Opposition Leader Jack Layton

In the last hours of the 2011 federal election campaign, as word of Jack Layton’s Orange Wave spread to a wondering Canada, a longtime New Democrat supporter of my acquaintance made the following observation: “If it turns out on Monday that we only win 15 seats, a lot of New Democrats will quietly say to themselves, ‘Thank God!'”

During the election campaign, Layton achieved a goal that many of us thought was impossible: he turned the federal New Democratic Party into something it hadn’t been for many years. To wit: a political party.

And the NDP’s transition to a political party is going to be very hard on one significant group of loyal New Democrats — those who thought the NDP was their church.

Well, whether we like it or not — and face it, in their heart of hearts, many New Democrats won’t — the days when the NDP can be the church of choice for a small group of comfortable old social democrats are gone, thanks to the hard work of Layton and his associates.

I say good riddance, because the one thing the Church of the NDP had no hope of doing, ever, was forming a government. That was because churches almost always put dogma and political purity ahead of success in this life — just as the old NDP church certainly did.

But no one can say that the New Democrats under Layton have not taken the first step to being a government, to being the Government of Canada. (The Layton Government, as it were…) The special interest groups of the far right may not like this, and may argue why it shouldn’t be, but their arguments have the whiff of righteous fear to them, and with good reason.

Of course, it may not happen, for Layton and the party face formidable problems — not least among them the lack of an obvious successor should the Opposition Leader’s health falter again, the inexperience of some members in Layton’s large Quebec caucus and the inevitable bitterness of the old “churchgoing” NDPers who would rather be big fish in a marginalized pond than small players in a political party with potential.

Still, stranger things have happened. Luck and skill play almost equal roles in political advancement, and as a leader Layton has had both on his side. If his luck — and ours — holds, and his constitution supports his undoubted political skills through another Parliament, less likely things could happen than an NDP government of Canada.

Indeed, what political success story could be less likely than that of our disagreeable, petulant and ideologically pure far-right prime minister finally achieving a majority government?

If the NDP is to form the government, it won’t be easy. Layton will have to cozy the old NDPers along, keep the sovereignist tendencies of his Quebec caucus under control, school inexperienced MPs, keep a lid of those who have played leadership roles in other kinds of politics and safeguard his own health. But this is really not so different than the challenges faced by any other Canadian federal political leader, including the prime minister but especially the leader of the disintegrating Liberal Party.

If Layton can succeed — and he may just — sooner or later the basest instincts of our unlikely but undeniably skilled neo-con prime minister will tempt Stephen Harper to venture out where the ice is thin.

When that happens, all things being equal, Layton will have his chance to help Canada live up to its true potential.

There’s an old question-and-answer joke that asks: “Why do Canadians join political parties?” Well, it answers, “they join the Conservatives to get drunk, they join the Liberals to get lucky, and they join the NDP … to get leaflets.”

It’s still funny, but almost overnight Jack Layton has made it obsolete.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...