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Remembering Jack Layton's legacy: Let's continue the struggle!

On 22nd August, New Democrats woke to discover that we had lost our Party leader, Jack Layton. Now we are seeing a huge outpouring of emotion amongst party activists and the wider working class. This is because in these times of crisis and austerity, Jack Layton was seen to represent something different. He represented a path towards social justice and away from the race to the bottom. Hope and optimism were Jack’s watchwords and this is exactly what workers and youth are looking for right now. Fightback salutes the passing of a fighter who will be missed by millions.

Jack announced last year that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Supported by crutches and then by a cane, Layton showed little fatigue in leading the NDP to its historic victory in this year’s federal election. We witnessed a tectonic shift in Canadian politics as the NDP swept away the Bloc Quebecois, and decimated Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals, winning 103 seats and becoming, for the first time, the Official Opposition.

Last month, looking thin and with a hoarse voice, Layton announced that he had been diagnosed with a new type of cancer and would be temporarily stepping down as party leader. Nycole Turmel would serve as interim party leader until he could return — a return that will not happen now.

Jack Layton’s death is almost poetic in it’s tragedy. After leading the Party closer to forming government than it has ever come in its history, he now will not have the opportunity to see the historically crucial fight for power that will be unfolding in the period to come. However, as a symbol of what New Democrats can achieve, he will be enshrined in the legacy of the Party next to Tommy Douglas.

Jack Layton became politically active in the charged environment of the Quiet Revolution and the student movement of the 1960s at McGill University in Montreal. Becoming an activist with a left-wing group called the Front d’action politique (FRAP), he also studied under New Democrat professor Charles Taylor, who was instrumental in forming Layton’s leftist views. Taylor, rejecting the idea of “consensus” politics, taught that you have to take a stand for your views, writing at the time, “During the last few decades, the centre in Canadian politics has become distinctly overcrowded. The dramatic frontal opposition between ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ has been replaced by the evasive dialogue of ‘Yes’ and ‘We’ll see.’”

We wholeheartedly agree with this concept. There is no greater myth in politics than the idea that the so-called “centre” is the most representative position, that the truth must always be “somewhere in between.” The knowledge, that having an ideology is not a sin but a sign of principles, is what moved Layton towards the New Democrats and away from Trudeau’s Liberals. This became especially clear when Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act and attacked the people of Quebec during the October Crisis in 1970; only the NDP opposed this draconian action.

Moving to Toronto for his post-graduate work, Layton began his political career in his adoptive hometown as a lecturer at Ryerson University and a tireless activist. In 1982, he overcame long odds and was elected as a city councillor. He quickly became a sort of unofficial opposition leader, taking fiery stands against cuts to housing, against homelessness, and in favour of a stronger response to the AIDS crisis. In 1991, he launched an ultimately unsuccessful bid for mayor. Later in the 1990s he would run twice for the NDP in federal elections, both time without success. But it was in 2003 that he would gain national recognition.

In the 2000 federal election, the NDP was dealt a blow, receiving only 8.5% of the popular vote and being reduced to 13 seats in Parliament. Many Party faithful blamed this defeat on the right-wing drift the NDP had experienced under former leader Alexa McDonough. Discontent within the Party and amongst activists outside the party led to the creation of the New Politics Initiative (NPI) in 2001, which counted BC MPs Libby Davies and Svend Robinson amongst its members. The NPI sought to embrace the many young activists who were outside the NDP, but had become radicalized out of the anti-globalization struggles in Seattle and Quebec City. It aimed to empower the grassroots of the party. The NPI was defeated at the 2002 federal convention, but not before winning almost 40% of support amongst party delegates. In the 2003 leadership race, with the support of the NPI’s members, as well as the endorsement from former leader Ed Broadbent, Jack Layton easily defeated his primary challenger, Bill Blaikie, the chosen candidate of the Party establishment. With the exception of Davies and Robinson, Blaikie had the unanimous support of the parliamentary caucus. However, Layton swept aside all other candidates on the very first ballot, beating Blaikie by more than twice his vote. Layton was surged into the leadership with 53.5% of the vote and a mandate for change, being seen as representing the grassroots ideals of the NPI.

It would do a disservice to the man to idealize his legacy — while achieving great things, both negative and positive developments occurred during his tenure. While sitting for his portrait, Oliver Cromwell directed the artist, “Paint me as I am – warts and all!” Under his leadership, the fundamental shift to the left that the NPI had hoped for didn’t materialize. Layton, seemingly going against what his former mentor Taylor had taught, became a seeker of consensus. He attempted to steer a course in between the rank-and-file and the bureaucracy of the Party, at times leaning on one more than the other. Many times, this meant trying to paper over the divisions in the Party with talks about “unity,” but a union of opposed ideas can not be artificially maintained forever.

As soon as he became leader, Layton came under pressure by the Party establishment that sought to streamline policy down to the carefully selected and focus-group approved path — that is, the path of least resistance. At times this resulted in significant reversals in policies. In what was probably the most notable case, Layton initially opposed the Clarity Act on principle. After being viciously criticized for this by the anglo-chauvinist corporate media, he capitulated to bureaucratic pressure in 2006 and publicly reversed his position, to the chagrin of Party activists, especially those in Quebec.

However, on a positive note, Layton skilfully managed to wrench concessions from the minority Paul Martin government that saw $4.6-billion in corporate tax cuts being turned over to social programs. This was a significant gain that improved the lives of working-class people across Canada without decisively tying the NDP to the discredited Liberals.

