Jack Layton: “We’re gonna build a new movement, right across this country”

Paul Wells remembers the deceased NDP leader

At the beginning of 2003 there were only 14 MPs in the federal New Democratic Party caucus and only two of them supported Jack Layton for the party’s leadership. Those two, Libby Davies and Svend Robinson, were not notorious for representing the party’s deeply pragmatic wing. New Democrats who actually had some experience in Ottawa and actually wanted to continue the party’s stubborn climb back from the historic beat-down it took in 1993 were much likelier to support Bill Blaikie, the hale Winnipegger who represented experience and continuity. Blaikie’s camp also included Gary Doer, one of only two NDP premiers in the country at the time.

Layton made a lot of New Democrats nervous. He came from Toronto city politics. He was friendly with Liberals and his father had been a Progressive Conservative MP, betraying the sort of heterodoxy that makes partisans of any ideological party wary. He offered a long shot at growth in big cities, at the potential cost of support in the NDP’s few remaining bastions — the prairie West and Alexa McDonough’s Nova Scotia. But by 2003 most New Democrats were willing to take that risk on Layton. “We’ve gone from 44 to 14 MPs and our values are under siege,” Layton’s campaign website said. “Something has to change.” Weary New Democrats heeded that message. Layton’s support was mostly outside the caucus, but it included two former party leaders, Ed Broadbent and Alexa McDonough. In the end the new Layton base was big enough to beat Blaikie and everyone else en route to a first-ballot victory at the Toronto leadership convention.

At first, all Layton seemed to offer was unbounded optimism in a party that too often seemed down in the dumps. “Canadians must rise up,” he told a crowd at Carleton University several days before he won the leadership. “We’re gonna build a movement, right across this country, and it’s very exciting.”

And then, the day after he won the new gig, a perceptive insight, one that would serve him for the rest of his life: “It’s whether we elect parliamentarians to bicker or build that will be the defining issue of our time. And we say, let’s build.”

So he built. He got under his opponents’ skin early. He’s the one who made such a fuss over Paul Martin’s ownership of Canada Steamship Lines that the apostate Liberal back-bencher had to sell the company to his three sons, to clear the deck for his takeover of the Liberal leadership. Soon ships would be the least of Martin’s problems, and often Liberals would still have Layton to blame. By his last campaign, it would be clear to everyone that his game wasn’t to spoil the Liberals’ game, it was to supplant them.

Layton became the most successful leader in his party’s history. No other NDP leader took the party to a greater share of seats and popular vote in every election he fought. If he had won no seats at all in Quebec on May 2 of this year he would still have won more seats, in the rest of the country, than any NDP leader ever did. But of course he was the architect and the principle motor of that extraordinary breakthrough in his home province, a sweep that was due almost entirely to his personal credibility among Quebecers, a credibility he earned through a decade’s sustained effort, culminating in a breakthrough that will define his party for a decade to come.

Today everyone will be writing and talking about his last campaign, the one he fought with a cane and a smile, as sustained a feat of physical courage and political agility as any I’ve seen in all my years covering this business. But I think it’s important to recognize that his party’s final breakthrough was no fluke. It was the product of a lifetime’s preparation and a decade’s effort, concentration and adaptation. It was the work of a man who won over his party, then his caucus colleagues, then his party’s traditional voters, then hundreds of thousands of new supporters. Jack Layton promised to build, and he was as good as his word.

One last personal note, perhaps incongruous. My editors here indulge me when I decide to write about topics as far from politics as I can get. Last autumn I took some vacation time in Warsaw and wrote about the Chopin Piano Competition. Two days after that article was published, and before it appeared online, I received an email from Layton. If I remember correctly it’s the only one he ever sent me. “Dear Paul,” it said,

Just to say how much I enjoyed your piece on the Chopin competition. My Grandmother played Chopin every morning on her piano in our home. There is no piano music I love more. I still have her Chopin music books with markings in her arthritic hand. Her playing kept her hands from seizing right up, and put both joy and tragedy into our lives through Chopin’s brilliance.

Be well and take care.


Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.