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NDP should take its time with leadership race

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For some incomprehensible reason, there's apparently a move within some quarters of the New Democratic Party to organize a short, swift leadership contest with the vote coming in January. This would be a mistake -- and to suggest, as some do, that it's what Jack Layton wanted, is simply wrong.

Look at the absolutely unprecedented opportunity the NDP now has, building on the recent week-long celebration, so much of it spontaneous, of Jack's life, work and values. It can:

- build the party;

- greatly increase the membership;

- give prospective candidates enough time to make a thoughtful decision;

- give MPs who enter the contest enough time to campaign;

- give new MPs from Quebec the time to develop viable riding associations;

- get real live members of the NDP in Quebec -- thousands and thousands of them! -- instead of just NDP Members of Parliament;

- allow Jack's countless admirers across the country a chance to get closer to the party;

- and raise some critically needed money.

With four years to go until the next election, surely achieving such ends are the self-evident priorities for the NDP. The new leader will be enormously strengthened to take over such a party.

Don't tell me this is not what Jack called for. It's exactly what he would have wanted. Politics is taking fair advantage of every opportunity; who knew that better than Jack? The NDP has that opportunity as never before in its history. As of today, according to the latest poll, the NDP and Conservatives are tied for first place, a unique moment in the party's history. It would be daft not to grab it.

To do anything to forfeit this opportunity, such as a truncated leadership race, is folly. I've not heard a single good reason in favour of doing so. I just can't figure out why it's even being considered.

Except for this: Jack's last letter, which some claim called for a January deadline. But here's what Jack actually wrote: "I recommend the party hold a leadership vote as early as possible in the New Year, on approximately the same timelines as in 2003, so that our new leader has ample time to reconsolidate our team, renew our party and our program, and move forward towards the next election."

Not a word about January, merely as soon as makes sense. And the timelines of 2003, the last leadership campaign that gave us Jack Layton, happened to be 7½ months. That speaks to some time early next spring.

Personally, though, the exact date makes much less difference to me than a race that offers ample time to conduct the best contest possible. Above all that means giving Canadians a chance to get more deeply and directly involved in the NDP. After their tributes not just to Jack the man, but to what he stood for -- and the two could hardly be separated -- I believe large numbers of Canadians are now ready to take the next logical step and join his party. And if they do, they have every right to help decide who the next leader will be.

As for the fraught question of the relationship between the NDP and the Liberals that's buzzing around, I would only say this for the moment: It is in fact one of the great thorny political issues of our generation and the decision may well be decisive for decades to come. It needs and deserves to be considered in the least divisive, coolest way possible. Not rushing to judgment might help this process.

What Jack called for in his final testament to his party was simply to do what was best for the cause he embraced over his entire lifetime. A hurried-up leadership race doesn't meet that criterion.

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

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