But, the negotiations with the Liberals also gave the NDP leadership illusions that change could be achieved purely through parliamentary manoeuvres, leading to Jack Layton’s biggest mistake. In the winter of 2008, with a Harper minority government and a weakened Liberal Party led by Stéphane Dion, Layton negotiated a deal that would bring to power a Liberal-NDP coalition government to replace Harper. As Fightback wrote at the time, this would have been a massive blunder. If it had gone through, it would have saved Canadian Liberalism from collapse, and absolutely discredited the NDP in the eyes of a population seeking change. The federal NDP would have been part-and-parcel of the austerity regime that the Liberals would have implemented (the same austerity currently being reigned over us by Mr. Harper). At the time, we called for Jack Layton’s resignation to prevent a coalition from being formed. Such a development could have led to the destruction of the NDP as Canada’s labour party. As it was, it was the ouster of Stéphane Dion by the anti-coalition Michael Ignatieff as Liberal leader that, ironically, saved the NDP and Jack Layton’s leadership. Such are the dangers of seeking to “crowd the centre.”

At the 2006 federal convention in Quebec City, almost all of the convention delegates supported a strongly worded resolution calling for all Canadian troops out of Afghanistan. Jack Layton also rose to speak in support of the resolution. Unfortunately, the party bureaucracy aimed to water down the content subsequently. Despite this, the majority of working-class Canadians came to see the NDP as standing for “Troops out now,” especially in Quebec. Layton won the moniker of “Taliban Jack” for his anti-war stance from the corporate media and deserves praise for not backing down. This is a lesson to future NDP leaders not to bend to corporate pressure.

It was with little surprise that Jack consistently had higher popularity and a higher degree of “trustworthiness” than any of the other party leaders. Unlike the cold robot shell that is Stephen Harper, and Michael Ignatieff’s condescending pompousness, Jack Layton was never ill at ease talking with working-class Canadians. Furthermore, Jack showed his personal strength and energy through his vigorous campaign and even staying in Parliament while the NDP filibustered the Tories’ back-to-work legislation — all while fighting cancer.

The discrediting of Liberalism, the economic crisis, the disgust with the political status quo (especially in Quebec), and the popular leadership of Jack Layton, all combined earlier this year in what was a historically defining election. The virtual sweeping away of the Bloc Québécois and the decimation of the Liberal Party begun a new historical era for Canada and the NDP. Jack Layton rightly deserves credit in leading the NDP to its current all-time high.

Jack’s death now leaves a huge hole in the Party. In large part, this is due to the party establishment creating a near cult of personality around the Party Leader. At the time, we criticized this promotion of the individual above the party and real policies precisely due to the possibility of an absence of leadership. We understand that the NDP is much more than one person — it is a party of tens of thousands of workers and youth, with a set of ideas that answers their demands and aspirations. We must ensure that there is no new cult of personality created around the new leader and the collective actions of the party members, combined with policy, must be front-and-centre.

The party bureaucracy recently renewed its attempts to push Layton and the NDP further to the right. This came to a head at the federal convention in Vancouver, where a celebratory atmosphere gave way to a fight between the rank-and-file and the party establishment over the issue of removing “socialism” from the NDP’s constitution. The attempt to change the party’s stated principles failed, and Layton spoke to the press about the debate being merely about “labels.” However, an op-ed piece for the Globe and Mail by party president Brian Topp, written soon after the convention, disputes this claim. Topp defended the austerity measures taken by the Greek PASOK government against the Greek working-class. Is this the direction which the party leadership wants to take us, kowtowing to the needs of the bosses and bankers?

With the vision of power on the horizon, the cracks and divisions within the Party are set to become ever clearer. Federal Conservative minister James Moore made an astute observation at the convention in Vancouver. He said, “Half the party wants to be Liberals, the other half wants to be socialists.” Layton was able to keep the two wings of the party unified. With Jack’s passing, who is now going to be capable of assuming that role? In times of change and crisis, this task becomes nearly impossible. The NDP cannot go in two different directions at once. And with the prospect of coming to power in the middle of the capitalist crisis, a path must be chosen. There is no room in the “centre.”

It is a terrible tragedy that Jack Layton will not be able to enjoy the success that he helped to build for the NDP. Despite his mistakes, one thing is very clear: there were few people who battled so courageously and tenaciously for social justice than Jack Layton. We extend our deepest condolences, not just to Jack’s personal family, but to the wider NDP family and the Canadian labour movement that have been deeply shaken by this blow.

Layton wrote a touching letter in his final days of life. The most powerful piece, in our opinion, was his call to young Canadians:

“As my time in political life draws to a close I want to share with you my belief in your power to change this country and this world. There are great challenges before you, from the overwhelming nature of climate change to the unfairness of an economy that excludes so many from our collective wealth, and the changes necessary to build a more inclusive and generous Canada. I believe in you. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today. You need to be at the heart of our economy, our political life, and our plans for the present and the future.”

This should be a clarion call for young workers and students to join the NDP, to make sure it becomes the vehicle for Layton’s appeal. Free education, universal childcare, free public transit, a massive program to build social housing — these are just a few demands that would reverse the exclusion felt by young Canadians. As Layton was fond of saying, “Don’t let anybody tell you it can’t be done!”

People will sorely miss Jack Layton but the struggle continues. We shall have to go on in the fight against Harper’s austerity without him. We should all cherish Jack’s roots of activism and social justice, from his days in Montreal and Toronto City Council, and let it serve as a model for our party’s future. On this basis the conservative agenda can be defeated and the hopeful and optimistic world that Jack envisioned can be built.