Monday, August 22, 2011

Bye Jack

Canada has had 3 major federal parties for decades now. The youngest of those is the NDP. Little more than a fringe party for most of my life (amassing 5-10% of the seats), its fortunes turned around in our last federal election.

Starting out as a big farm-supporting party, it became synonymous with union support, exorbitant spending, and general leftist policies. I supported many of their beliefs (green before green was a thing, support for the needy, and generally being decent human beings), but not their economics. Plus, their leaders were often about as endearing as a soggy piece of toast.

Then Jack Layton came along. Still an NDP idealist, he seemed to recognize that they had to play ball with politics at some level if they wanted to be more than a disproportionately loud voice in the House of Commons. He got the NDP fundraising to a level its never seen, he dragged the party to a more centrist and populist point. He took his used-car salesman look and became an endearing man of the people.

I voted for him. My justification was that I couldn't get behind the other two serious options available - a right-wing party that wasn't the progressive conservatives I had grown up with, and a centrist party that had managed to do nothing of substance over my lifetime. The NDP was never going to win, but I liked them as a conscience vote. They could have swing power in the minority governments we'd been seeing. Their policies would have to be enacted to some degree, filtered through a more economically conservative sieve. They kept the other parties more honest.

Then something unexpected happened last time. They started winning seats. Lots of seats. Way more than they'd ever seen. The supporters of the do-nothing Liberals were sick of their smarmy leader and lack of achievement, and those of the Bloc Quebecois were heading to the NDP in droves. The NDP pulled in over 100 seats, when they'd seldom seen 20 in the past. They were the official opposition to an (unfortunate) Conservative majority, behind by only 63 seats, and 9% of the vote. They had a larger voice than ever, but very little power. Regardless, it was a watershed event in Canadian politics, and there was no doubt in anybody's mind that it was all due to Jack. His "nice smile", friendly demeanour, and promises of holding our Prime Minister accountable for his actions brought the whole party's standing upwards. Candidates who were nothing more than placeholders found themselves elected despite not running any sort of real campaign. The "orange wave" swept across the country and sent a message that people wanted a change. I actually found it a little scary, and recall fearing that they could actually WIN the election while I watched the votes come in. The party had never seen these heights. And it was all thanks to their leader.

This morning he died.

Three and a half months after his party swept to their greatest victory ever, he lost his battle with cancer and passed away at home with his family by his side. A sad day in Canadian politics to be sure.

His legacy will live on. His wife Olivia Chow is also a Member of Parliament for the NDP. His son Mike is a Toronto City Councillor. But neither has the charisma of Jack.

With Jack's death the fate of the NDP is very much up in the air. Think Apple if Steve Jobs died. The party will obviously continue on, and will maintain its position as the official opposition until the next election. But without the cult of personality that surrounds its departed leader, their chances of maintaining their momentum are in doubt. If they maintain a loud, unified voice over the next 4 years, and prove they have Canada's interests ahead of their own, then they might be able to continue being a force. But if they falter, if they return to their socialist roots (and they have been unabashedly so in the past), if they once again give the idea that they'd rather tax and spend then bring realistic economics to bear, then they'll find themselves back on the fringe.

But for now, they have a voice. Here's hoping they won't waste what their leader gave them.

One more thing. At this year's Toronto Pride Parade, there was no cheer louder than the one that went up when the NDP's orange float went by. The Conservatives were nowhere to be seen, the Liberals had all the oomph that would be expected of a defeated giant and felt like little more than vague political grandstanding, but the NDP float was pumped - flags, cheers, jumping, dancing, and smiles all around. Led by this guy:


Bye Jack.

1 comment:

Memphis MOJO said...

With Jack's death the fate of the NDP is very much up in the air.

It's a shame he died and a shame that the third party may become irrelevant. I wish we here in the States had a "real" third party.