Jack Layton is NDP's heart

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
Sun Media, Friday, July 29, 2011

Bobby Kennedy used to say “you make your own luck” in politics, while his brother, John F. Kennedy, often said “life is unfair.”

Jack Layton would have a pertinent and poignant appreciation of both famous quotations from the Kennedy brothers, who were role models to his generation growing up in the 1960s.

Layton made his own luck in the spring election of 2011, simply by presenting himself as the candidate of hope and change.

His positive message track, “Ottawa is broke and we’re going to fix it,” was perfectly aligned with the images of Smilin’ Jack. In truth, he was playing through the pain, but that only enhanced the narrative of the gallant campaign.

While the Orange Wave in Quebec swept the NDP to 59 seats where they’d held only one, and left the Bloc in ruins with only four seats, it must be said that Layton and his team created the conditions of their success — a party that was sympathetic to Quebecers and a leader who understood them.

Never more than when he donned a Habs jersey during the playoffs, reminding voters there the Canadiens were his team, and Montreal his hometown, in spite of having spent his entire adult life in Toronto.

It was the precise moment that he was adopted as a favourite son, a powerful advantage in the federal politics of Quebec. You can look it up under Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Lucien Bouchard.

Layton was primarily responsible for the historic realignment of May 2, which carried the NDP to Official Opposition for the first time ever, marginalized the Liberals as the third party in the House, put the Bloc out of business, and gave Stephen Harper a majority.

The NDP got to 103 seats because of the 59 they won in Quebec, but the 44 they won in the rest of Canada was also one more than they had won under Ed Broadbent in their previous best showing in 1988.

The Liberals, who had ruthlessly played the strategic voting card in the past, were victims of it in Ontario, as left-leaning Liberals went to the NDP to prevent Harper from getting a majority, while Blue Grits voted Conservative to assure him of one. All because of what they saw happening in Quebec. A reverse echo effect.

The magnitude of Layton’s achievement in the election cannot be overstated, nor can the challenges that lay ahead in positioning the NDP not just as the official opposition, but as a government-in-waiting.

In fact, the NDP — for all their freshman MPs — escaped from the first short session of the new House unscathed.

The real challenge of being taken seriously as the alternative to the Tories still lies ahead.

No one knows that better than Layton. No one relishes the prospect more.

Yet less than three months after his historic breakthrough, at the peak of his popularity and success, Layton has stepped aside temporarily to focus on fighting cancer again.

His frail appearance, and his reedy voice, told Canadians all they needed to know about his personal challenges.

Even sitting under the TV lights, and reading his statement, was clearly an ordeal for him. Yet even then he managed to stay on message, speaking of “hope and optimism.”

He will need all of both in the days ahead. Life is, indeed, unfair.

 
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