The party that Jack built is bigger than any single leader

Jack Layton in Edmonton during last spring’s federal election campaign. Below: Jack Layton yesterday.

Leadership matters, so there is no question that the loss of Opposition Leader Jack Layton, even for a short time, will hurt the New Democratic Party.

Mr. Layton, who was already being treated for prostate cancer, told reporters yesterday that he has a new form of cancer and must step away from politics until September. But for most Canadians his appearance was a profound shock. This was especially so to those of us who had seen him in the flesh during last May’s federal election campaign. So speculation about his future is natural and inevitable.

It is quite proper, therefore, even at this early hour, for NDP supporters and others who believe Canada can and should aspire to being be something better than it can ever be under Conservative leadership, to admit, discuss and deal with this obvious reality. It shows no disrespect for Mr. Layton, and no less hope for his recovery, for us to do so forthrightly.

Anyway, this meme is already being replicated throughout in the national debate, especially by supporters of the moribund Liberal Party, but also by Conservatives of various stripes. Indeed, it was being repeated even before the gravity of Mr. Layton’s illness had become so obvious – as it surely it must be to any of us who gazed upon his gaunt figure today.

This self-replicating tale, which says the “Orange Wave” was driven by Mr. Layton’s personality and that alone and therefore is bound to quickly dissipate without him at the helm, is certain grow from a whisper in the comments sections of the national media, where the Tory trolls lurk, to a roar in the more respectable corners of those same publications over the next few days.

But can the loss of a single leader, even one of Mr. Layton’s stature, really change the history of our corner of the world? Not likely. Even assassination, as the 19th Century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli famously observed, “has never changed the history of the world.”

Regardless, Mr. Layton’s success was based in the fact he was more of an engineer than a charismatic leader.

He wasn’t a demagogue who made us want to rush into the streets and storm the barricades. He was a builder who created a great national coalition of social democrats, socialists, environmentalists, social activists and progressive Canadians. Like no other NDP leader before him, he created a pan-Canadian political machine that can withstand the loss of any leader.

So while there is enormous fondness in Canada for the sunny personality and optimistic outlook of “Smilin’ Jack,” his greatest success is that we can live without him if we have to. He has built among Canadians the infrastructure of hope!

The fatal weakness of charismatic leaders is that they stink when it comes to succession planning. But the federal NDP’s success in the May election was no wave built on the charisma of one person that crested overnight, but the product of years of hard work and planning. This is true in English Canada and it is true in Quebec, where the party has a deep pool of talent on which to draw and an organization that will continue to function come what may.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the NDP will have plenty of time as Opposition to rebuild its leadership if, God forbid, rebuilding should be necessary.

Nor have other circumstances changed. The Conservatives are still bumping their heads on the limits of popular support for their stunted and inward-looking philosophy. Neither have the structural factors changed that consigned the Liberals, who after all are just Conservatives who are willing to take their time, to the ash heap of history.

So here’s to Jack Layton. We hope to see him back soon, playing his proper role at 24 Sussex Drive. The rise of the NDP in 2011 could not have happened without him.

But the party that he built is bigger than any single leader. The NDP will survive and prosper, it is said here, because it has a solid foundation, and the force that drives the Orange Wave is seismic, reflecting profound historical change in our politics and in our society.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

3 Comments on "The party that Jack built is bigger than any single leader"

  1. Carlos Beca says:

    Hopefully the only natural politician of the last few years will recover and come back to continue his work which I am sure he loves. No one can do what he has done without true commitment and love for social and political issues as opposed to the puppets we see everywhere in Canada and around the world carefully prepared for television and for power. I do not agree with you as far as the future of the NDP and what has been accomplished. I truly believe that his great success in Quebec has more to do with the fact that Quebecers just like the rest of us are tired of fake politics and when they noticed Jack they knew very well what to do in face of a decrepit Party Quebecois which was just as opportunistic as possible, trying to be federalist for the money and separatist when the time is right. People know this and Canadians are still capable of detecting this more than others simple because we are still in many ways people of the land and the farms and we seem to have a better sense of the natural identity. I certainly wish Jack my best wishes because like many others I felt my pride of Canada in many of his atittudes and his dedication to service.

  2. Filostrato says:

    Jack Layton does look like a very sick man. Without knowing the type of cancer, it's hard to tell whether the disease or the treatment for it is the cause of his gauntness. Most cancer chemo- and radiotherapy is still in the "using a sledgehammer to kill an ant" stage. (Disclosure statement. In one of my previous incarnations, workwise that is, I was a nurse. I've seen more of this than I care to remember.)

    But Jack Layton's NDP isn't a one-person party, no matter what the nattering classes on newsites and broadcasts like to say. He is the result of an enlightened movement, not the cause and, I think, a truly good guy. I wish him well, in both senses of the word.

    The Harper Cons as a stunted and inward-looking party nails it perfectly. The latest manifestation of that is the announcement, in a setting looking like an awards show, of "Canada's Most Wanted" starring that unlovely pair, Kenney and Toews. What happens when the howling mob starts turning in perfectly innocent people, I wonder?

    The daily "gotcha" announcemnts are pure political posturing. They already have the approval of people who go along with such tactics. To the rest of us, it looks like target practice.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Toss Kenny and Toews into a time machine and give them an imaginary tour or the ages. What uniforms would they be wearing if they had lived and practised their craft in another era?
    The politics of hate must be exposed for what it is. No more free passes, the bitter fruit of hate politics are too much to bear.

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