP.

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe was so busy denouncing federalism and criticizing the Conservatives and the Liberals that he barely expended a breath on the NDP. Although the NDP had won one seat in a Montreal by-election, the party in Quebec had always been somewhere between fringe and marginally competitive. Now, according to the polls, the NDP leads in Quebec, and has gained in other parts of Canada.

New Democrats must be pinching themselves. If they'd believed something like this might happen, their leaders might have thought more seriously about a platform full of guesses and wild errors of costing. It also contains the Pandora's box of an irresponsible and dangerous pledge to reopen the Constitution for which, predictably, Quebec secessionists are already demanding details.

The platform, in other words, was a typical one for a party that could promise the moon, never dreaming of contending to become the official opposition and maybe, just maybe, the head of an NDP-Liberal coalition government.

Pollsters have now caught the shift, but none of them considered an NDP surge likely before the campaign. Nor did we, in the political media, see anything like this coming. We were caught as unawares as everyone else - starting right here, it should be said.

Jack Layton, after all, has been leader of the NDP since 2003. It's not as if he suddenly burst on the scene as a new face with startling, fresh ideas. He had been around as leader for three previous elections, saying many of the same things he's saying today. With each election, of course, Mr. Layton has become a more skilled performer, but he was an accomplished performer from the start of his leadership.

Mr. Layton always benefited, as he did for most of this campaign, from the benign neglect of the other parties that didn't take the NDP terribly seriously. The NDP focused most of its organizational attention on roughly 60 ridings, hoping to win two-thirds of them in a good election. In a majority of Canadian ridings, the NDP was a distant third or fourth.

It's said that people appreciate Mr. Layton's smiling countenance, but he's always been like that in public. It's said that people like his message, but it's essentially the same one - with the huge exception of the Constitution - that he's tried three times before without much success, consisting of more money for social programs (notably pensions and health), subsidies for job creation and taxing the big corporations.

Clearly, the 60 per cent to 65 per cent of Canadians who didn't like the Harper government were looking for either an alternative government or a leader who could give the government a hard time.

Mr. Ignatieff, leading a party in long-term decline, failed that test. He was looked over and found wanting, for all his best efforts.

In Quebec, the NDP's promise of more money for social programs sounds good to leftish ears in a province where the Jean Charest government is wrestling with the deficit and holding the line on spending. Mr. Layton's vague pledge to give Quebec more power within Canada, and to reopen constitutional talks without specifying when, why or how, appealed to some Bloc and other strong nationalist voters.

With Mr. Harper and Mr. Charest unpopular in Quebec, Mr. Ignatieff a political dud there and Mr. Duceppe developing a reputation as a nag and a bore, the old face of Jack Layton suddenly seems new.

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