This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 9, 2011
Everything about Jack Layton's rally at Montreal's Olympia Theatre, the biggest campaign event ever staged by the NDP in Quebec, had a sort of retro air. There was the 1925 theatre itself, with its rococo red-and-gold plaster details. There was the lead-on band, the aptly named Quebec group Tracteur Jack, which played hopped-up swing. When Layton made his grand entrance, wading through a roaring crowd of more than 1,200, jauntily wielding the wooden cane he carries after hip surgery, he leapt to the podium like a barnstorming politician of old. Now that he's 60, that signature moustache, which once recalled the disco era, looks more like a tribute to his social-democratic forebears. Some of his applause lines have a time-honoured left-wing ring, too. "A prime minister's job," he declares to cheers, "is to make sure the government works for those who have elected him, and not for big corporations."
But Layton is no throwback, and his NDP campaign surge is a product of pure 21st-century election strategy. If nobody saw it coming, that doesn't make the party's bounce in the polls a fluke. On the contrary, Layton's roll suggests that what might have previously sounded like wishful thinking from NDP strategists was rooted in facts. They've long insisted that in the eight years since Layton became leader, he's overhauled the party's organization and, more recently, sharpened its electoral focus. Layton likens all that work to laying the foundation for a house. "The first thing you do is dig a hole, and that's not very interesting," he told Maclean's last week. "People kept saying to me, 'Why aren't you making any progress, Jack?' "
They aren't asking that now. Instead, the questions are all about how great a leap forward is conceivable. All the polls this week showed substantial NDP gains, and some suggested a historic watershed--the NDP possibly vaulting over the Liberals to become the official opposition, a second-place finish for the first time ever. The Conservatives, meanwhile, seemed to hover somewhere shy of the roughly 40 per cent of the popular vote that Prime Minister Stephen Harper would need to secure a majority. But it's Layton's surprise that has changed the game, especially his threat to Bloc Québécois dominance in Quebec. Several polls showed the NDP leading in the province, an astonishing turn of events given he went into this campaign holding just one of the 75 Quebec seats, compared to the Bloc's 47.
Strategists in all parties were asking how that could be possible. Innovative Research Group's Canada 20/20 panel for Maclean's and Rogers Media was digging into the attitudes of voters over the Easter weekend of that big NDP rally in Montreal. The online survey found that Layton has not only outperformed Gilles Duceppe, he's beating Duceppe among the Bloc leader's own avowed supporters. Among respondents who identified most closely with the Bloc, 63 per cent said their view of Layton was more favourable than at the start of the campaign. Only 33.7 per cent of those natural Bloc backers said their impression of Duceppe had grown more favourable. "That's just not supposed to happen," said Greg Lyle, Innovative Research's managing director.
Layton credits his Quebec traction to several factors, starting with his roots in the province. He was born in Montreal in 1950, grew up in Hudson, Que., and learned his relaxed, colloquial French on the streets of Montreal, partly when he was attending McGill University. He talks proudly about his family's stereo shop on Montreal's Ste. Catherine Street, Layton Audio, formerly Layton Bros., a piano store founded in 1887. Although he represents a riding in Toronto, where he established his political career during a long run as a flamboyant city councillor, Layton identified the NDP's lack of Quebec MPs or organization as the party's "biggest gap" when he became leader back in 2003.
His most visible step toward closing that gap came when Thomas Mulcair, formerly a prominent provincial Liberal cabinet minister, jumped to the NDP in 2007, soon becoming Layton's first Quebec MP, representing the riding of Outremont, a former Liberal stronghold in Montreal. On Quebec's unique concerns, Layton calls, rather vaguely, for somehow, someday coaxing the province into signing the Constitution. He proposes extending French-language protections to federally regulated industries. And he's bold when it comes to Quebec symbols, appearing at a rally in Gatineau, Que., this week against a backdrop of orange NDP signs and blue Quebec flags, without a red maple leaf in sight. Beyond Layton's appeal and Mulcair's beachhead, though, the party's Quebec organization remains largely untested.
And the Bloc, of course, is lashing back. Up until about a month ago, Duceppe was still referring to Layton as "my friend Jack." No more. Layton has been recast, with Harper and Ignatieff, as part of the three-headed federalist Hydra that aims to sap Quebec of its power. Jolted by Layton's rising popularity, and starved of a campaign narrative to incite Quebecers' collective fury, Duceppe has steered back to Bloc roots, framing the next election as a battle between sovereignists and federalists. "That's the price of being an NDP, Liberal or Conservative candidate in Quebec--you have to renounce being yourself," Duceppe said in a hardline speech. "In the country of Quebec, my friends, no one will have the power to take away our powers and undo what we have built over three decades."
The Maclean's poll found that dedicated sovereignists are sticking with the Bloc, but soft sovereignists and federalists are switching to the NDP. Duceppe may have signalled he's given up on luring those switchers back when he brought out former Péquiste premier Jacques Parizeau, a polarizing figure, to deliver a shot-in-the-arm speech to the party faithful in St-Lambert, a long-time Bloc stronghold now threatening to tip NDP.
