Notes on the Jack Layton Phenomenon

September 4, 2011 at 8:48 pm (Uncategorized)

Britain had days of rioting and looting. The United States had a debt crisis and a solution that made everyone unhappy. Canada?  The thing that got people talking this summer was the August 22, 2011 death of New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton from cancer.

I don’t much interest in writing an evaluation of Layton’s life or his politics. My politics could be described as left-communist, while Layton’s social democracy was tepid at best. I regard the NDP as a capitalist party which is no friend of the working class. Yet, what is interesting for me is the elevation of the man in death far beyond the usual tributes heaped upon dead politicians.

Jack Layton and his wife and fellow MP Olivia Chow used to live in a co-op near where I lived in the late 1980s, but I don’t think I ever saw them. My only direct encounter was around 2007 when I was at an anti-war demonstration with my young son. Layton and Chow were walking through the crowd, when Olivia Chow saw my son and remarked “so cute.” (Well, he was) And that’s the extent of my dealings with him. I never voted for his party 

 But, as I said, what’s interesting is the reaction to his death.  

A day or two after Layton’s death, people began to write messages in chalk outside Toronto City Hall at Nathan Phillips Square.  There was a genuine outpouring of emotion expressed, and people flooded the talk radio shows with tales of Layton’s decency and attention to the small things in their lives.  Within the media, tributes rolled in (the National Post notwithstanding), and when Post Christie Blatchford did write something critical about Layton, a chorus of boos resounded.   

True, of the three federalist leaders in the last election, Layton was certainly the most charismatic. Prime Minister Stephen Harper once joked that unlike other members of his family he didn’t have enough personality to be an accountant, and Liberal leader Michael Ignatiev, despite his intellectual gifts, always came across as stiff and unfriendly. Layton on the other hand had, as Warren Kinsella put it, “likeableness.”

But was it just that Layton was the kind of guy you could sit down and have a beer with? Probably not.

Under Layton, the NDP looked more and more like a mainstream party capable of governing and less like a mainstream party only capable of whining. Despite the odd dig about the “socialists” made during the last election, the NDP has always been committed to capitalism, and if anyone still thought the NDP and Layton were a threat to Canadian capitalism, the fact he was given a state funeral ought to have put that idea to bed. Ought to, but didn’t. The timid social-democrats of the Fightback group, the Canadian section of the International Marxist Tendency wrote a weepy obit for Layton beginning that “we had lost our party leader.” (It’s hard to think that their co-thinkers in the UK would have written something as craven if Ed Milliband had died)

With the collapse of the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois (who were allegedly the source of Layton’s massage parlour story during the last election), the NDP were the only opposition party left standing. And it is to Layton that the party owes this position. During his leadership, Layton consistently steered the party to the right, abandoning even the party’s hollow rhetoric of social democracy, supporting often explicitly the idea of coalition with their supposed class enemies, and no doubt offending the party’s peacenik elements by supporting Canada’s Libyan incursion.

Importantly though, parties of “the left” such as the NDP which do have roots in the working class are often more useful in times of crisis that traditional conservative parties.  And given that the NDP are now the opposition, and the biggest political party in Quebec, that may be more and more important. Despite the personal qualities which so many admired, that may be Layton’s true legacy.



  1. gmacmedia said,

    Come on, I know you were tempted to grow a ‘stash (for Jack, not Christy).

    • fischerzed said,

      My brain ran through a number of seemingly witty rebuttals involving Christy Blatchford and some kind of facial hair, but I decided to abandon the effort.

      I have to admit though that the moustache always troubled me; it’s so seventies porn star, and so needless to say, I could never pull it off.

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