by Chantal Hébert
Five years on, what would Jack Layton make of the Canadian political landscape and the gloomy state of the party he led to unprecedented heights before his premature death?
Because he always tended to see a glass half full rather than half empty I believe he would probably first note some bright spots.
For instance, Layton was convinced there was still within the Canadian electorate a large constituency for a big-tent approach to politics and an appetite for aspirational political goals. On that basis he would find that Justin Trudeau’s victory – as bittersweet as it may have been for the NDP – validated his conviction.
And then, as opposed to some New Democrat activists who feel it is clipping their party’s wings on the environmental front, Layton would certainly not regret the advent in Alberta of an NDP government and the opportunity to have a national conversation on climate change on different terms.
It is under Layton that the federal NDP moderated its stance on pipelines. A Rachel Notley majority victory in Alberta was not on anyone’s radar at the time.
As a partisan politician, he would probably take some satisfaction from the fact that the first New Democrat woman elected to power in Canada struck at the heart of Conservative Canada.
Layton would mostly be relieved that a contingent of 16 mostly solid Quebec MPs is left from the orange wave. It was never a given that the party’s presence in the province would outlive his leadership.
Historically, the federal NDP has tended to fare best when the Liberals have been weak. Layton’s own watch as leader coincided with such a period. But last fall, the party managed to achieve its second-best seat score ever in spite of the Liberal surge in support. Layton would probably find some solace in the notion that the progressive pool has expanded over the Harper decade in power.
He would not be terribly surprised by the post-election detachment of so many NDP sympathizers, a phenomenon that is translating these days by a steep decline in support in public opinion polls.
The notion that many progressive Canadians place on keeping the Conservatives out of power ahead of NDP fortunes is one the late leader experienced first hand.
At the time of Layton’s first campaign in 2004, Buzz Hargrove – the then-president of the Canadian Auto Workers union – urged the NDP to abandon the fight against Harper in Quebec to the Bloc QuÈbÈcois.
In 2006, Hargrove campaigned in Windsor with Paul Martin.
At the last national convention Layton presided over, less than two months after the party’s historic breakthrough in Quebec, he was rightly celebrated for his election performance. But it was not all rainbows and roses. Among NDP members, elation over the party’s accession to the rank of official Opposition was often tempered by dismay at the advent of a Harper majority.
But even an optimist such as Layton would be hard-pressed to find a silver lining to the funk that has seized the NDP in the 10 months since the federal election. Even when the party was reduced to less than a dozen MPs in 1993, it did not seem as lost for direction as it is now. It is turning out to be harder to get over a defeat on the field of expectations than to move on from an actual rout.
The reluctance of the next generation of New Democrats to step up to the leadership plate would trouble him.
He would not be particularly thrilled by speculation that Green Party Leader Elizabeth May could or should jump ship to come lead the NDP. She always seemed to click more with her Liberal counterparts (and vice-versa).
The New Democrat angst is palpable on the ground.
I live in Laurier-Ste-Marie, a riding the NDP twice won against no less than then-Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe. This week, something that looked like an in-store raffle ticket was slipped into my mail slot. It was MP Helene LaverdiËre’s latest correspondence.
It would be an exaggeration to call it a householder for it gave no sense of the NDP’s plans for the next sitting of Parliament. Instead it was a straw poll designed to produce a list of priorities for the party to tackle.
One can only wonder what Layton would make of the NDP turning itself into a blank slate.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services