Jack Layton’s legacy
by Murray Dobbin
The outpouring of grief from across the country over the sudden and cruel death of Jack Layton continues to affect politics in this country. The NDP is up in the polls across the country — virtually tied with the Conservatives — and in Ontario where they are enjoying the best results going into an election since Bob Rae won in the 1990s.
But people are still trying to decipher exactly what it all meant and how it will change Canadian politics, if at all, in the longer run. There seems to be a consensus that Layton’s decency, his genuine affection for people, his manner, his humour — in other words his personality — account for as much of the response as the social democracy of his party.
If that is the case, and I think it is, what can it mean in the longer term for the NDP and for Canadian political culture? In some ways it reveals what we already know: that a majority of Canadians are sickened by the state of politics defined by the most mean-spirited prime minister the country has ever known. Jack was the counterpoint to this misanthropic personality. When he died such a shocking death it was as if we lost a symbol of who we really were.
If the NDP and the Left are to learn from this unprecedented public response then we have to understand that the way out of the catastrophe presented to us by the May 2nd election is cultural. Railing on against Harper for his foul politics and worse policies will simply reinforce the hopelessness people now feel.
It is a sad comment on the ability of progressive politics to engage people at the level of community, as citizens, that the only time we can generate a nation-wide expression of progressive values is when one of our leaders dies. It is an interesting contradiction: the NDP actually moved to the right under Layton but his legacy of decency and humanity has pointed us in the direction we need to go: reclaiming the commons.
Murray Dobbin is an author, blogger, and political commentator from Powell River, BC.
What would Jack do?
By Judy Rebick
If someone had asked me before the last election what effect Jack Layton had had on the party, I would have responded that he professionalized it taking it further away from grass roots control. Many of us had hoped that Jack with his activist past would root the party more in social movements but this he didn’t do. He did something perhaps more important, something I think will create an even bigger shake up, something I wouldn’t have believed possible. He won Québec. His win in Québec was such a monumental shift in Canadian politics that it is still difficult to understand it. For me, it was Québecois saying to the people of English Canada. “We’ll give you another chance. We can work together on issues like unemployment, health care, education, war and getting rid of Mr. Harper. On those things we have common interests.”
Jack understood that sovereignty is one issue on which we might disagree but that it is not the only important issue. By uniting on the other issues, whatever Québec decides about sovereignty, Canada will be a stronger, and fairer country. What a breakthrough for the Left; the most important in my lifetime, I believe.
And of course with the famous letter he wrote to Canadians upon his death, he boldly redefined Canadian politics with a vision for a better society that captured people’s imaginations. Whether the NDP can continue along that road depends greatly on the leadership contest, not just on who wins but also on how it is fought.
Perhaps the drama of Jack’s death can re-create the NDP as the only social democratic party in the world that can present an alternative to neo-liberalism. I’m not holding my breath… but as Jack would say, I prefer hope over fear.
Judy Rebick is a longtime feminist and social justice activist in Toronto. She is a writer and was the founding publisher of Rabble.ca her latest book is Transforming Power: From the Personal to the Political.
Can the NDP rise to the challenge in Québec?
by Jean-Marc Piotte translated by Andrea Levy
It was to the middle class that Jack Layton spoke, fuelling its hopes, while at the same time displaying a real sensitivity to the goal of protecting Québec’s language and culture. Layton carried off his extraordinary political gamble: the NDP succeeded in electing a majority of MPs in Québec and becoming Canada’s official opposition party.
The party now faces some very difficult tasks: to build a solid organization in Québec virtually from scratch; to accommodate some of the historic demands of the Québec nation without alienating the rest of Canada; to resist any pressure to merge with the Liberal Party, which has lost its base in Québec except in majority Anglophone ridings.
