Jack Layton was the left's great hope. The great hope is gone and the timing for the country's social democrats could hardly be worse.
For a country channelling swiftly in a Conservative direction, Mr. Layton's was the one big voice on the other side that was heard, that was respected, that had the potential of slowing and maybe even reversing the tide.
Jack Layton was the little guy's politician, a rock-hard champion of the underdog and social justice. He was to the New Democratic Party what Jean Chrétien, particularly in his earlier incarnation, was to the Liberal Party. The departure of Mr. Chrétien left the Liberals without an anchor, and the passing of Mr. Layton could well do the same to the NDP.
As pollsters have analyzed, the New Democrats' surge in the last election did not come as result of any big repositioning of the party along policy lines. Policies had not changed much since the 1990s, when the New Democrats fell to 8 per cent. The rise was attributable to the Layton persona. The party was the house that Jack built. While it had unwelcome features, he had made it comfortable enough for more and more Canadians to reside in.
Like that other little guy, Canadians saw Jack Layton as firing straight from the heart. He was the leader they wanted to have a beer with. He was the guy with no frills and no artifice that they had come to trust. He was the type of politician who could write – and did write – an entire book on the subject of homelessness. His views were heartfelt. I recall in an interview when he moved off the subject of economics to talk about the history of abuse suffered by native students at residential schools. He went on and on. He was so pleased that the Harper government, in a moving ceremony, had issued a formal apology on behalf of the country.
Like Mr. Chrétien, Mr. Layton was a scrapper who would let you know how he felt. Once I was seated next to him at an Ottawa gala. I had written something he didn't like. He didn't say a word to me the entire night.
Politics is so short on integrity, and what made Mr. Layton admirable was that very quality. He was not seen as trying to manipulate the voter. His beliefs were constant and he fought relentlessly for them and it is these types of political leaders, rocks in the shifting sands, who eventually find pride of place in the public consciousness.
He came to the NDP leadership in 2003 with no federal political experience. His entry as leader paralleled Stephen Harper's taking over the conservative forces and, like Mr. Harper, he rebuilt his party's organizational, fundraising and policy arms. He made the party more national and, of course, made the dramatic breakthrough in Quebec in the last campaign.
He was a leader who had honed his debating skills to the point where he could out-duel most anyone in the Commons. The pinpoint precision of his oratory was on display in the televised leadership debates where he punishingly took down Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff.
For the NDP leadership there is no heir apparent. The Quebec MP Thomas Mulcair is greatly talented, but his emotional volatility worries many. Interim leader Nycole Turmel is green and saddled with controversial background ties to separatists. Ottawa MP Paul Dewar is seasoned, but does he have the gravitas?
Jack Layton was at a highpoint when he passed away. It is not too much of a stretch to think that he could have grown more and made it to the prime minister's seat one day. But with him gone, with the Liberals without a road map, the political spectrum has rarely looked more one-sided. The left now faces the possibility, if not probability, of years in the wilderness.