One of the abiding mysteries of Canadian politics is how the NDP manages not to succeed. I say this because it seems to me they represent exactly what mainstream Canadian political culture has come to be about. What is that? It’s mild social democracy — a strong central government with a positive role in social programs, balancing regional and other inequities etc. — all the things Paul Martin proclaims as his vision when he’s running for office, and which the NDP can only make him deliver under the severe duress of a minority Parliament.

That isn’t socialism, it isn’t even democratic socialism. It’s what it says: conventional electoral politics with a reasonably broad and active, though not too broad or too active, social component.

I understand why the polls remained stunningly sluggish during the first part of this campaign. It’s not just that voters didn’t want an election, though they didn’t. They wanted government, instead. The cranky concoction in Ottawa had even managed to achieve a few things, like the beginnings of a national child-care program that is potentially more relevant to the problem of youth gangs and violence than lots of anti-crime campaign rhetoric.

But people know the election is here and they have to choose. They were just having trouble moving toward Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, because they are far outside of that mainstream political culture. Lately, there’s been some movement toward them and maybe it’ll hold, maybe not.

But what I don’t see is why voters were just as reluctant to move toward Jack Layton’s NDP. The NDP has always whined about how the Liberals stole its program and its rightful place in the political landscape. With the Liberals largely nullifying themselves, why couldn’t the NDP reclaim that place? Why don’t voters move toward them, at least in part? If you’re waiting for an answer to that question, sorry. I find it genuinely puzzling.

Is a big part of the problem Jack Layton’s leadership? Sure. Even as a new face, with lots of media slack cut for him, he couldn’t bring the party up to the low level required to form a coalition with the Liberals and make some demands. He probably acted as a drag and cost seats. He made some real gains for Canadians when he struck his budget deal with Paul Martin. Then he opted to help bring down the government, perhaps losing whatever credits he acquired for actually acting to improve our society.

But leadership can be overrated. Ed Broadbent was supposed to be a great NDP leader, the best prime minister we never had, according to The Globe and Mail, which named him its nation builder of 2005. Jack Layton mentioned Ed three times in last month’s TV debate, as if sprinkling magic Ed dust on himself.

Yet, during Ed’s greatest triumph, the free-trade election of 1988, he often refused to mention free trade on the campaign trail, even though he had said he feared free trade would mean the death of Canada. His strategists had decided the issue might help Liberals win seats and harm their own chances. They thought they could win on Honest Ed’s integrity, so they made sure he didn’t say much about the great issue of the day, an odd thing for Mr. Integrity to do.

Instead, Ed attacked Liberal leader John Turner, lending invaluable aid to the pro-free-trade campaign run by Brian Mulroney and helping give us the deal Ed himself said would lead to national demise. That’s when labour’s distrust of the NDP, now laid on Buzz Hargrove’s shoulders, began. Ed got what looked a lot like a reward when Brian Mulroney appointed him head of a new human-rights body, for which he travelled the world in the years after he resigned as leader.

So leadership isn’t everything, either.

Politicians almost never tell us what they’re really thinking. It’s always for the good of the country, never for the good of the party, or themselves, though contradictory motives can co-exist. It would be refreshing to hear someone break that code; maybe it would even win votes.

What would I like to hear Jack Layton say when he sums up at the end of next week’s debates? How about: Hold your nose and vote for me.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.