You Don't Know Jack

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A few days before Canada’s New Democrats elected Jack Layton as their leader — rewarding him with a 53.5 per cent of votes in a surprising first ballot victory — EKOS Research released a poll indicating that nearly the same percentage of Canadians intended to vote Liberal in the next federal election. Compared to the 52.1 per cent support enjoyed by the Liberals, the other parties are way back. The Progressive Conservatives and the NDP are in a virtual tie for second place, with the PCs at 13.8 per cent and the NDP at 13.6 per cent. Meanwhile, the Canadian Alliance is in a freefall, with just 10.6 per cent in the poll.

To a large extent, this poll is bad news for all of the opposition parties (particularly the Alliance and the Tories). For New Democrats, however, there is hope in them there poll numbers. The fact that Canadians are so thoroughly rejecting the policies of the two most right wing parties is good news for the NDP, for several reasons. First of all, it demonstrates that Canadians are less interested in promises of tax cuts than in discussions of what governments are prepared to do with tax money. Secondly, because the Liberals are so devoid of their own policy ideas(responding instead to a policy agenda set by the opposition), it offers the hope that they will be pushed in a more progressive direction. Certainly, Prime Minister Chrétien is already trying to amend his legacy to make it appear less reactionary (not that Canadians should be fooled, but the effort itself is significant).

A Layton-led NDP will be a different animal than the NDP that Canadians have seen over the past decade: more dynamic; more forceful; less reactive; and less apologetic. As Layton indicated in his speech to delegates on Saturday morning, the key question for the party is “how can we win more seats in Canada’s next Parliament? Because winning shouldn’t be taboo in the NDP. We must never equate winning with compromising our principles. Because electing more New Democrats means fewer Canadians will die homeless, choke on smog, or leave school because they can’t afford it. Winning is good. Good for the NDP. Good for Canadians.”

The NDP has long been a party plagued by its many factions. While those factions were very well represented among the strong field of six leadership candidates, what was most exciting about Layton’s candidacy was that it transcended all of those ideological, regional and tactical boundaries. He was supported by former leaders Ed Broadbent and Audrey MacLaughlin, by four provincial leaders and by many members of the NDP “establishment”. He was also supported by many young activists, by former leaders of the Waffle (who were expelled from the party in the 1970s), and by people like Svend Robinson. As I told Jack on Saturday night, anyone who can hold together his incredibly diverse campaign coalition actually has a decent chance of holding the party together.

One of the key debates in the party, particularly during the leadership campaign, is whether its work occurs primarily in Parliament or in the community. Layton’s answer to this question was elegantly simple: both. “I don’t believe that Parliament is the only place where politics happens. I believe politics happens both in Parliament and beyond, so we’ve got to put politics back into communities.” So many activists in socialmovements have had little patience for electoral politics. Layton brought many of them into the party. At the same time, some party activists are suspicious of those who make demands on the party that it advocate their issues, but refuse to sully themselves with the work of getting the party elected. Layton will help to bridge that gap.

With the leadership race over, the NDP is in a stronger position than ever to expose the hypocrisy of the Liberals, and the other parties. Because Layton does not currently hold a seat in the House of Commons, he will be relying on the considerable talents of his fourteen-member caucus, including former leader Alexa McDonough and three of his fellow leadership candidates. He will also be building on the tremendous good will generated by Pierre Ducasse, the sentimental favourite during the campaign and at the convention (La Presse referred to him as “the Mario Dumont of the left”). Ducasse, combined with the fluently bilingual Layton, offers the hope that the party will finally make a breakthrough in Quebec.

In the next twelve months, Layton will work to entrench the party in second place in the polls and in first place among those Canadians who want an alternative to the Liberals. As Layton said about Alliance leader Stephen Harper on Sunday, “may be leading something, but it sure isn’t the opposition.” It will be up to Jack Layton to lead that opposition. He’s more than up to the job.

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