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NDP leadership race effectively starts now

Public rects as they watch the state funeral of former NDP leader Jack Layton on screens placed outside of Roy Thomson Hall on King St., Toronto August 27, 2011.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

After a week of public mourning and a national outpouring of emotional support, the New Democrats move behind closed doors to prepare for a mettle-testing first parliamentary session without Jack Layton, and to set the terms for a leadership race.

There is little time to waste, with MPs returning to the House of Commons on Sept. 19 and the party looking to prove that its unprecedented showing in the spring was reflective of genuine national support and confidence in its ability to forge a viable alternative to the Conservatives.

Also, in the letter that the late Mr. Layton penned in his final days, he urged the party to choose a permanent leader as early as possible in 2012. As one veteran NDP MP said Sunday, that means the contest to succeed Mr. Layton unofficially starts this week.

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On Monday morning, more than 100 staffers move into interim Opposition Leader Nycole Turmel's official workplace, so the first order of business will be ensuring phones and computers are up and running, principal secretary Brad Lavigne told the Globe.

NDP legislators will put the final touches on their strategy for the fall session at a three-day caucus meeting Sept. 13-15 in Quebec City, Mr. Lavigne said. And in the next two weeks, the party's federal council will set the timing and parameters for choosing a permanent leader.

MPs and aides know they have their work cut out for them and they can't let their heavy hearts slow them down, said Mr. Lavigne, who, along with Mr. Layton's chief of staff, Anne McGrath, will remain in his post under Ms. Turmel's interim leadership.

"We have to roll up our sleeves now and get back to work, and that's exactly what Jack would want," Mr. Lavigne said. "Seeing the outpouring of affection by Canadians from across the country has really galvanized the caucus. There's a renewed sense of unity and purpose that is going to make this Opposition a formidable one."

Winnipeg MP Pat Martin said discipline will be "the operative word" for the NDP caucus this fall, and that the Harper government should not assume the party will be weak or demoralized in the wake of Mr. Layton's passing.

"We used to be able to pick and choose what issues we wanted to comment on and to deal with, and now as the Official Opposition we have to respond to everything, we have to respond to it first, and in a credible and respectable way," said Mr. Martin, one of the party's more outspoken MPs since he was first elected in 1997. "... And we left that funeral pumped and inspired, because we know that the Canadian public is behind us."

Whether the overwhelmingly positive vibes of the past week translate into broader support for the NDP remains to be seen. But provincial elections in Manitoba and Saskatchewan this fall will test the party's ability to harness some of that support and translate it into more electoral success.

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As for finding a new federal leader, two names that have already been bandied about are Thomas Mulcair, the NDP's Quebec lieutenant credited with creating a beachhead in that province when he won a Montreal by-election in 2007, and party president Brian Topp.

"The leadership race effectively begins Monday morning, I would say," Mr. Martin said. "It won't be a divisive race, it will be a uniting experience and respectful experience," Mr. Martin said. "That's the tone Jack has set; he's raised the bar for civility in political discourse in this country, and the first demonstration is going to be a very interesting but respectful leadership race."

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Jeremy has covered Canadian and international economics at The Globe and Mail since late 2009. More

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