These are major challenges and it’s fair to ask whether the NDP can rise to them without Layton. The NDP has lately expressed support for a public-private partnership to handle the rebuilding of the Champlain Bridge (it isn’t clear at what level of the party this decision was made), even though the entire Québec Left and the union movement are opposed to the proposal. It remains to be seen whether the NDP has enough resolve to distinguish itself from the Liberals. It was appalling to see interim leader Nycole Turmel apologize for having belonged to the Bloc Québécois and for being a current member of the provincial leftwing party Québec Solidaire, especially when many NDP members and MPs actually voted “Yes” in the 1995 referendum. She should have had the courage to assert that the NDP’s version of asymmetrical federalism should include measures to protect Québec’s language and culture.
The NDP will have to keep a lot of balls in the air in the months ahead and we can only wonder whether it will be able to find as able a juggler as Jack Layton — and if it does whether that will be enough to keep the party afloat.
Jean-Marc Piotte is a radical political theorist teaching at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM).
Jack’s Goal: Replace the Liberals. Where does the Left go from here?
by Sam Gindin
The crisis of the 1970s polarized the options for capitalism. There would have to be a shift to the right or to the left. Capitalist states, supported by the corporations that matter, moved decisively to the right via neoliberalism. Social democrats, who had long ago rejected any comparably clear move to the left, tried to muddle through but since there was no room in the middle they were inevitably themselves drawn to the center-right or replaced by right-wing politicians. The NDP under Layton did not break with such politics; Jack’s primary goal was to replace the Liberals by essentially becoming a new version of the Liberals. It can be hoped that, out of even electoral necessity, the NDP will send out its newly elected MPs to organize, educate, and mobilize rather than socialize its unruly caucus into narrowly parliamentary politics. But this is unlikely.
The significance of the NDP’s showing federally and in the near future will be measured in terms of whether it can hold onto Québec and move towards replacing Harper. But this is not the main issue for the left and for Canadian Dimension. For us, the question is what does the swing to the NDP and the popular respect for Layton’s courage tell us about where Canadians are at and the potentials for mobilizing a mass movement that can go beyond the ultimately false and dangerous promises of accommodating to capitalism and — finally — build the capacities to start challenging it.
What has especially struck me was the contrast between the sentimental response of the public and the cynically sophisticated response of the state. By sentimental, I mean that people seemed genuinely moved by Jack’s integrity, appreciated that he wasn’t a political crud like Harper and Ignatieff, but primarily want a hero even though they aren’t ready to act on behalf of what they think Jack stood for. By the establishment’s sophistication, I mean that Jack has been made into a Canadian icon (after the popular response was noted) and as such, his legacy belongs to all of us, which is to say to no group in particular. Everyone will subsequently claim his legacy, which is muddy enough to cover the left (‘he believed passionately in equality’) and be co-opted by the right (his last words were not about anger but love and working together.)
Sam Gindin is the former personal assist to the President of the CAW and a member of the Canadian Dimension Collective.
Jack’s Passing: The end of a certain vision of Canada?
by Simon Tremblay Pepin translated by Andrea Levy
Jack Layton’s premature demise was greeted with an effusion of grief and encomia. Most of the kind words were warranted, but all the fanfare should leave us a little uneasy. Of course Jack was a likeable sort. By all accounts he was a sincere and committed man. And his death reminds us of the deep injustice of disease. But perhaps Jack’s passing represents more than simply the death of the man himself; maybe we are witnessing the end of a certain vision of Canada. And it’s Québec that will be mourning that particular vision of Canada, which is already dead and buried in the rest of the country.
In Québec, Jack embodied the idea that dialogue with (an admittedly flawed and weakened) Canada is still possible. A Canada with centralizing tendencies, rather grudging in its acknowledgement of its colonialist past, but still quite nice and fairly progressive. Sovereignists and federalists alike felt that, with Jack, they were dealing with a man and a party one could talk to, light years away from the obdurate anti-separatism of the Liberals and the dogmatism of the Conservatives.
