Jack Layton and the Rise of the NDP

By: Brad St. Croix

Jack Layton accomplished many things in his life, from sitting on the Toronto city council, earning his Ph. D., to working in a hospital on a CBC show I watched a few weeks ago.   But one of his most momentous accomplishments occurred only a few short months ago.  I was not a full supporter of Jack Layton’s politics, or those of his party, during this tenure in the House of Commons. Nevertheless I respected him and his passion for politics. All Canadians can admire what he was able to accomplish in his career. His life was simply to complex to be covered by me, or anyone really, but I will provide a few personal insights, and raise some questions, on his greatest political achievement: raising the New Democratic Party to official opposition status for the first time in their party’s history in 2011.

On May 2, 2011 Canadians went to the polls for the 41st time in our nation’s history and the results were slightly different than many expected. The victory by the Conservatives was no shock but what happened to the other parties was. Not only had the Liberals fallen from Official Opposition status but the separatist Bloc Quebecois had reduced to four seats in Parliament. This was because of the work, and more importantly the charisma, of Jack Layton. He helped usher in major changes in Canadian politics with the NDP at the forefront.

One element that is often overlooked in this process was the almost complete political destruction of the Bloc Quebecois. The election of NDP candidates in Quebec demonstrated the declining support for separatism in that province. Judging by those they elected, the people of Quebec wanted different political representatives who were focused on more than leaving the country. They rejected the homegrown protest party. Layton was important in this change not because he was born in Montreal, but because the NDP offered something different. Layton’s rhetoric of electing a different party worked in Quebec and as a result he should be remembered for the role he played in bringing a down a political party that actively sought to undo Canadian confederation. The seats gained in Quebec are the tangible reason why the Layton became the Leader of the Official Opposition but the man himself was the indefinable reason for this major change in all of Canadian politics.

His charisma is the reason why the members of the NDP were able to change Canadian politics. The outpouring of support for Layton’s family from across the country after his death shows how popular he was among Canadians. This support not only came from politicians, whose support in times of crisis can be a bit scripted, but from average Canadians. Media outlets from Facebook and Twitter to more traditional television interviews showed that many deeply cared about Layton. In May 2011 this support resulted in a change in the Canadian political landscape. He was presented himself as a man of the people and the public reciprocated.

In 2004, Layton’s first election as party leader, the NDP claimed only nineteen seats.  In 2011, in contrast, they won one hundred three seats and took the status of official opposition. This was in no small part due to the leadership of Layton and his ability to communicate his message to the people. He helped turn the NDP from a party on the margins to a legitimate force in Canadian politics.

The only thing that remains unseen is how the NDP will fare without him. His personal style was one of the most important reasons for the rise of the NDP, so the question must be asked: can they maintain the momentum without him? Will the next leader be able to capture the same attention? The next election will answer these questions. Aside from the political questions, Jack Layton’s death is loss not only for his family and his party, but also for the Canadian people. We have lost one of the most charismatic political leaders of our time and only time will tell how and if his party can recover from this loss.

More info:

Layton’s last letter to his party, supporters and to the Canadian people. Read it here: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/story/2011/08/22/pol-layton-last-letter.html

Post-election, Canadians react: http://news.nationalpost.com/2011/05/03/layton-takes-historic-second-place-finish-to-official-opposition-status/

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