There is a certain flourish to most things Jack Layton does, and his announcement that he is receiving treatment for prostate cancer was no exception. His Friday statement was dignified and moving, but what impressed me also was his assurance that he would be on the job Monday. From what I know of the man, he will likely put an extra step in his stride for emphasis.


I expect that his very public engagement of this intensely personal challenge will only enhance his popularity that is already consistently better than his party’s numbers. The latest rendering of federal leader rankings by Harris Decima has Layton ahead of both Harper and Ignatieff in terms of net favourable impressions. Those positives for Layton are at the same time as the NDP slips back into the 15-16% box — the result of strategic voting intentions to punish the prorogator Harper, and an old and very frustrating story for the NDP.

Among the leaders, “Jack” is singularly distinguished as the one that ordinary people speak of using his first name, and he is the political leader that polls show most Canadians would choose to share a beer. It is a reputation built by media performances, but also from hundreds of workplace visits and personal conversations with thousands of working people.

While the good will for Jack pours in, it is no doubt a time for reflection by him and his family, and by the movement also. It must be clear by now that the popularity of the leader cannot break Canadian social democracy out of its box.

How can we explain the party’s apparent inability to take advantage of the systemic crisis that turned the world on its head 18 months ago? It is undoubtedly a complex dilemma, but not one that I think can be put at Layton’s feet. Almost all of the European social democratic parties have taken a shellacking in every election since the crisis began, while in contrast the Canadian party has at least held its own.

The tendency to react to the crisis by cocooning with conservatives reflects the fact that in spite of distrust and anger towards elites, large numbers of people in industrial economies have not yet seen an alternative — certainly not the NDP or other social democratic parties as that alternative.

Jack’s critics argue that the party’s narrow message box is part of the problem, and the absence of larger visions reinforces scepticism and pessimism of the possibility for change. While there is relevance in that critique, it is also true that under Layton’s leadership the federal NDP has resisted continuous invitations to the “third way” and other Blairist adventures that left most of the European social democratic parties in tatters – abandoned by social activists and held partially responsible for the deregulation they abetted.

Unlike Blair or Schroeder or even the Clinton Democrats, no one will hold Layton and the NDP complicit in the economic and environmental mess we find ourselves. That is at least the first condition of presenting a credible systemic alternative to free market capitalism.

If social democrats globally and in this country have struggled with strategy, Jack Layton has not been the problem. To the contrary, when most of the party strategists could not see past their blood feud with Liberals, Layton saw the possibility of the coalition. When many of the Anglo leaders of the party did not dare embrace the national aspirations of Quebecers, Layton built the party and produced a beach head in Quebec that is today one of its most important strategic opportunities.

The party has its most successful leader in over 20 years, and it is very hard to imagine how he could be successfully replaced in the short term. It needs to match that asset with a branding and policy shift to alter the sides of its political box and create new openings. Perhaps, in some way, this can be a time to turn to that task.

Get well, Jack. It isn’t you who needs to go to work Monday morning.


Fred Wilson

Fred Wilson is the assistant to the President of Unifor.