Jack Layton’s legacy to the NDP

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.

Nation builders

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.

Layton’s legacy

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.

14 thoughts on “Jack Layton’s legacy to the NDP

  1. Perfect contextualization of the national (and international), brief but powerful, Layton period. A jump start for all that is yet to come.
    Thanks Dennis!


  2. I agree with the history points. What must be faced is that if the NDP wants to govern, some clear realities require some basic changes in the NDP.

    One reality is values about people. Since the late 1960’s, the groups that became and are the NDP dropped many core values that endeared Tommy Douglas and others of his era to the public. Support dropped at that time, but the NDP did not respond to the change.

    Consider a couple of examples among many. What was the impact of changing from the CCF idea that society should ensure that everyone who makes efforts should have a chance to do well, to the NDP idea that outcomes must be equal and the person is irrelevant. Another one – compare the CCF idea that below deputy minister the civil service should be lean and filled with unaligned competent people, to the NDP’s stuffing of the civil service with hacks in the Blakeney/ Romanow era in Saskatchewan. Compare Douglas’ commitment to economic stability to the disastrous Rae years in Ontario. All basic stuff that fueled the CCF and that the NDP has lost.

    Another reality is rhetoric. You lose votes when out of the blue your members label people who question anything (eg taxes) as sexist, racist, homophobes. You lose votes when Stephen Lewis turns a funeral (recognizing Layton’s beliefs) into a party rally (getting crowd support for specific things). Instead, support freedom of thought and stop treating people badly because they do not agree with the NDP.

    Another reality is that persistent support for secular humanism as the state religion makes the NDP largely irrelevant to everyone else. As recently as 5 years ago, people of faith were said to be a third of the population (25% attend regularly, that was 20% 10 years ago). 80% of the population prays.

    There are difficult choices ahead. The NDP got Quebec because the Liberals failed and the Conservatives were insensitive. A resurgence of the Liberals might not happen tomorrow, but where would the NDP be if the Conservatives start to fund festivals?

    The NDP must answer a basic question. Does the NDP want to govern for everyone? Or does the NDP want to continue as an in group club using rhetoric against everyone else and trying to hurt the careers of everyone who is not on side with absolutely everything?

    Dennis replies: Thanks for your comments Lois. I don ‘t agree with some of them but so it goes. As one who wrote a biography of Allan Blakeney, and who was a journalist in Saskatchewan during the Devine years, I would suggest that the Blakeney civil service was far superior and contained far fewer hacks (to use your description) than the Devine administration. I do agree with you that people in politics should not launch personal attacks on those who disagree with them — federal cabinet ministers calling Jack Layton a dupe of the Taliban comes to mind. There is no excuse for personal attacks, from either side of the political aisle. Thanks again.


  3. Excellent summary. I think a new Jack Layton, the symbolic charismatic Layton now embodied in the rallying cry “Jack!”, has been created by the events and attention surrounding his death, and I think this can be of pivotal importance to the future of the NDP. They now have media attention, a large public that is favorably disposed to them for the first time, and a media-intensive leadership event to come soon. How all of this is properly leveraged will be crucial.


  4. Thank you for your willingness to agree to disagree about the NDP governments of the 1970’s and 1990’s. I and many others would like to see changes in civility in Ottawa, but that was not my comment.

    I’m concerned that some aspects of NDP culture will corrode Canada. The idea that people either agree with the NDP or get dissed is not helpful. Maybe now is the time for culture shifts, when the NDP are positioning to be able to govern. You seem well connected, PLEASE DO SOMETHING.

    The culture to put down, pillory, undermine and name call non-political people in ordinary life undermines society. Some NDPers make sure that being non political is tough. Calling a friend’s spouse or your new father in law a sexist racist homophobe because the person wants lower taxes is corrosive. That’s rhetoric because data is not in evidence and people who don’t know each other use the same words.

    Over 15 years I’ve experienced Alberta Conservative culture apparently based on the ideas that enemies are not good for business and let things be. They don’t worry about other people’s thoughts and don’t super analyze words. Their Achilles heel is that they blunder into offensive comments unknowingly. Being non political is easy.

    Maybe we need a new party, the CCF goals and values, the Conservative culture of individual freedom of thought and openness to new ideas. More or less the CCF, modernized. Let those connected to cause caucuses become Liberals. That new entity would be worth working for.


  5. Layton’s death was a tragic loss for Canadian politics. But something vital in the NDP died before Jack Layton ever came on the scene.

    It should be obvious that the NDP’s rather new-found mission of ‘humanizing the marketplace’ is a far cry from the life-affirming vision articulated by the CCF when it was founded. This new vision of putting band-aids on the worst excesses of the marketplace, worthy as it may be in a nation that exalts greed and avarice while shunning justice, is hardly a democratic socialist or social democratic vision of the new Jerusalem.

