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Jack Layton is the NDP’s third rail

Critically assessing Layton’s legacy may be the only way the party has a future

Canadian PoliticsSocialism

Former NDP leader Jack Layton at a rally in Saskatoon, April 9, 2011. Photo by Matt Jiggins/Flickr.

The NDP is in the midst of a quiet crisis. The party has not made significant headway since the 2015 federal election, when they won just under 20 percent of the vote, a number they repeated in 2019 with even worse results under Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system. A big part of the problem may lie with an NDP legend who party faithful feel unable or unwilling to criticize: Jack Layton.

Even amidst multiple Liberal government scandals, anxiety around Trudeau’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, and one of the more tumultuous Conservative leadership races in recent memory, the NDP has not experienced much in the way of rising public support. This is doubly concerning as current leader Jagmeet Singh has enjoyed relatively enduring popularity as a politician.

Despite this, it’s difficult to find party apparatchiks doing any soul searching about the NDP’s political stagnation. There’s much in the way of touted policy, ‘gotchas’ of other parties, and the unbridled optimism that defines the NDP’s political elite—but very little in wrestling with why the party, after its enormous surge of support and seats in the 2011 election, appears to have returned to its historic position as the third party in Canada. This sort of electoral mediocrity is even celebrated.

The answer lies in the party’s most popular leader since Tommy Douglas founded the NDP in 1961: Layton, a monumental politician who pushed the party firmly into the political centre and upended it into an identity crisis that has now come to define it, and threatens to destroy it.

This is not a hit piece

It’s worth getting some things out of the way before I continue: Jack Layton was by all accounts an effective politician and a principled individual who earned respect from all sides of the political spectrum. This is not designed to be a hit piece. Yet, the fact that this has to be prefaced is a telling indication of where timidity in the NDP begins: it simply feels impossible to separate Layton the person from Layton the policymaker.

The NDP’s election platform in 1997 would be considered revolutionary even today, and it brought the party back from the brink following a blowout loss in 1993. The platform included goals for full employment, a federal ban on scabs, support for credit unions, progressive tax reform, community-based approaches to crime reduction, and a renegotiation of Canada’s membership in NATO.

The NDP’s ensuing failure in the 2000 election was partly the result of a rebrand that shifted it toward a “third-way” model based on Tony Blair’s Labour Party in the United Kingdom. This was in direct conflict with the Canadian labour movement, which had already asserted that even the 1997 platform wasn’t progressive enough. Combined with poor election messaging, the party lost half its gains from 1993. It’s worth noting that the rhetoric had shifted, but not the policies.

Jack Layton was elected leader in 2003 under the premise that the party was shifting too much to the centre. As a Toronto city councillor, he was a firmly left-of-centre progressive and a principled advocate for the marginalized. However, the NDP platforms between 2004 and 2011 demonstrate a decline in radical, social democratic policy: NATO was out in 2006. Pharmacare was gone by 2011, replaced with a promise to have more cops. Layton’s camp firmly cemented a policy shift that was introduced in 2000.

The orange elephant in the room

The 2011 election results can largely be viewed as a protest vote against a flagging Liberal opposition, anchored by Layton’s political magnetism. Layton’s untimely death and touching last letter created a near-mythical legacy in the eyes of NDP loyalists and party faithful. However, the unprecedented success of the NDP in that 2011 election left the party with the wrong message about what it takes to win, and now, the Layton legacy has become a firm obstacle in the party’s progression.

In 2015, NDP leader Tom Mulcair was campaigning on Layton’s legacy to the last day of the election. Mulcair failed to run on exciting policy that positioned the NDP as a radical alternative to both the Liberals and the Conservatives—compassionate, socializing, and serious about wealth inequality and corporate accountability after the 2008 financial crisis—but instead pushed a program of balanced budgets that coincided with a steep drop in polling.

What did this experience teach the NDP faithful? Apparently nothing. Brad Lavigne’s hagiography of the 2011 election is very telling, isolating the importance of “achievable, fiscally prudent promises, meaningful in the daily lives of people, would also make for better policy announcements on the campaign trail.”

At the root of this assessment is a critical failure to examine the strategic conditions necessary to win elections, one that stems from the canonization of Layton as an NDP hero. The prevailing rhetoric around Layton and the people who surrounded him was that they unlocked a key to winning that is repeatable, not that it was a confluence of luck and opportunity.