If the NDP's campaign has been strongest in Quebec, it's been solid elsewhere, threatening to thwart Conservative aspirations for gains in British Columbia and Liberal hopes for a resurgence in Ontario. For Harper, though, Layton's rise doesn't necessarily demand new rhetoric. His message from the start, after all, has been that Canada needs a "stable, national, majority government" that will keep taxes low. If he wins only a third minority, he claims, the opposition parties will surely band together to defeat him and grab power in some form of coalition. Campaigning in B.C., the Prime Minister alluded wryly to the possibility of the NDP, rather than the Liberals, leading the usurpers. "Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Layton believe that in another minority Parliament they can work with each other and the Bloc Québécois to defeat us, even if they lose," he said. "Of course, it's not quite as obvious now who's supposed to be working for whom in that little arrangement."
That earned Harper a laugh from the Tory faithful. Having held a strong lead from the outset of the campaign, Conservatives might well feel more relaxed about the NDP's challenge than the Liberals. The day after Layton's landmark rally in Montreal, Michael Ignatieff fielded a raft of questions in Toronto from reporters about why his campaign seemed to be flat, and what he would do about the new challenge on his left flank. "All my candidates say they've never had so much enthusiasm at the base," he said. "Money is coming in. Volunteers are coming in. It's going very well on the ground."
Even so, at times he showed signs of strain. When one reporter asked what mistakes he'd made in the campaign, Liberal MP Bob Rae, standing to one side of the Liberal leader, leaned across him to the microphone and quipped, "None, how's that?" Ignatieff, quoting an old Édith Piaf song, added, "Moi, je ne regrette rien."
The Liberal leader was in Toronto to attend last Sunday's Khalsa Day celebrations, marking the birth of the Sikh religion. The Khalsa parade is an important event for politicians courting the Sikh vote. Ignatieff, Layton and Conservative Immigration Minister Jason Kenney were all on hand, showing off local candidates. Kenney was the first of them to address the crowd, followed by Ignatieff, Rae and others. But soon after Layton finally took the stage, it was obvious he'd connected with the crowd soaking up the sunshine at Queen's Park. Warm, casual and even boisterous at times, he was the most relaxed speaker. At one point, the crowd broke into chants of "NDP! NDP!" "I do see a lot of orange," Layton joked, referring to what's both the traditional Khalsa Day and NDP colour. When things are going a politician's way, even the colour code seems to conspire in his favour.
It's too easy, though, to credit Layton's campaign momentum to his ability to charm a crowd. Senior NDP of?cials are less likely to mention that magic than meticulous behind-the-scenes work. When Layton won the NDP leadership eight years ago, he was a brash outsider who defeated a beloved caucus veteran, Bill Blaikie, on the first ballot. The party was in terrible shape. In the 2000 election, under Alexa McDonough's bland leadership, it won just 13 seats and a pitiful 8.5 per cent of the popular vote--a humbling fall from the peak of 43 MPs and 20 per cent of the vote that Ed Broadbent's leadership drew in 1988. Layton began a painstaking climb, over the following three campaigns, back to the vicinity of Broadbent's numbers.
The process wasn't flashy, despite Layton's instinct for publicity. He hired more professional organizers, including a full-time fundraising team. Before his first run as leader, in 2004, the NDP bought a downtown Ottawa building for its national offices, leasing out retail space to pay the cost. Under Layton, the party invested in new computer systems, adopting some used by the U.S. Democrats. The party's sleek new campaign headquarters includes a video studio. Arguably more important than the real estate and technology, however, has been the stability in the team around Layton. Top strategist Brian Topp, campaign director Brad Lavigne, and Anne McGrath, Layton's chief of staff, are all veterans of several campaigns fought, during the run of minority governments, in short succession.
They talk of learning from frustrating experience. In Layton's first campaign back in 2004, for instance, the NDP increased its seat total from 13 to 19 seats--not a disaster, but not the bright new dawn he had promised. His team's post-election analysis focused obsessively on the 10 seats they had lost by less than 1,000 votes. Those ridings became the prime targets in a much more tactical 2006 campaign, when they all went NDP. That set the stage for 2008's run, when, according to NDP officials, their spending matched their bigger rivals for the first time. They plan to do so again in the current race. But 2011 is different: having nearly regained Broadbent's level in 2008, this time the campaign is conceived of as a chance to build beyond that natural "social-democratic base."
In an interview just before this contest officially began, NDP campaign director Brad Lavigne explained what's new about the strategy now unfolding. Last fall, he said, the party decided that it would go into the next race assuming its core support, perhaps 18 per cent of voters, was solid. On that premise, the party commissioned special polling research, starting by asking voters to agree or disagree with the statement, "I would never vote for the NDP." Those who disagreed, but weren't yet NDP supporters, became the party's target voters. They were numerous enough to lift its support from the high teens to at least the mid-twenties. They tended to be a bit older and a bit better off than core NDP voters, who are typically in their 20s and 30s. "They are in their 40s and 50s, and they are squeezed," Lavigne said. "They're simultaneously worried about their children and their aging parents."
