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Stephen Marche: an unflinching assessment of Jack Layton’s dubious legacy

The next NDP leader will be obligated to adopt Jack Layton’s Toronto-born brand of socialism—childlike, sentimental, and entirely ineffective

The Second Coming of LaytonJack Layton, posthumously, has more influence over Canadian left-wing politics than any living person. When Nycole Turmel, the NDP’s interim chief, announced the date for the party’s March leadership convention, she said, “We will not replace Jack Layton,” the implication being that Layton is irreplaceable. And yet, the main leadership candidates appear to be trying their hardest to prove they can replace the irreplaceable. Brian Topp, the quintessential backroom operator, recently gained prominence as a member of Layton’s inner circle and the author of How We Almost Gave the Tories the Boot: The Inside Story Behind the Coalition. (Note to file: books with the word “almost” in the title are almost never worth reading.) Thomas Mulcair, the MP from Outremont, promotes himself as the creator of Layton’s strategy for taking Quebec, and therefore the most likely candidate to maintain that legacy-defining victory. Peggy Nash, MP for Parkdale–High Park, is the candidate most similar to Layton personally: an urbanist, supported by artists like Sarah Polley, and inspiring in a safe sort of way. (She wants to make Canada a global leader in innovation. Who doesn’t?)

No matter whom the NDP delegates select to replace Layton, his memory will shape the aims of the party for the foreseeable future. So the time has come to evaluate his legacy clearly, unflinchingly. The popular narrative—certainly the party’s narrative—of his time in federal politics casts the story as an unadulterated victory. And in one sense it was: when Layton took over, the NDP held 14 seats in the House of Commons. Within a year, he had nearly doubled the party’s share of the popular vote. Seven years of steady rises culminated with the NDP winning 103 seats in 2011. The expansion of the party under Layton was much larger than anyone could have imagined.

And yet despite the marked improvement in the numbers, the left has never been in a worse state by the simplest and most meaningful gauge there is: its effect on the lives of Canadians. In hindsight, the most consequential decision in Jack Layton’s career, perhaps the most important political decision of the past decade, was when he chose to support a Conservative non-confidence motion and end Paul Martin’s minority government in 2005. It was the moment when Layton and the NDP held the most influence over the national agenda, and the Liberals at that time were well on their way to instituting affordable national daycare. That piece of legislation would have done more to help lower- and middle-class families, more to help women and the poor, more to strengthen the social fabric of the country than any other policy. The business case was outstanding: research from a host of economists and community development experts has shown that public investment in early childhood affects subsequent lifetimes of earning ability. Universal daycare would have increased national prosperity in the broadest sense of the term.

Layton, simply by letting things happen, could have helped deliver the policy that offered the single best reason to vote for a socialist government. But instead of taking a solid gain for working families, Layton concentrated on developing the NDP around his own personality. The result? Rather than functional, technocratic socialism, today we have Raffi socialism. Raffi, the ’70s children’s folk musician who fuelled a generation’s road trips with Banana­phone sing­alongs, has recently set some of the lines from Layton’s final letter to Canadians to music—which is exactly what it’s good for. “Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear” were Layton’s parting words, words that sound good but mean exactly nothing, and do nothing to provide the young children of exhausted working families with any benefit from the state.

Raffi socialism is not wrong; it’s much worse. It’s content in its impotence. Its constituent parts are feel-good, conventional, childlike ideas about how the world should work, substituting bike lanes or an empty critique of capitalism for practical policies that would actually improve the lives of Canadians. Today’s left-wing leaders, following in Layton’s footsteps, like to whine—about whether the head of the CRTC is bilingual or not, or about why we don’t have more bike lanes, or about the need for a hockey concussion registry.

Raffi socialism is downtown Toronto’s cheerfully useless contribution to national politics, born from the dysfunction of city hall. To become a councillor or mayor, you have to win a lot of votes, and then when you do, you’re only one decision maker out of 45. The OMB and the province make all the substantial decisions anyway, so it’s quite easy to praise public transit and parks without ever having to go to the trouble of finding the money to build them, and it’s equally easy to shout your respect for taxpayers and commuters while doing nothing to alleviate congestion. Rhetoric, alongside basic constituency business, is the job; the innovators of city hall invent new modes of political symbolism. As a councillor, Layton mastered Raffi socialism. Ford is inventing gridiron conservatism.

The Conservatives loved Layton; they loved his tireless impotence. No doubt Harper would like Layton’s legacy to live forever. The Conservative prime minister, elected with barely 40 per cent of the vote, faces no real Opposition caucus. Instead of national child care, we have the Universal Child Care Benefit, a hundred bucks a month for each kid, which must be a joke or an insult; either way, it manages to be hilariously infuriating every month.

The vague feel-goodery of the left has allowed the Conservative government to carry on unsupervised, free to indulge their love of all things clandestine. They used that freedom to hide the G8 funding details, to launch a misinformation campaign against the Liberal MP Irwin Cotler in which they defended outright lying as an act of freedom of speech, and to establish the ominous, contentless “Office of Religious Freedom.” Against the advice of every business and social welfare group in the country, they abandoned the mandatory long-form census—so we won’t be able to know the results of their policies. The Conservatives of the moment are the party of the closet.

After the NDP convention, there will at least be a leader to rattle the Conservatives’ closet. But 10 years ago, the NDP, even with fewer seats in the House of Commons, had more influence over national policy because it preserved a practical, progressive approach in Canadian politics—and this was at a time when the left in other English-speaking countries simply imploded or ran as fast as possible to the centre-right. While countries that espoused a rampant unchecked capitalism (the U.S.) or an unaffordable socialism (Greece) lie in social and financial ruins, the Canadian model, with its three-party system, is triumphant. The terrible irony of our situation is that, exactly at the moment when our moderate, polite politics has been justified before the world, we are abandoning moderation in favour of empty ideological rhetoric from the left and secrecy from the right.

No doubt the video tributes to Layton are already locked and loaded for the Toronto convention. Hopefully, this last burst of sentiment will assuage the needs of the kitsch left, and the NDP can stop remembering Jack Layton and start remembering whom it’s supposed to serve.