Nominally socialist, big picture ideas such as the Leap Manifesto were considered taboo by party hawks who took the wrong lessons from 2011: not as an engineered fluke by which to assume future power through meaningful policy alternatives, but as a platform that’s worth staking a campaign on.

Under Jagmeet Singh, who secured the position of NDP leader in 2017 after a first-ballot victory, Canadians have witnessed further political confusion as the party both tries to honour the conditions of Layton’s success while getting with the times. The NDP labeled its stripped down Green New Deal package as a “New Deal for People” and juggled technocratic, inadequate housing policies and calls for hiring more RCMP officers with reintroducing pharmacare and calling for a total ban on fossil fuels.

It’s clear that Layton’s legacy looms large over the federal NDP, but his political savvy—that was both adaptable and capable of manipulating his environment to achieve the best result—does not. The discomfort and loss still felt about Jack Layton, nine years on, marks every conversation about him in NDP circles. Very few in the party are willing to say Layton was the root of Mulcair’s austerity and Singh’s timorous relationship to genuine left policy.

Even the NDP Socialist Caucus magazine, Turn Left, is rich in criticism of Mulcair and Singh, but makes no mention of Layton since 2012. What’s more, the Courage Coalition, which largely works within the NDP to push for left wing policy, has a name that is certainly evocative of one of Layton’s favourite quotes by Tommy Douglas: “Courage my friends, ‘tis never too late to build a better world.” Layton reportedly included the passage in every email he sent.

All of this political disorientation and disassociation from electoral failure points to the NDP as a party confused about itself—a third option that thinks it’s a first option—and this leads to a single, tacit conclusion: to abandon the policies of Layton and his cadre, and to critically reassess them, is equivalent to speaking ill of the dead.

Jack Layton and Thomas Mulcair during a campaign stop, March 31, 2011. Photo by Matt Jiggins/Flickr.

Things can change

The lessons of 2011 should be an examination of the conditions it takes to win, and not a model for winning policy.

Layton’s NDP opened up the party from a core base of mostly farmers and trade unionists that largely ensured its prominent, yet perpetual third-place position and gave it metropolitan credibility. The current crisis of COVID-19 and the predicted economic fallout has the potential to recreate the lightning-in-a-bottle conditions that led to Layton’s success in the first place, particularly with Singh’s individual popularity as party leader, and the NDP’s rise to national prominence in the last decade. Layton opened the door to the NDP articulating a desire to form government, not just win seats.

That is Layton’s true legacy: Demonstrating that the NDP can be a governing party, not how to be a governing party.

Layton was elected in the Obama “Hope and Change” years following a major crisis, but the NDP under Singh has been reticent to take full advantage of a resurgent social democratic movement in North America. The NDP also doesn’t face the same challenges the Bernie Sanders campaign did within the Democratic Party apparatus in the United States—here in Canada, it has only itself to contend with.

But to capitalize on and present a program of change which empowers, protects, and satisfies working people may mean acknowledging and abandoning the Layton era political playbook in totality. It may also require acknowledging that the reason for past electoral success wasn’t entirely the ideas of the person driving it. This is ultimately an unpopular stance to take, but a necessary one.

In between mea culpas about long-standing issues of harassment within the party, and some progress on other issues considered third rails, a critical assessment of Layton’s legacy may be the key factor holding the NDP back. Progress within the party may necessarily involve thanking Layton for the work he did, but dispensing with his strategic vision and policy ideas completely. It may also involve the transformation of Layton into a symbol with which the NDP can invoke policy that’s meaningful for the moment, or policy that can carry them beyond a second-place finish. It may even involve consigning Layton to the proverbial dustbin of history.

But for anything to happen, NDP faithful must admit one simple fact: Jack Layton was a neoliberal politician. Maybe the best neoliberal politician, but a neoliberal politician nonetheless. He understood what had to be compromised to win in 2011, not 2020. His ongoing veneration has made it difficult for the NDP to make good choices. In the end, Layton codified a rightward shift in the NDP and left behind a legacy of political confusion. The party may not survive if it hangs on to that legacy.

But who’s going to be brave enough to say it?

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote to Jack Layton. In fact, the quote was from Tommy Douglas, and was often included in correspondence sent from Layton’s office. Canadian Dimension regrets the error.

Abdul Malik is a writer and photographer based out of Edmonton, Alberta. His work has been featured in publications across the world, and his first written studio feature film is currently in post-production, coming to a theatre near you when it’s safe to do so. You can follow his work on Twitter @socialistraptor, look at his photography at abdulymalik.photo, or read his personal essays at abdulymalik.com.

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