To pursue them, Layton's strategists crafted a platform that includes traditional NDP preoccupations like combatting homelessness and reinstating a federal minimum wage, but goes beyond. Among the policies meant to catch the attention of those cost-conscious middle-class voters, Layton proposes to require lenders to offer a no-frills credit card with an interest rate no higher than five per cent above prime. He passes up no chance to tout his promise to reintroduce the program to subsidize energy-efficient home renovations, another obvious pitch to those target voters. Although he predictably calls for raising the tax on big corporations, he plays against the NDP stereotype by also touting a tax cut for small businesses, arguing they're more likely to use the savings to hire more employees.
But the main thrust of the NDP campaign isn't policy, it's Layton's persona. Lavigne pointed to a raft of pre-campaign polls that pegged Layton's approval rating better than Harper's and far higher than Ignatieff's. In fact, the comparison with Ignatieff's standing is more important to the NDP. They viewed Conservative support as firm, while Liberal backing was soft. To reach those winnable Liberal-leaning voters, they would need to attack Ignatieff, whose image had already taken a beating from relentless Tory attack ads. Lavigne said launching an assault on Stéphane Dion, the Liberal leader in 2008, was problematic, since the NDP base was sympathetic toward him. That isn't the case with Ignatieff. "The door is now open for us to go after Mr. Ignatieff," Lavigne said. "Nothing is holding us back on that front."
Before the campaign, however, Layton was reluctant to acknowledge that plan, asserting in an interview with Maclean's that he would make Harper and Conservative policy his only targets. That soon proved to be disingenuous. In the pivotal English-language leaders' debate, Layton rounded on Ignatieff for arguably the most stinging exchange of the night, slamming the Liberal leader for failing to attend more than 70 per cent of votes in the House. "You know," Layton said, "most Canadians, if they don't show up for work, they don't get a promotion." Incredibly, Ignatieff failed to fire back that he had spent a great deal of time on the road holding town-hall type events. So much for advance predictions that the debate dynamic would feature mainly the opposition leaders ganging up on Harper.
As Layton entered the stretch run in an improbably strong position, he was bound to become the target of partisan assaults and the subject of media scrutiny. Ignatieff adopted a tone of derision, suggesting Layton lacks realism. He cited the NDP's call for pulling Canadian troops entirely out of Afghanistan this summer, instead of leaving some to work on training Afghan forces, as naive. "Come on, folks, let's be serious," Ignatieff said in Vancouver. "We've got to choose a government on May 2. We can't choose a bunch of Boy Scouts on this issue." Ignatieff also unleashed two of his most prominent MPs, Rae, the former NDP premier of Ontario, and Ujjal Dosanjh, the former NDP premier of B.C., to issue a special plea for straying left-of-centre voters to return to the fold.
Layton's platform, which went largely uncriticized for the first month of the campaign, was suddenly getting a much closer reading. To pay for nearly $9 billion in new spending this year, the NDP proposes to collect an extra $5.9 billion by boosting the corporate tax rate. An eye-popping $3.6 billion more is supposed to come from selling carbon credits as part of an ambitious cap and trade system for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Pressed on whether that money is likely to flow in so fast, Layton admitted "it would be tough," although he said it was possible with "real determination."
On the $1 billion in new revenue this year his platform projects will come from a crackdown on offshore tax avoidance--a windfall the NDP says will climb to $3.2 billion in four years--Layton suggested the Canada Revenue Agency might not be trying very hard to catch those tax cheats. "Well, you're dealing with the rich and powerful, and maybe that's an issue," he said. "That's not an issue for me." A senior Liberal said more questions about NDP costing will be raised in the campaign's final days, as Ignatieff strives to position himself as offering NDP-style compassion, but with more fiscal discipline.
Beyond how he'd pay for his promises, Layton's positions on Quebec were also raising eyebrows. He says he's for finding a way for Quebec to sign the Constitution, but suggests incremental steps, not a plunge back into Mulroney-style constitutional negotiations. He calls for amending the Canada Labour Code, which applies to federally regulated sectors like interprovincial transportation, banking and telecommunications, to guarantee the right to work in French in those industries. But Layton denied that would mean Ottawa effectively legislating against the use of English. "That's not what it's about," he said, describing the proposed law's aim as "ensuring the rights of a French-speaking person to be able to work in that language."
To hear Layton on the defensive is almost as novel as it is to see him riding such a powerful updraft in the polls. He built the machine and formulated the strategy to get his NDP airborne without his adversaries so much as casting a worried glance his way. Seven years of steady election gains, stable party management, unchallenged leadership and stellar personal approval ratings--all but unacknowledged. But those days are over. Layton is where he's longed to be--in the thick of things--and now he'll have to show that he can stay there.
Maclean's May 9, 2011