Jack Layton laughs a lot for a socialist. And maybe that's the problem.
His good humour does make it easy to understand how the NDP leader might have found himself in a pair of photos posted gleefully to the Internet by a Conservative blogger in June. Both pictures show Layton mugging with two of the young, yellow-clad disciples of Stephen Harper dispatched around downtown Ottawa to denigrate Stéphane Dion's carbon tax. In one, Layton, his jacket flung over his shoulder, strikes a serious face and, while the Conservatives smile gleefully, aims his right index finger at the caricature of Dion printed on their garish shirts. "I have got thousands of photos of people who have come up to me and said, 'Jack, can we take our picture with you,' " Layton explains, laughing. "I don't say no."
Maybe so. For those who fear as much, here surely was proof that in his dogged pursuit of power, Layton had lost sight of his party's principles. "I was publicly critical of the language the Prime Minister was using because I actually welcomed the debate about the pricing of carbon," Layton clarifies, now serious. "I do not associate myself with the Harper attack on the pricing of carbon." (Still, the NDP prefers a cap-and-trade model, a system with the unfortunate luck - at least for Layton - of being loosely endorsed by John Baird.)
Whatever the symbolic value of those photos, there is still something real about the predicament in which Layton finds himself on the eve of a likely fall election - made to oppose parties and policies on both the left and right without seeming centrist or, worse, a vote-splitting asset to a future Conservative majority. All of which would be moot if, as implicitly argued by some, Layton would just abandon the one thing he is clearly supposed to do. "There are some people who think that if you win seats, you must've done something wrong," he says. "You must have betrayed some principle. The most principled person wouldn't win any seats. Well, I'm not that kind of leader."
His leadership is presently the subject of some debate. With the Regina Manifesto, the founding document of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (which begat the NDP), celebrating its 75th anniversary in July, this has been a summer of some consternation for the socialist side. Another excuse - not that one is generally needed - to wrestle over ownership of Tommy Douglas's ghost.
In July, This Magazine, that bastion of leftist thought, put Layton on its cover in a mocked up mug shot, figuratively charged with crimes against the cause. "I believe the party has fallen on bad times," wrote socialist-in-exile James Laxer, calling for a return to the scrappy, anti-capitalist ideals of the "movement." His lament was bolstered by quotes from the likes of writer Linda McQuaig and historian Michael Bliss, each similarly pessimistic about the NDP's future, but perhaps most cutting were the comments of This editor Jessica Johnston. "While many of us vote New Democrat," she wrote, "fewer and fewer feel excited about doing so."
In his own essay on the anniversary of the Regina Manifesto, author and activist Gerald Caplan echoed Laxer's call for a more principled party. In an editorial, the Toronto Star scorned the NDP's Liberal blood lust, blaming it for the stifling of progressive initiatives. Lynn McDonald, an NDP MP from 1982-1988, used the Star's pages to salute the Dion carbon tax and curse Layton's opposition to it. "The NDP has historically been a leader in advocating social justice, but not now," she wrote. And when former NDP MP Reid Scott re-emerged last week to endorse Dion, he bitingly dismissed Layton as "no Tommy Douglas."
This latest blush of angst may have something to do with the fact that here, in the less-theoretical realm of political reality, the NDP's rise appears to have stalled. Or at least quieted. The summer news cycle has been dominated by Dion's Green Shift and the Prime Minister's furious opposition to same, leaving little newsprint or TV time for the NDP ("No different than any other time in our history," Layton chuckles). The Green party, though still an unknown quantity, continues to poll just high enough to be noticed ("I'm kind of jealous of their name," Layton jokes). And in between, the NDP has slipped slightly from the 17.5 per cent share of support it achieved in the last election. (Even tangentially this has been an awkward summer for the NDP leader. In July, Barenaked Ladies' singer Steven Page, perhaps Layton's most prominent celebrity supporter, was busted on drug-related charges.)
The debate of principles and power and whether the two are mutually exclusive is one New Democrats have always wrestled with. Layton has always explicitly sought power, and with some electoral success at that. In 2004, he led the party back over two million votes, then to 29 seats and 2.6 million votes in 2006. This made him something of a hero. Apparently until he became a traitor. "Sadly," Laxer almost wept in This, "the NDP has evolved into a party much like the others."
Layton does not struggle to respond. "The complaint about us focusing on winning seats, I thought that was the purpose. And I have no doubt in my mind that Tommy Douglas thought that that was the purpose," he says. "Tommy rejected that dichotomy totally and explicitly. Because he talked about pragmatic principles. He said, what's the point of advocating health care for everybody if you can never make it happen. In fact, that was his magic touch."
And with Douglas long gone, Layton has gone about the business of finding electable politicians. "For me," he says, "what's been exciting has been the quality of the candidates that are making the decision to come to us." More than a year ago, Layton recruited Thomas Mulcair, a former minister in Jean Charest's Quebec Liberal government and, since Mulcair's by-election victory in Outremont, the "star candidate" has become central to the Layton agenda. Françoise Boivin, a former Liberal MP, will run for the NDP in Gatineau. Ray Martin, former leader of the Alberta NDP, will seek office in Edmonton East. Academic Michael Byers will attempt to unseat Liberal Hedy Fry in Vancouver Centre. In September's by-elections, the NDP has put forward author and broadcaster Tom King (Guelph) and CBC Radio host Anne Lagacé Dowson (Westmount-Ville-Marie).
All will run for a party that believes, despite anecdotal evidence, it is well-positioned to make gains in a federal election. On issues such as manufacturing-job losses, health care and the environment, the NDP now feels it has been blessed with equally ineffective Conservative and Liberal governments and a subsequent desire for change. And in Layton, it thinks it has the most credible alternative to Stephen Harper. "When the public says, 'I don't want Harper,' the next guy they think of is Jack Layton," says party strategist Brian Topp. "The last time we had that opportunity was under Ed Broadbent."
Not that the inner struggles of the third party can ever be more than barely concealed. No sooner had Byers been tapped as an NDP candidate, for instance, than he mused openly of rebranding the party - dropping the word "new" entirely and aligning the party with the U.S. Democrats and Barack Obama.
"Retracing your steps is good if you like reading history, but we have to move forward," says Peter Stoffer, perhaps the most conservative member of Layton's caucus and once himself an advocate of name change. "If people want to be sort of like the protesters, like the Judy Rebicks and the Buzz Hargroves of the world, if that's the direction you want to go in, then I wish you a good trip ... A lot of these people that make these comments have never knocked on a door in their life."
In that there is perhaps a rallying cry for Layton's NDP - a party that opposes the war in Afghanistan, but has also lately pursued the lowering of ATM fees and other small, but nakedly populist ideas. This summer, for instance, while Dion has pushed economic revolution, Layton has quietly stopped in a dozen cities promising new money for public transit. "I think what went right for the federal NDP is that it has come through two minority Parliaments in which it's had to think very seriously from the perspective that the things we do are actually going to affect the outcome," Topp says. "It's a much more ready and thoughtful caucus and party that has thought a lot more deeply about federal governance issues."
When Layton won leadership of the party, this seemed to be the approximate point. In the former Toronto city councillor, the NDP had a skilled, obvious politician, someone who would not seem out of place when set against the other contenders for high office. And it is perhaps difficult to begrudge Layton if that is now considered his primary fault. If in being exactly what the NDP needed, he's somehow betrayed what the NDP was supposed to be. "We can do a lot more given the opportunity to govern," he says, apparently not kidding. "And I find more and more Canadians don't find that to be an idea beyond the realm of possibility or desirability."
Maclean's September 8, 2008