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Jack Layton's greatest gift: Changing the NDP's mindset to government-in-waiting

Photo: Matt Jiggins/Flickr

He's a legend now, enshrined in the pantheon of great Canadians, admired by all, a man who transcends partisanship, whose glorious last plea for love and hope touched a nation, whose plea to change the world, in his very last words, will long inspire us to continue his fight for a more just, equal and peaceful world. Le bon Jack.

Of course we need to be sensible here. Legends can distort too. Yes, Jack loved -- he loved Olivia, bicycling with Olivia, justice, Beatrice, smiling, people, winning, canoeing with Olivia, campaigning, nature. But he felt passion, too, and yes, often anger when it came to the injustices he loathed and aggressively fought throughout his lifetime.

It's also a satisfying part of the legend to say that the entire nation mourned for Jack, or that at least his passing was treated with respect and genuine sadness even by his fiercest opponents But it's wrong. Those zany inhabitants of the parallel universe known as Sun News had a swell time in the days after Jack's death mocking him, belittling him, decking themselves out -- oh, what a riot of fun they had! -- in flamboyant orange wigs, doing as much as possible to demean and sully his reputation. Jack would actually have gotten a kick out of their infantile shenanigans. He never minded being made fun of -- he did it nicely himself -- and he believed utterly in the right of free speech, even for those he strongly disagreed with, even for those who mostly believed in free speech for themselves and their dubious ideological kin.

It seems to me that Jack Layton's enduring legacy is twofold. First, he set a standard of doing politics that, if followed by others, would change the entire tone of public life for the country. You could see his influence in the decorum that characterized the leadership contest to choose his successor. The media saw only tedium. The party understood it was Jack's insistence on civility that was at work.

Jack regarded those he disagreed with as democratic opponents, not as dishonourable, even treasonous enemies to be destroyed. For him politics was not the brutal, no-holds-barred permanent war being waged against all comers by the governing party. He rarely attacked motives or personalities. He treated his opponents with respect and civility. He stuck to the issues, about which he felt passionately and which he pursued forcefully.

He refused to turn his opponent into bogeyman, although heaven knows it's what they tried to do to him. When the Prime Minister and his team took to smearing him as "Taliban Jack" for advocating negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, I for one had trouble sharing his high-mindedness. When, eventually, the Harper government adopted the identical policy, they forgot to apologize to Jack.

Mr. Layton's second great legacy was to change the mindset of the NDP from being permanent losers to becoming potential governors. I plead guilty here: I was among those whose views he changed most and who needed changing most. In a new book on the NDP by Lynn Gidluck, Visionaries, Crusaders and Firebrands, I am much cited as a believer in the NDP's important but limited role in Canadian political life.

Until May 2, 2011, I saw the party's role as being the conscience of the nation, an influencer of those with power, not a government-in-waiting. That's how I interpreted election results from the 1930s all the way through to the 2008 elections, during which time the CCF/NDP only once polled as high as 20 per cent of the votes; often it was considerably lower. This was even true of the 3 elections Mr. Layton had fought before his last one. The message from the party's beloved "ordinary Canadians" seemed to me self-evident.

Jack rejected this destiny as the NDP's permanent fate, and at the last minute he was vindicated. For decades, every CCF/NDP leader was invariably introduced at every party rally as "The next Prime Minister of Canada." It was an innocent enough fraud, I suppose, but everyone knew it was a fraud. Beyond the party faithful, most Canadians recognized the calibre of the legendary NDP leaders -- Tommy Douglas, David Lewis, Ed Broadbent -- and said wistfully: if only they were Liberals… No longer. When Tom Mulcair is introduced in this way, it has, at long last, the ring of plausibility. Because Mr. Mulcair knows what Jack knew. That to break that iron ceiling of 20 per cent, as was done in last year's election, mainly in Quebec, the NDP must find ways to double the vote it ever got before last May. Assuming Quebec support holds, the NDP must attract the many voters elsewhere who were sympathetic before but could not quite bring themselves to vote NDP.

To do that, the party must offer something new. It's begun with a new leader who is instinctively playing by the new rules. Now it must make its policies more accessible, more credible, more government-worthy. The ideals of social democracy never change. Social justice, equality and peace remain the very raison d'etre of the NDP. But the party must translate and communicate these ideals in ways that can be embraced by many more Canadians and that might, just might, lead to the impossible goal so many have cherished for so long. That such talk is now even possible is the great gift left to us by Jack Layton.

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

Photo: Matt Jiggins/Flickr

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