Jack Layton Hopes Economic Turmoil Will Help NDP

Jack Layton barely seemed to break stride after the Oct. 14 election.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 17, 2008

Jack Layton barely seemed to break stride after the Oct. 14 election. Prime Minister Stephen Harper slipped from view as he hunkered down to work on appointing his new cabinet, and begin drafting the Throne Speech that will set his second minority government on course later this month. Liberals licked their wounds, mused about rebuilding, then began manoeuvring into position for the inevitable leadership contest to come. But Layton went on talking much the way he always has since jumping from Toronto politics to the national scene as New Democrat leader in 2003.

He called on Harper to support peace talks with the Taliban, an old Layton position, once ridiculed by the Tories, now solidly mainstream in Afghanistan. He urged Conservatives to come up with a plan for Ottawa to backstop company pension plans jeopardized by the stock market plummeting. He demanded that Harper co-operate more humbly with the opposition parties when Parliament resumes sitting. In short, Layton has sounded like he's pronouncing securely from a position of strength. And with his NDP caucus expanded to 37 MPs, seven more than before the election, perhaps he is.

In an interview, he told Maclean's he saw the NDP's gains as "laying the foundations" for steady, if unspectacular, future growth. He argues global economic uncertainty offers him a historic chance to win converts to the party's long-standing interventionist policies. There is, however, a gloomier way to read the NDP results. For the first time, the New Democrats spent as much as the Tories and Liberals on a campaign, yet they won just 18.2 per cent of the popular vote, only a shade up from the 17.5 per cent they took in 2006. Those 37 MPs, while up from 13 when Layton came to Ottawa, still number less than half the Liberals' 76, and fewer than the record 43 the NDP elected under Ed Broadbent in 1988.

Robin Sears, who served as Broadbent's campaign director in that election, praises Layton's 2008 run as "flawless" and the party's "most professional ever." All the more troubling, then, that it wasn't more successful. Slick TV ads, a nearly error-free performance by Layton, all stacked against a lacklustre centre-left rival in Dion - and still the NDP failed to threaten the Liberals' status as the main alternative to the Tories. For Sears, now a communications consultant for the Toronto firm Navigator, and no longer a party member, the next step is obvious: he lays out the case for a Liberal-NDP merger in the upcoming issue of Policy Options, the journal of the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy, which is widely read among political insiders.

Sears discerns little daylight these days between Liberals and New Democrats on policy. Nevertheless, he doubts a unite-the-left push, even if the case for it is compelling, would succeed any time soon. "The tribal loyalties and hatreds of political life," he said in an interview, "are greater than any doctrinal issues." Indeed, Layton rejects bringing together the left-of-centre parties the way Harper united the right. "The Liberal party," he says, "runs using quite a few of the ideas we talk about, but in government goes the other way." He has often railed in the past about Liberal governments failing to make good on promises in areas like child care and greenhouse gas reductions.

So he proposes to keep painstakingly building up what remains the fourth-place party in the House. It looks like a long slog. In three tries as leader, he has added an average of eight seats per election; at that pace, the NDP would form a majority government after another 14 or 15 more campaigns. Layton, 58, laughs at the prospect of trudging toward power until he is an old man. He argues he's laying crucial groundwork for swifter success, putting particular emphasis on how the NDP's share of the Quebec vote has climbed from less than two per cent in 2000, the last election before he took over, to just over 12 per cent in last month's test. Still, that was good enough for just one seat on Oct. 14, a close win by MP Thomas Mulcair in the Montreal-area riding he first took for the NDP from the Liberals in a 2006 by-election.

As a fluently bilingual, Quebec-born leader, Layton had stirred hopes inside his party for a more definitive breakthrough. The NDP's Quebec wing holds its annual meeting Nov. 14-15 in Montreal, and early indications of its chances of keeping on building should come there. Will credible Quebec candidates, some attracted by Mulcair to run in the last election, stick around in executive roles to help organize for the next one?

If Layton was looking on the bright side about Quebec, he was frank in admitting his disappointment over the election outcome in Toronto, his adopted hometown. Only he and his wife, Olivia Chow, won ridings for the NDP in the country's biggest city. Layton is reassigning his former chief of staff, Bob Gallagher, to begin figuring out what went wrong and to come up with new strategies. Considering Layton's nearly two decades' experience in Toronto politics, it's a surprising weak spot. Just as unexpected, in a way, is his new strong suit: northern Ontario, where the NDP stole four seats from the Liberals, partly over discontent in depressed forest-industry towns.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Relying on economic anxiety in hinterland regions sounds like old-school NDP. Layton was supposed to usher in a more urban, up-to-date version of social-democratic politics. Loyalists still think he can fulfill that promise. University of British Columbia political science professor Michael Byers, a star NDP candidate in this fall's election, ran third in his Vancouver Centre bid - more than 6,000 votes behind Liberal incumbent Hedy Fry - but he remains a Layton fan. He contrasts steady NDP growth under Layton to the Liberals' loss of nearly 100 seats since Jean Chrétien's last majority win in 2000. "I'm frequently asked when the NDP is going to co-operate with the Liberals," Byers says. "But I see only one party that's building substantially."

He's right about who's growing, of course, but what about those frequent questions he has to field about uniting the left? The fact that it keeps coming up must signal something. Sears says many voters tend to lump together the Liberals and New Democrats, and even the upstart Greens, as a blur of alternatives to a single Conservative brand. "Unless you present that broad image," he says, "people won't vote for you." Barack Obama's success in expanding the U.S. Democrat base, Sears adds, makes the fragmented Canadian left look, by comparison, even less appealing.

Yet Layton says he sees a historic chance to set the NDP apart in the coming months. He doesn't propose changing the message much. Instead, he says the NDP's long-standing advocacy of more interventionist government should win converts, as economic upheaval casts doubt on the free-market orthodoxy that's dominated since the Reagan-Thatcher era. His recent pitch for a federal move to safeguard private pension plans is one example. He cites the NDP's five-year-old plan for revamping the auto sector to manufacture more fuel-efficient cars as an overlooked idea that now seems prescient. "I hate saying I told you so," he says, "because that doesn't help anybody, but we need that kind of thinking. We've got to intensity our efforts."

It's not at all clear, however, that voters will seize on NDP policy as a lifeline in tougher times. They haven't before. Even Byers, who plans to run again, suspects the market collapse during the fall campaign hurt the party. "The pitch Jack was making was a substantial change in direction," he says. "I can't help but think that there were voters watching their savings and pensions evaporate, and they weren't thinking this was the time to change their voting patterns."

Somehow Layton needs to persuade Canadians to make that leap. So far, most New Democrats seem content to let him keep trying, focusing, like their leader, on the modest gains they reaped on Oct. 14. It's left to outsiders, like Sears and all those persistent questioners Byers finds he has to answer, to wonder how many more elections a divided left will go on facing a united right.

Maclean's November 17, 2008

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