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Conversing with Jack Layton

An interview with Jack Layton in 2003, shortly after he was newly elected as leader of the federal New Democratic Party

The November 2003 issue of Canadian Dimension featured this extensive interview with Jack Layton shortly after he was newly elected as leader of the federal New Democratic Party. Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin sat down with the NDP leader Jack Layton and asked whether he planned on confronting capitalism, US imperialism, and whether he saw himself as a socialist.

Leo Panitch: We’re very impressed with the changes you are making with the parliamentary caucus, Jack–transforming caucus members from critics and professional politicians to advocates. How much further can you push them and how far will they go toward seeing themselves as organizers, mobilizers and educators rather than parliamentarians?

Jack Layton: We’ll see how far they are willing to go. My latest proposal to them is that they fan out across the country and give talks about their advocacy work once every two weeks. They all thought it was a good idea. My director of campaigns–we’re not talking election campaigns here but issue campaigns–this is a new position–is coordinating this effort. The idea is that MPs will come into contact with student groups and community groups. We’ll see how that works.

How much further will it go? That depends a lot on the candidates I recruit. I’m looking for a wide range of candidates, but I’m targeting in particular people with a background in municipal politics who have been directly involved in decision-making and people who have been active in movement politics and have some credibility there.

LP: Yet what are they going to be advocating exactly? We hear your strong criticisms of corporate power, but when you talk about what is to be done only in terms of using pension funds or environmental taxes and subsidies as the instruments of change, we get the feeling that the kind of politics you’re engaged in walks around the margins of capital. You’re not talking about taking capital away from capital. Is that where we’re condemned to be operating–only where capital leaves us some space? Is there a vision beyond that?

JL: My belief is that the way you transform the big phenomenon is by a huge number of local actions, a multitude of specific interventions at the local level. The older notion of fundamental once and for all transformation of society is less likely to succeed. Besides, its unpalatable to Canadians and to me as well.

Sam Gindin: What you’re saying is likely right in the short run, but ultimately you’re going to have to come to grips with the fact that capital has power and we are going to have to confront that power. In the interim we need to develop our capacities and these local actions you’re talking about help us to do that. Is this a question of how you understand the relationship between tactics and the ultimate goal, or–

JL: No. I’m saying that the way to transformation is through these local actions.

SG: Well, capitalism is a social system with its own internal logic and requirements that enable it to function. All these multitudes of local actions, if they’re successful, disrupt the system. They screw it up. They make it disfunctional. At some point it stops working and this poses the question of what you will be replacing it with. It’s something to think about.

JL: It is something to think about. If you’re on a truthful journey you can’t be sure where you will end up in the long term.

LP: What about the question of language? Is the old language of socialism still relevant or is there a new language; or is socialism not necessary for your vision? Do you still see yourself as a socialist, Jack?

JL: When I ran for city hall I found that the language I was accustomed to using on campus is not the language people are using on the Danforth in Toronto. To tell you the truth, I think the old language is alien to most people. They don’t know what it means and we have to spend too much of our time explaining it to them. That’s not productive. I find that the language of story telling is more effective. Like “Let’s get this housing project built.” Or “Let’s stop our garbage from going up north–We’re up against the biggest waste company in the world–We’ll take them down with grassroots action in favour of composting.” People share our concerns and they can identify with that type of language about very concrete things. I doubt I’ll ever use words like capitalism or imperialism though maybe there will be an occasion. Socialist? I’m proud to call myself a socialist. I prefer it by far to democratic socialist. But I don’t go around shouting it out.

SG: We can appreciate what you’re saying about how to reach people. But one of the things socialism tried to do is to create worker intellectuals who didn’t just say I like the NDP because of its housing policy or some other policy, but because they actually understood the world. It was about democratizing knowledge and creating a cadre of leaders from below. They weren’t just participating. They were participating in a very different way. In a way that would really sustain them. So that when you lost a battle, you could put it in context. So the question is where does that kind of socialist get created in the NDP now.

JL: That’s a good question. I don’t truthfully know. We’re doing some things that might be part of the answer. First, we want to have our own publication of information. What we have now is the newsletter.

SG: Is that information or discussion and debates?

JL: Good point. Right now it’s information. How do we take it to the point of discussion and debate? I don’t know. Second, we’re looking into youth activist camps where they can debate and discuss issues like the ones in Saskatchewan. Third, we’ve hired our first ever youth organizer. Fourth, I’ve said let’s get our NDP clubs, riding associations and members that they should be helping the social movements do what they’re doing. Instead of wagging fingers complaining that they’re not supporting us, I say let’s go to the movements and find out what they’re working on and how we can help. We have 90,000 members and we’ve got members in the House of Commons that can raise their issues. The six advocacy teams we’ve set up are made up of MPs but they also have a designated advisor from the Canadian Labour Congress and a partner consisting of a national organization from the movements working in these areas.

This brings me back to creating a mass youth movement. I believe that a lot of it has to do with getting our members connected to the movements that have an issue focus. Emerging out of that will be a different kind of analysis and perspective about how to do things.

SG: Youth shares a lot of your criticisms of corporations. But they extend that to the state. They’re very cynical about the state and they’re not alone. So how do you defend the state and say that it’s good when this isn’t peoples’ experience of it?

JL: No kidding!

SG: So how do you talk about that frankly yet in a way that doesn’t get public sector workers upset?

