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.