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article imageOp-Ed: Canada's Layton leaves big shoes to fill

By Ben Fisher     Jul 28, 2011 in Politics
Once Jack Layton is properly feted and supporters and respect-filled rivals, alike, get to wish him well in his second cancer battle, the New Democratic Party will soon embark on the biggest political challenge in party history.
And they’ll have to do so without the charismatic leader who brought them there.
Monday’s stunning announcement of his abrupt and indefinite stepping down as leader of the NDP has, rightfully, evoked an outpouring of support and sympathy from the charismatic Layton that has transcended partisan politics. As the tributes continue, the party must come to grips with the situation that they are now in and figure out where to go from here.
It was Layton, after all, whose aggressive campaigning and loud push for change in May’s federal election thrust the NDP to new, historic heights as the official opposition. Will the next leader carry the same sway and authority of the universally respected (if not universally liked) 61-year old?
Nycole Turmel might be as good a hope as anyone to fill the void.
A hand-picked potential successor after receiving a surprise recommendation for interim party leadership from Layton and a subsequent vote of confidence from fellow New Deomcrats, Turmel is a relative political neophyte whose emphasis on local issues helped her win the Hull-Aylmer riding (becoming the first non-Liberal to do so), secure a seat in Parliament and serve as a key element in the party’s surge in Quebec. A long-time union leader, she has carved out a reputation as a capable negotiator, a skill set which should serve her well as she butts heads with more experienced Conservative politicians in the House of Commons.
While some question her profile outside of the New Democrat ranks, getting the seal of approval from Layton holds plenty of weight. It is interesting, though, that Layton passed over more experienced NDP’ers such as Thomas Mulcair and Libby Davies, a possible indication that both may be involved in a leadership race down the line – in which case Layton would not want to tilt things in the favour of either.
While Turmel may have a skill set that lends itself to leading the party, it’s hard to ignore the fact that she lacks some of the distinct qualities that helped Layton lead through his force of personality.
The NDP’s surge to official opposition status had plenty to do with voter fatigue and the need for change within the political spectrum, but it also wouldn’t have been possible without Layton. His entire campaign played off of that theme and he hammered home the message by showcasing his vibrant, dynamic energy and charismatic presence. He was – at once – new enough to feel like a fresh alternative while also familiar enough to be legitimized in challenging both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff during televised debates. An NDP leader needs to be a rabble rouser – Layton was that rabble rouser, but it’s unknown as to whether Turmel can be.
Complicating matters is the new political ground that the entire party finds themselves occupying. Serving as the official opposition means losing the ‘underdog outsider’ status and facing new expectations and scrutiny. The party already got a taste of it with the media firestorm over the merits of first-time MP Ruth Ellen Brousseau (Berthier-Maskinongé), who was on vacation during the May 2 federal election, and are at risk of more close inspection with a horde of incoming rookie MP’s (including Turmel, herself).
Heck, even before an inexperienced MP puts his or her foot in their mouth with a reporter present, Turmel (or whomever gets the leadership full-time) will need to act as a unifying force to bring together dissenting opinions within the party.
Bottom line: it takes a special kind of leader to both serve inter-party interests while also commanding a bold, magnetic presence on the national stage. While it remains to be seen if the next NDP leader can do that, we know the past one could. Unfortunately for New Democrats and Canada as a whole, there’s only one Jack Layton.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Jack Layton, nycole turmel, thomas mulcair, libby davies, New democratic party
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