JL: That’s a very good question and I don’t have a clear answer in my mind except that in my view it’s local institutions like non-profits and cooperatives and local democracy where the action is. The local state screws up a lot less than the provIncial and federal state. Why? Because it is able to be observed by the citizens in a much more direct way. One of my goals is to radically empower municipalities with tax dollars that have been raised centrally.

LP: What do you do about the developers whose bread and butter is municipal politics?

JL: True. But they come into direct contact with the citizens at that level. In Ottawa, the citizenry is nowhere to be found. That’s why there’s the possibility that public goals may be achieved in localities that may never be achieved through centralized decision-making structures. Ultimately you have to trust the local citizens to get it right. They won’t always. It will be a back and forth thing. It’s pitched battle street by street with little victories, a wind turbine here, a park there.

My favorite example is the fight to ban pesticide in my own town of Hudson. What happened is a classic example of local democracy trying to do something for their own health and safety and going right up to the supreme court against the multinational corporation and being supported by cities all across the country saying “You should have the right to do that even if we choose not to.” As president of the FCM (Federation of Canadian Municipalities) I was able to bring thousands of municipalities behind Hudson and we won at the Supreme Court. They said not only does a municipality have the power to enact laws and policies for the well-being of its citizens, it has an obligation to do it.

LP: If Bob Rae had followed that strategy with bringing in public auto insurance to Ontario instead of conceding to NAFTA without a fight–

JL: Exactly. That was a huge mistake and recognized now by everybody including Howard Hampton in this last campaign.

LP: Let’s talk about the sovereignty question.

JL: Well, starting with defence, our party has not reviewed its defence and foreign policy since the cold war ended. So it’s completely out of date. We’re doing a complete review of it. The review is based on the principle of Canadian sovereignty being fundamental and that has to do with having the capacity to protect the ecosystem we’ve been blessed to have the stewardship over. For example, did you know that our coast guard has no mandate to protect out coast lines? They don’t consider it to be part of their mandate to look after any raping and pillaging of our coast lines by multinational ships that came to scrape the bottom of our ecosystem.

Secondly, the review is based on the principle of world peace and our being able to intervene to help achieve peace, a reputation we used to have that we lost. Our twin priorities are those.

LP: What do we do with NAFTA?

JL: Most people glaze over whenever you talk about NAFTA or the WTO or the FTAA. We’re going to have to find ways of getting people agitated about it. I think the piece that’s going to work people up about NAFTA is the energy provision that says even if we need the fuel, we’re obligated to send it to the U.S. over and above our own need. We have to create the awareness about the impact of these trade deals. That’s what the run-up to the federal election campaign is all about. We’re working very close to the Council of Canadians and to the Mel Hurtigs, anyone working on this question. Fortunately, NAFTA is coming up for renewal. So we will have a chance to go in and say here are five changes we absolutely must have. And these have to be real killer changes, so fundamental that it would no longer be NAFTA. It would be something else. And we use this to shift public opinion around NAFTA. My hope is that we can get there between now and April.

SG: The example you like to use, namely energy, is one area where we can do something to lessen our dependence on trade and avoid serious repercussions. That’s not true of other areas where there will be serious repercussions and Canadian business will be nervous about possible responses.

JL: It’s true energy is unique. For example, here in Toronto we spent a quarter of a billion dollars in retrofitting big buildings which has reduced the consumption of energy, mainly coal imports from the U.S. and there’s absolutely nothing they can do to stop us from doing this. Similarly we took down big garbage disposal multinationals by open up composting plants. And there’s no retaliation possible against this.

But there are other areas where you’re going to have trouble. For example, if we said we’re going to put an export tax on our energy exports to the U.S. in retaliation for their excessive grain subsidies, their softwood lumber policy, demolishing the auto pact, anti-dumping of steel. Will they be pissed off? Absolutely. But maybe then we’ll get their attention. The reaction I’ve had to this has been very positive, even in Alberta. So there are some interesting possibilities if we pick the right cases. On the other hand, there are billions of dollars of goods crossing the border every day at Windsor. Those goods are being made, assembled or at least packaged by workers in those one-story plants all through southern Ontario. You can’t say we’re going to stop this trade. Nor is there any need to. We can work on being more self-reliant but we’re always going to be a trading nation.

LP: We get the sense today that governments that identify too closely with the U.S. and its empire building–whether through military force or economic domination–are going to lose legitimacy with their own people. One would think, then, that the NDP could make some real gains around an anti-imperialist–I don’t mean anti-American, but anti-imperialist–rhetoric. But then the question is, because of the almost complete integration, it’s a risky thing to be promoting. As Sam says, there will be repercussions.

JL: Well, if we go down that road and we’re attacked by people who say it will hurt our economy and here’s how, we have to anticipate this and we have to counter with an industrial strategy. Canada has no industrial strategy now. Globalization does not allow it. The free-market decides. What we say is no, there shall be a strategy around housing, around food, energy, transportation and proactive investment in these strategies. The interesting thing is that there are lots of Americans who agree with us and we’re forming alliances with these people. Not only there, but in Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela. I think that what went on in Cancun is very interesting. What did Lula call it? The axis of evil versus the axis of good. We’re going to make some of those linkages. You absolutely can’t do this alone in Canada. But there are some very interesting possibilities.


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