    Rather, the renunciation of its heritage in favor of the pursuit of power so evident in recent years makes the NDP much more like the famous, but now endangered, species known as the ‘Red Tory’ or somewhat akin to what might be termed ‘conscientious (small-l) liberalism,’ if such a term is not self-contradictory.

    This shift in emphasis for a party which once put principle above pragmatism may be viewed as the normal, evolutionary growth pattern of a political movement or, more pessimistically, the death of a dream. For Canada, it means all the federal parties (with the exception of the Bloc for obvious reasons) are now harmoniously thinking ‘within the box’ of globalized, predatory capitalism, rather than presenting any real alternatives to the status quo, which was termed by one recent spiritual leader a “culture of death.”

    If the NDP’s mission today is to make the marketplace a little more human, it will probably succeed. But it will be a hollow victory because so long as the ‘status quo’ prevails, with minor ‘humanizing’ adjustments of course, we will be a society whose source of wealth is the exploitation of the poor at home and abroad and whose values, whatever we may profess with our lips, are the profit-driven of a culture of death.

    Such a role for the NDP is tragic because it represents, however one might try to gussy it up, a repudiation of the vision of the party that once was serious about challenging the status quo and proclaiming justice. Where there is no vision, the people perish.

    Dennis replies: Thanks for your comment Dallas. It’s good to hear from you. I would be interested to know a bit more about the spiritual leader who talked about the “culture of death”. Who is that person and in what context did he or she make the comment?  Might you have a link or reference to share with us?


  6. Hi Dennis: You asked for sources about the phrase “Culture of Death”

    The source for the famous statement is well-known and easy to find using any decent search engine like Google. I’ll give you three quotations (to provide some context) from the ‘spiritual leader,’ and the source documents for each so that people can delve into it at their leisure. The ‘culture of death’ is in the third quotation.

    1. “One must denounce the economic, financial, and social mechanisms and structures that are manipulated by the rich and powerful for their own benefit at the expense of the poor.”
    John Paul II 1987 Solicitudo Rei Socialis/On Social Concern (1987)

    2. “It is right to struggle against an unjust economic system that does not uphold the priority of the human being over capital and land.”
    John Paul II Centesimus Annus/The Hundredth Year (1991)

    3. “We are confronted by an even larger reality …characterized by the emergence of a culture which denies solidarity and in many cases takes the form of a veritable ‘culture of death.’ This culture is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents… it is possible to speak in a certain sense of a war of the powerful against the weak.”
    Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae/Gospel of Life (1995)

    By the way, I always enjoy reading your analysis of events …

    Dennis replies: Thanks Dallas. Hope you are enjoying Labour Day.


  7. “Some NDPers make sure that being non political is tough.”

    While not an NDPer myself, I wonder if Ms. Epp, perhaps, means that some NDPers make it tough to be non-partisan, rather than non-politial.

    It is impossible, afterall, to be non-political in the sense that everything we choose do, or choose not to do, has political consequences. Declaring oneself non-political is just another (irresponsible) political choice. For example, today the status quo in Canada includes a system of taxation that favors the well-off and is grossly unfair to the poor. As well, the tax system favors corporations and punishes individuals.

    One cannot, even theoretically, be non political about this. Being non political simply means supporting the status quo, and supporting the status quo simply means favoring the strong and well-off over the weak and poor.

    One can, however, be non-partisan about such things and support what might be broadly termed ‘social justice initiatives'(including fair taxation) regardless of which party proposes them. Similarly, one can oppose war, racism, and poverty without being partisan about it.

    When I lived and worked in Alberta, the only individualism I could see in Conservative policy was the individualism that allows the stronger one to exploit the weaker one.

    About Alberta, Ms. Epp observes “They don’t worry about other people’s thoughts and don’t super analyze words. Their Achilles heel is that they blunder into offensive comments unknowingly. Being non political is easy.” In simpler terms, their Achilles heel is willful ignorance, and being non-political in Alberta today means supporting a status quo that exalts greed and the rampant destruction of the environment for so that oil and gas companies can make a fast back.

    Far too many people say they are non-political when the condition they are describing would be better termed ‘willfull blindness.’ The scandalous gap between rich and poor in Canada, North America, and the world today means there is no such thing as a non-political life. One either works for justice or one does not. There is no middle ground.


  8. Thank you Dennis for the history and the discussion. I believe that Jack Layton’s very great contribution to democracy was to get a few people in Quebec elected who were not connected to any party machine, other than having their name on NDP ballet. I had hoped that they would be willing to struggle, LOUDLY, for peace and justice in parliament because of this.


