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article imageOp-Ed: Canada — Next NDP leader has big shoes to fill

By Andrew Ardizzi     Aug 26, 2011 in Politics
When Jack Layton assumed leadership of the New Democratic Party in January 2003, the party was in shambles. With only 13 seats to its credit, little was expected of the NDP, and it's somewhat doubtful anyone could have foreseen its success.
That is, except perhaps for Jack Layton himself.
Looking back on the 2011 federal election, few within the media could have foretold the outcome. Few could have predicted the "orange crush" as it came to be known. Even fewer expected that by the time ballots were counted by the end of May 2, that the NDP would have accumulated 103 seats in the House of Commons and Jack Layton would be the leader of the Official Opposition to Stephen Harper's government. For a week we got a taste of what lay in wait for the Conservative majority government once Parliament resumed later in the year. What we didn't know, was that Mr. Layton's health was failing, a reality made clear when he announced on July 25 that he had developed another type of cancer and that he would have to temporarily step aside, recommending Nycole Turmel to stand in as interim leader until he could return.
Sadly, with Layton's death on Aug. 22 from an undisclosed but aggressive form of cancer, we'll never truly know what this NDP caucus would have accomplished had Layton not passed away. What this does, however, is raise a number of questions regarding where the party goes from here. The most concerning point raised in the wake of Layton's passing is the notion that Mr. Harper's government will go largely unopposed once Parliament resumes.
"Layton’s death will make it easier for Harper to dominate the national political agenda. Not only did the federal Conservatives win a majority government on May 2 but none of Harper’s chief opponents in the campaign are now leading their parties," the Toronto Star wrote.
This isn't a wrong assessment. Although with a majority government in his back-pocket and the capability to pass any legislation he desires, Mr. Harper would still have to otherwise contend with Mr. Layton directly across the floor, a point which many have pointed towards as a sobering reality. Despite the perpetual stranglehold Harper has on the House of Commons for the next four years, considering Layton's popularity nationally, it was at least thought he could draw public support away from the Harper Conservatives. Instead, we now find an NDP which presently has an interim leader in Nycole Turmel that has been discredited by her opponents and some media for her past ties to the Bloc Quebecois. Although she may still prove to be a valued member of the caucus, it's hard to not look at her as a lame-duck leader until a permanent one is chosen in the New Year. The Party's president, and one of Layton's top advisors, Brian Topp has emerged as an early front-runner, while other names such as NDP Deputy Leader Thomas Mulcair, former Manitoba premier Gary Doer and veteran MP Libby Davies have been suggested as potential heirs to the NDP throne.
Regardless of who is chosen, they're going to have to limit party infighting and unite it under Layton's vision of Canada and what he came to represent at the national level over the last eight years. Otherwise, like most Marxist philosophical schisms over the last 128 years since Marx's death, the party could come apart at the seams. Layton had the charisma and vision to lead, and with that element no longer present, the unity within the party could suffer and cause a divisive rift within its ranks. This is purely speculative, but still possible. One of the more immediate concerns, considering Layton's popularity in Quebec and the success the party had there, is whether the party can maintain its popular support without their leader.
“He was such a unique force on the Canadian political scene,” said Ekos pollster Frank Graves, in a Toronto Star report. “The NDP surge never would have happened in his absence. So it’s difficult to estimate how many of his party’s achievements are stable or how many are in jeopardy given his premature demise.”
It became apparent as the election wore on in May that Quebeckers latched onto Jack Layton and were completely able to identify with him, leaving a huge task for a future leader to take on. With Quebec MPs composing well over 50 per cent of the NDP caucus, the next full-time NDP head is going to have to find a way to channel what Mr. Layton represented in broader terms, combined with paying a certain level of attention to issues specific to Quebec, and finding a way to resonate with Quebeckers without completely abandoning the NDP ideology.
“Jack Layton has built a modern party with the best and biggest team of New Democrats ever assembled,” Karl Bélanger, Mr. Layton's press secretary, told the Toronto Star. “That team has been put together with one objective in mind for Jack Layton — for the NDP to form its first government after the next election. The objective remains even though Jack Layton won’t be able to achieve it himself."
That will be the key challenge, especially considering both the NDP and Liberal parties are on the hunt for new leaders to establish counter-narratives to the Conservative ideology, and more, one that will attract voters in the 2015 election. The key is to establish that Conservative counter-narrative, dissimilar from the incorrect suggestion posited by the Globe and Mail in concerning how the NDP should marry or reconcile the realities inherent to its standing relating to how people voted, solidifying its traditional base with concerns facing French-Canadians across the Canadian political spectrum.
"The answer must be to find a leader who reflects the values of a Canada that is evolving – multicultural, fiscally conservative and prosperous – but worried about what lies ahead," the Globe reported.
This is a disagreeable assessment, as doing so doesn't create or establish a counter-point to the prevailing political agenda and absolutely hinders both the growth of democracy while moving the collective political culture further towards the political centre. The new NDP leader must continue Layton's legacy and maintain a yin to the Conservative yang, rather than dabble in shades of gray. Mr. Harper has created a political landscape founded upon the party's own principles, and a future NDP leader must be able to do the same.
In death, Jack Layton has left a legacy, and whether it endures or not is a story that will be told over the next several years. Unfortunately for his successor it will be impossible to mimic the same enthusiastic, hopeful, positive message that Layton not only conveyed, but lived. It was an inherent piece of his personality that shone through each time he spoke, especially in his final letter to Canadians.
Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one – a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity. We can build a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly. We can look after our seniors. We can offer better futures for our children. We can do our part to save the world’s environment. We can restore our good name in the world. We can do all of these things because we finally have a party system at the national level where there are real choices; where your vote matters; where working for change can actually bring about change. In the months and years to come, New Democrats will put a compelling new alternative to you. My colleagues in our party are an impressive, committed team. Give them a careful hearing; consider the alternatives; and consider that we can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together. Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.
Layton's counter-narrative to contemporary political tactics gave him a distinct identity and campaign which contrasted against his opposition, but combined with his own charisma, he created an endearing cocktail of political success that resonated with record numbers of Canadians. For a future leader, stating they profess love over anger, optimism over despair and hope over fear is one thing. Truly believing Layton's final credo is another matter entirely if they wish to "change the world," and follow in his footsteps.
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
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