How Jack Layton's NDP won Quebec

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The NDP won 59 of 75 seats in Quebec the old-fashioned way, on television. A first (and then a second) appearance by Jack Layton on the Sunday night talk show Everyone is Talking About It (Tout Le Monde En Parle) which draws Stanley Cup Final size audiences every week of its season, ignited terrific interest in the party.

Quebec television features home grown cultural expression; most people in the province watch Radio-Canada, Radio-Quebec, and the French language commercial channels.

For the first time ever, the NDP ran clever, funny, appealing TV ads in French, like the one featuring leader Jack Layton responding to comments made on the street: "Isn't he too nice to a politician?"; "hasn't he got himself to close to real people?" Those Quebecers who did not know Jack got a great introduction, those who were thinking of switching their vote got a chance to know him better, and NDP leaning voters got a reason to go to the polls.

Layton was widely judged to have won the French language debates. Better, he delivered the always difficult knock-out punch, in front of the television audience. In response to a claim by Gilles Duceppe that only the Bloc could stop Harper, Layton pointed to Stephen Harper, and turned to Duceppe, saying, "he is still there!"

As was pointed by Laval University communications professor Frédérick Bastien in a roundtable discussion at the Canadian Political Science Association meetings in Waterloo recently, polling data from Quebec indicated voters were looking for a change, the Bloc had worn out its welcome, and one in four voters were ready to vote NDP because of Jack Layton. NDP TV ads repeated the change theme constantly.

Election night the NDP took 43 per cent of the Quebec vote. The party was polling in the 12 to 14 per cent range (average of all polls) in Quebec in the year prior to the election. Jack Layton, and the NDP campaign brought support for the party up by 30 percentage points. The NDP had paid organizers on the ground in Quebec helping prepare this election campaign. But, the work to woo Quebec had been going on for a lot longer.

In the French language debate, Layton pointed out that 50 years ago in Winnipeg, when the NDP was founded, it embraced the "two nations" idea of Canada as a federal (not a national) state. In 2006, at the NDP convention in Quebec City, urged on by a small, committed group of young activists (some like Guy Caron, elected on May 2) the party updated its position on social democracy, language, identity, and the constitution by adopting the Sherbrooke declaration. The party now had a new platform from which to speak to Quebec, where the social reality of two language communities has to be central, as it is for Francophones outside Quebec.

A speech by the Quebec Minister of the Environment to the 2006 convention drew a remarkable response: the Liberal got a standing ovation from the NDP delegates. When he stepped down from cabinet after opposing plans by Premier Charest to privatize Mount Orford Park, Thomas Mulcair was recruited by the NDP to run federally in the 2007 Outremont by-election, a presumed suicide mission in a riding that had always been judged a walk for the Liberals. With his victory, the NDP had a notable Quebec leader, one with stature, and considerable political ability. Those who remembered how efforts to elect the highly esteemed Robert Cliche had been thwarted in the 1960s by the Liberals running a popular provincial minister, Eric Kireans, against Cliche, enjoyed a spot of revenge.

In her classic study No Left Turn, distinguished Quebec Historian Andrée Lévesque, explained how, in the 1930s Depression, right-wing forces led by the Catholic church organized to help discredit the newly founded CCF (forerunner of the NDP) with Quebec voters. When the CCF brought the 1933 Regina Manifesto to the attention of Canadians, it seemed oblivious to the existence of French Quebec, and it became an easy mark for its right-wing adversaries in the province.

In 2011, Quebec voters succeeded in generating an Orange wave of support for the NDP that inspired voters across Canada. Indeed, as Pundits Guide reported, the NDP gained more than 10 per cent of the vote in 306 of 308 ridings, more than either the Conservatives (283) or the Liberals (217) could manage.

By overtaking the Bloc, which in 1993 supplanted the Mulroney Conservatives as the leading party in La Belle Province, the NDP takes the keys to the electoral fortress established by the Laurier Liberals in 1896, and last fully occupied by the Liberals under Trudeau in 1980.

Francophone voters made the Liberals the dominant party in Canada; French speaking Québec has now elected New Democrats. Contrary to what the mainstream media has been reporting, the new NDP Quebec caucus is full of young, bright, energetic, and talented individuals. How well the NDP succeeds in bringing its new Quebec players front and centre will decide whether or not the New Democrats are poised to become the dominant player in Canadian politics. No one should underestimate how much the new Quebec MPs can accomplish by building on the lessons the NDP learned from the successful 2011 election campaign.

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca.

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