  9. Thanks, Dennis. Excellent blend of the sad event’s aftermath with historical context. Let’s hope the NDP – so much more than just nice guys to have around – can build on the party that Jack made and the opportunity he has bequeathed.


  10. Dennis, I live in Alberta and want to comment on how Jack Layton’s vision of hope inspired many Albertans to vote in much larger numbers that they voted in the previous Alberta Provincial Election. The young, aboriginal people, the dispossessed and homeless voted in larger numbers because of hope. Those without had hope Jack Layton would change the political structure to put them in the room with everyone else.

    I spent the first 21 years of my life in Saskatchewan. I was attracted to the CCF policy of Humanity First and People before Profit. I am now 62 years old and live in Alberta, where one commentator to your column implies people are not political. In a dominant one party state it is not wise to be political unless you are associated with the party in power. Being non political is like being non religious. I believe in the message of Jesus Christ, but support the rich over the poor, support exploitation of the environment and nature to the point where I endanger the beauty and survival of my own province. A good time consists of party hearty and excessive use of alcohol, but I pray to Jesus.

    How can a person of conscience be so encouraged to turn a blind eye to injustice to the less fortunate and your own environment?
    I think people of conscience exist in small numbers everywhere and in all religions and political parties. A person of conscience has to have the courage to stand for what they actually believe in, and that means actions even more than political or religious slogans.
    The message of T.C. Douglas, Al Blakeney, Jack Layton, was to reach out to people of conscience to work together for better results for everyone. The message is not to live in a super political correct world, but to stand up in deed and word for what your conscience guides you to do. People can differ in opinion and nuance, but all should be encouraged to do the best they can for social justice.

    A vibrant religion or political movement encourages people to think and reach out to others. It does not worry about who prays the best, kneels in the most proper manner, who is most pleasing to the wealthiest people in the room, it should inspire people to genuinely care for others. I think there are people in this country that try to live their conscience and they are a much varied group. Hopefully political leadership in a democracy has the decency to reach out in tangible ways to them and not with slogans and slick advertisements, but in thought, word and deed.

    Dennis replies: Thanks for your detailed and thoughtful comments.


  11. I meant non-large P Political. In the context of the subsequent comments, “being non-political is easy” would be more accurately phrased as “being non-Political is easy” or “being non-partisan is easy”.

    I think that we need to look at actions. A lack of the “right words” does not mean the lack of “right intentions”.

    A common belief in Alberta is that the best ways to help the poor are to provide more jobs and to stop spending money on what does not work. Albertans can provide strong words when officials will not admit the obvious truth that some programs do not work. Those uncontested strong words may lead people to erroneously think that Albertans do not want to help people in a difficult situations.

    For example, Calgary has the business supported homeless foundation that is providing homes first before programs and is thereby achieving the enduring thanks of pretty well everyone. (Some programs remain to help people stay housed.) The prerequisite for success was to admit that the existing programs were failing and try something else, in this case simply giving people homes, a policy with which I strongly agree.


  12. A lack of the “right words” does not mean the lack of “right intentions”.

    But, often a lack of right words means precisely a lack of right intentions. When then Alberta Premier Ralph Klien walked into a homeless shelter on Christmas and began berating the poor there and challenging them to a fight, his lack of right words was very indicative of a lack of right intention. And many Albertans (and others elsewhere) applauded this outrage!

    I have lived and worked in Alberta. I have seen the abuse there that government officials and others regularly heap on the poor. I have heard, with my own ears, cabinet ministers there say the poor, unemployed and homeless should be given bus tickets to other provinces.

    Saying some social progrgams do not work does not provide any sort of rational for attacking the poor. Nor does it provide a rationale for not trying to help the poor or, as Alberta does, tossing mere crumbs from its table to the poor Lazarus at its gate while saying it is doing its best.

    A lack of right words does not necessarily indicate a lack of right intention but, except for those learning to speak English and thus subject to grammatical gafes, in my experience in Alberta (and elsewhere) it almost always does… People do not use racial slurs by accident, and political leaders do not attack the poor by accident. Quite simply, attacking the poor gains the governing party support in Alberta…

    One current candidate for the Alberta Conservative Party leadership has compared medicare to a cabin at the lake. Some people have a cabin and some don’t, and that’s OK. Ditto for medicare! Once again, a lack of right words and a lack of right actions are marching together in Alberta as public policy.

    Alberta’s so-called policy on private health care, for example, is just another thinly-vieled attack on the less fortunate … but some people don’t have cabins either. Such a meanness of spirit cannot be explained away.

    It’s not that Alberta is necessarily worse than other provinces. But, as Canada’s richest proivnce, Alberta should be leading the way in lifting up the lowly. Instead, it tramples the poor underfoot and exalts wealth and greed. No aount of ‘aw, shucks’ we just don’t know the right words’ can cover that up reality.


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