Jack Layton – Right Person, Wrong Party, Perfect Combo

By Jason Menard

When I think about Jack Layton, I believe he was the right person in the wrong party – and I don’t think he’d have had it any other way.

I should clarify. It was the wrong party for us, but absolutely the right party for Jack. And, as a result, his legacy will be with us for years to come – and, hopefully, he’s inspired a new generation of Canadians to take an interest in politics. 

Layton passed away early this morning, succumbing to cancer – a cancer that helped define him as a fighter. After all, Layton defeated prostate cancer once, barely skipping a political beat, and led his New Democratic Party to previously unimagined heights.

Back in May, we all watched in a mixture of shock and delight as the Liberals and Bloc got Orange Crushed. We knew that the Liberals were vulnerable so that part wasn’t a great surprise, but to see Jack and his team steamroll the Bloc in Quebec was stunning. I had read the polls and I had been in Montreal just a few days before the election, so I had heard the whispers, but I didn’t think Quebecwould do it.

They did – and the result was Layton’s greatest political success: the NDP finally arrived on the Canadian political stage as a player instead of an afterthought.

Now, imagine if Layton was a Liberal? Combine that charisma and that pugnacious political attitude with the weight and instant credibility that the Liberal Party carries (go with me on this one for a minute), and he would most certainly have not earned the nickname that many are now applying to him: the Greatest Prime Minister We Never Had.

Liberal and credibility aren’t exactly words that go together lately. The entire party’s been tarred and feathered with the sins of its past. And, unlike the seemingly Teflon-coated Conservatives (who initially campaigned on a platform of openness and accessibility, and have since flaunted their secrecy and deception before the electorate – and have been rewarded for it!), the Canadian public made sure the Liberals paid for their crimes – both real and perceived.

However, what the Liberals have that the NDP can’t seem to obtain is a measure of weight and trust as an upper-case Political Party. For many Canadians, the NDP still aren’t a viable option – undermined as socialists or a fringe party. They’re great as opposition, people say, but they could never be the government.

It’s not right, but it is Canada. As much as we decry the U.S.’s two-party system, it’s essentially the same North of the 49th. We have the Conservatives and we have the Liberals.

And, until today, we also had Jack. Layton’s personality and political acumen buoyed the entire NDP ship. This past election wasn’t a vote for the local candidates – it was a referendum on leadership. Sure, some people may have liked what the NDP was selling; but far more people simply believed in Jack.

Put Jack at the head of the Liberal party and all of the sudden, there’s a whole bunch of traditional voters who would embrace him with his “real” political party behind him. Liberal Jack would be PM as we speak – and likely with a fairly sizable majority.

But I don’t think that’s the way Jack would have wanted it. Power for power’s sake wasn’t his style. He simply didn’t have a Charest in him. Despite his father’s Mulroney Conservative roots, Jack cut his teeth as an activist more in line with his great-grandfather Phillip (who founded the Montreal Association for the Blind and campaigned for disability pensions).

Layton knew how to play the political game and, despite the deserved adulation flowing his way today, he made some questionable (and opportunistic) calls. But you also got the impression that he was sincere about his goals. You simply believed that he felt the words that came out of his mouth. From a lesser orator would seem fake or insincere. While the larger political machines behind the Liberals and Conservatives would likely have tried to neuter him, the NDP afforded Layton the opportunity to just be Jack

And it worked.

Now, unfortunately, we will see what the NDP actually is. Is it a viable party with true grass-roots support, including in Quebec? Or was Layton truly the rising tide that raised all the NDP’s boats? Will they now drift away, rudderless, without their leader? More importantly, will Canadians abandon the NDP’s ship now that its charismatic captain is no longer at the helm?

I only wish we didn’t have to find out. Layton was a breath of fresh air in Canadian politics and his energy infected those who had previously avoided the political process. Hopefully now that these Canadians have caught the bug, they’ll remain invested in the future of this country.

That would be a fitting legacy. Jack Layton – the man who made Canadians care about politics. And it couldn’t have happened anywhere else but with the NDP.

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