Jack Layton received a fond public farewell from Canadians genuinely saddened by his untimely death. Now, the focus has, inevitably, begun to shift as members of his party contemplate next steps and the NDP’s opponents ponder with trepidation what the flood of public affection toward Layton might mean for them. Some NDP MPs and others in the movement are pondering a run at the leadership, an essential move now that Layton is gone. On the political right, some of the nasty people who write columns for newspapers such as the National Post, along with the more churlish of their readers, have now come out of hiding to ask what all the fuss was about anyway, to say that Layton was overrated, or to denounce Stephen Lewis for saying in Layton’s eulogy that his deathbed letter was a clarion call for social democracy.
Behind all of this flux is the reality that something extraordinary has happened. The NDP, and the CCF before it – so often the repository of hard work but dashed hopes – has been chosen by Canadian voters to be the official opposition in parliament. The party won 103 seats (59 of them Quebec) and 30.6 per cent of the popular vote on the May 2 election. The party came second in another 121 ridings and has, temporarily at least, supplanted the Liberals as the government-in-waiting.
Less than four months after that May election Jack Layton received a state funeral – it was a noble gesture by Prime Minister Harper. Members of the RCMP dressed in their ceremonial red tunics carried Layton’s casket to and from the halls of parliament. Here is the great irony. Those who have led the CCF-NDP have long been the recipients of affection and respect from individual Canadians but they and their party have been feared and loathed by the establishment.
Spying and dirty tricks
Canadian Press reporter Jim Bronskill has discovered that predecessors of those same red-coated men who carried Layton’s casket spied on CCF-NDP leader Tommy Douglas from the late 1930s until shortly before his death in 1986. They listened in on his private conversations, examined his links to the peace movement and probed his every public remark. During that time, Douglas a Baptist minister, served as premier of Saskatchewan and later as leader of the federal NDP. The RCMP (almost certainly with the knowledge of various solicitors-general) decided that Douglas was a threat to Canada, but it was he who was later chosen, posthumously, as the “greatest Canadian” by those voting in a contest sponsored by CBC TV in 2004.
In the 80 years since the CCF founding convention in Calgary, social democratic values emphasizing economic and social equality have taken root among many Canadians, but those values have remained anathema to the business, political and media elite. The party was increasingly popular in the post war 1940s, when it won power in Saskatchewan, became the official opposition in Ontario and at one point topped a national opinion poll, but then it fell back.
John Boyko writes in his book Into the Hurricane, that the growing popularity of the CCF in the 1940s prompted a Who’s Who among Canadian business to initiate a well-financed front group called Responsible Enterprise to discredit the party. There was a deliberate campaign to associate the CCF with communism, even though the party and its leaders, including J.S. Woodsworth, Tommy Douglas, David Lewis and others were committed democrats. These tactics were effective during an era dominated by the Cold War and the party fell on hard times in the 1950s. To be sure, the CCF also suffered from its own shortcomings and inconsistencies but the red-scare tactics organized by its opponents played a significant role limiting its success.
When the CCF joined with organized labour to create the New Democratic Party in 1961, Tommy Douglas (still under RCMP surveillance) became its first leader. By that time the party had shed its utopian desire to replace capitalism and had assumed the more pragmatic role of using politics to regulate and humanize the market. The constant refrain since the creation of the NDP has been that the party is the creature of a labour movement whose interests are contrary to those of most Canadians. That criticism remains incessant even today in Canadian newspapers, right wing talk radio programs and among television commentators such as Kevin O’Leary on CBC TV.
The rise of neo-conservatism, personified in leaders such as Ronald Regan, Margaret Thatcher and Brian Mulroney led to a decade or more of market triumphalism, in which any contrary ideas were treated with contempt. The Globe and Mail newspaper was prepared to name Ed Broadbent as its Nation Builder of the Year in 2005, and Stephen Lewis was in the running for the same award in 2008 – yet the newspaper would never have considered supporting their party. The NDP was seen as antiquated and irrelevant. It was accepted, at times, as the conscience of the nation, nice people to have around, but never to be trusted with power.
But a string of recessions, the bursting of the dot com bubble in 1999 and 2000, not to mention the most recent financial meltdown that began in late 2008, have shaken Canadians’ confidence in business and politics as usual. Jobs have disappeared, salaries have stagnated and pensions have evaporated. People appear to be open to some alternatives.
Jack Layton arrived in federal politics in 2003 after Alexa McDonough had brought the NDP back to party status. Layton, who had long experience in Toronto civic politics, had superb organizational, strategic and inter-personal skills. He refused to write off Quebec as some previous NDP leaders had been forced to do and his persistence paid off in the May 2 election. And yes, he showed remarkable courage and stamina in the face of a daunting illness during and after the 2011 election. People who a year earlier had been calling him Taliban Jack and a publicity hound were forced to consider how he had become a politician for the ages.
Many in the media point to difficulties ahead for the NDP in maintaining discipline and focus in a new caucus with (for the first time) more than half of its members from Quebec – without their charismatic leader. That is one way of seeing it. But after decades in the wilderness, this is the greatest opportunity that social democrats have ever had in Canada. We’ll see what they can make of it.