In voting massively for the NDP, the people of Québec were sending a message to the other provinces that they could talk to Jack’s kind of Canada. But in casting a near majority of their ballots for Harper’s Conservatives, the rest of Canada made it clear that Québecers were alone in their belief that this Canada still existed. This was not a vote for a renewed federalism; on the contrary, it confirmed the deep divide between Québec and Canada. Unlike previous votes for the Bloc, the vote for the NDP threw the differences into relief.
The stars appear to be aligning on Mulcair for the succession. He’s the ideal candidate for NDPers: a perfectly bilingual Québec MP, a committed federalist and a former cabinet minister at ease in both federal and provincial politics. However, while progressive Canadians may see in the ascent of this new leader a gesture to Québec, what they imagine to be the best case scenario could prove the worst.
Mulcair may well put paid to the image of Canada that still vaguely appeals to certain Québécois. His often haughty and aloof attitude, his hard-line federalism and his likely efforts to push the NDP back toward the centre to woo Liberal voters just might kill the goose that laid the orange egg last May. The NDP leadership needs to understand that they have become the representatives of progressive Québec nationalism inside a federalist party tempted to move toward the centre for electoralist reasons (there are lessons to be learned here from the Conservatives under Mulroney).
Thomas Mulcair will undoubtedly be the last to grasp this reality because he is so removed from it. He has no roots in Left politics or activism, unlike the NDP’s newly elected representatives from Québec. He is unsympathetic to Québec nationalism and rejects independence out of hand, whereas many NDP voters are very sensitive to the national question.
What is being buried, then, along with Jack’s coffin, is the Canada of Tommy Douglas, the Canada with which Québecers could engage. Of course, that Canada was only a dream, but fantasy often carries more weight in politics than reality. What road will the people of Québec travel now? They will be faced with the usual choice, but perhaps this time it will be a little clearer: they can build a society in their own image outside Canada or remain a less-and-less influential minority within a country moving full throttle towards ultra-conservatism.
Simon Tremblay-Pepin is a researcher with IRIS (Institut de recherché et d¹infomations socio-économiques), a Montréal progressive think tank.
Jack Layton: Master Political Builder
by Libby Davis
Jack Layton has had a remarkable impact not only on the NDP but on Canadian politics overall, and on progressive politics in this country.
I don’t believe there were many, if any, people who foresaw the impact he would have when he became leader of the NDP in 2003.
Jack always understood the importance of building a political movement for social change and he understood the NDP’s role in that. His political approach — a unique blend of on-the-ground pragmatism and long-term vision — didn’t happen overnight, as some might suggest (for example, the remarkable results in Québec). His approach was building the party, member by member, riding by riding, candidate by candidate, in a way that has been unprecedented in the NDP’s 50 year history. He did it painstakingly, in Québec, and across the country, with a team alongside him that helped implement his vision.
He changed the view of the party itself, and influenced activists in the NDP and beyond who came to understand that the “fourth party” could be a pivotal force in the Canadian political arena resulting in its accomplishment as Official Opposition.
I believe that more than anything, Jack made people feel that change is possible. He supported people in their struggles, such as the Tamil community in Toronto, or raising awareness of George Bush’s missile plan. He understood the constraints and barriers of our political system, but was willing to work within that system to bring about progressive change. I know too well the cynicism that can take root on the Left — a cynicism that can alienate people from their own capacity to bring about change. But somehow Jack was able to get people beyond that malaise and make politics real and accessible for all kinds of folks. And that was no small feat.
Jack’s strength was building relationships with people, one-on-one, always engaging in constructive proposals and ideas that people could relate to. Some will dismiss these efforts as housekeeping and nothing more than minor tinkering within a failed neo-liberal state. But what they’re missing is Jack’s ability to open up political space for people to get involved in maybe a more radical way than they were before. I’ve had many people tell me this. He didn’t work alone. He was a leader who sought cooperation and collectivism amongst people to work together. That too was no small feat.
Libby Davies is the MP for Vancouver East. She is Deputy Leader for the NDP.
This article appeared in the November/December 2011 issue of Canadian Dimension (Stepping up for the Planet).