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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.

  • junction citizen

    “[Nash] wants to make Canada a global leader in innovation. Who doesn’t?” Just so you are aware, the Harper gov’t doesn’t. They want us poor, oppressed and ready to move cross-country just to get a mcjob, and have as little interest in keeping Canada an advanced nation (viz their muzzling of our scientists and cancellation of the long-form census) as, say, the American Tea Partiers. So does it matter if the new NDP leader cares about this? I’d say, yes.

  • Andy Heap

    It’s heartwarming to read a dog in the manger Liberal trite bit of snidery, but ethics would suggest Marche esq be transparent as to his Liberal motivations

  • Carey

    Thanks Stephen for saying what I’ve believed for so many years. I used to vote NDP (on occasion) but I haven’t been able to hold my nose even though my riding has an excellent MP who happens to be NDP. Can’t stand Harper on so many levels.

  • Nick Rosedale

    This is just a cynical attempt on the part of Toronto Life’s editor Sarah Fulford and her husband Stephen Marche to capitalize on the controversy stirred up by the original “unflinching assessment” of Jack Layton’s legacy — the more on-point, sincere and interesting (even if offensive) piece by Christie Blatchford in the National Post that ran (and got so much attention) after Layton passed away. But unlike Blatchford’s rebuke of Layton and his “gimlet eye,” Marche seems to be calling Layton a failure for a very strange reason—for failing to support the Paul Martin-led Liberals despite poor leadership and evident corruption (Marche has clearly forgotten the sponsorship scandal). Plain and simple, the Liberals have no one to blame for their collapse but themselves (so arrogant!). It is absurd to suggest that somehow Layton was responsible for all the woes that followed (a secretive conservative party? What about Michael Ignatieff?). To be unflinching means to stare something down—where as this piece seems to cast nervously about for anything (relevant or not) that might drum up a reaction and therefore buzz for the magazine (it’s Layton’s fault there’s no universal child care! It’s Layton’s fault Canadians are content with impotence! It’s Layton’s fault that Raffi makes lame music!). Maybe TL should stick to “unflinching assessments” of restaurants—it’s what you do best.

  • Roscoe

    Ah yes the classic Liberal attempt to attack the NDP from the left. The Liberals (thus far at least until Harper’s budget next week) have the dubious distinction of dismantling the welfare state far more than Harper has. Now of course Lib supporters will spin the 1995 budget as an objective necessity, which is not is not completely true. Yes the national debt is an issue but there were other ways of tackling it but the Libs took the easy neoliberal approach. There had been several years of surpluses prior to the the 2005 budget and the Liberals responded with corporate tax cuts and no action on childcare. Even Mulcair who is the right wing candidate in the NDP leadership race has pointed this out.

    Your arguments for “technocratic socialism” are rather pathetic since the Liberals are funded by Rosedale types who wouldn’t touch socialism with a 1000 ft. pole.

    If causing the Martin government to fall was such an unacceptable sin, why did the NDP increase its vote and seat count in the 2006 election?

  • Margreta Carr

    What a wonderful experience to read what should have been part of the mainstream political discourse since Jack Layton took over leadership of the NDP. Those of us who were so angered by his blatant support of Harper, the Income Trust betrayal, his role in sabotaging Kyoto…the time for the NDP to explain their actions that so put lie to those claims of principles is long overdue.

  • wow

    ” ‘Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear’ were Layton’s parting words, words that sound good but mean exactly nothing ”

    WOW the level of mean-spirited cynicism in this piece is absolutely off the charts .

    disgusting !

    i feel very very sorry for anyone who believes that these words are meaningless . what a sad person stephen marche is .

  • jennifer

    For how many years will Liberals dine out on the myth that they were about to create a national childcare program when Paul Martin lost the budget vote? National Childcare was in the Chretien Red Book, hanging on as an unmet promise and a liberal failure for close to a decade … and was suddenly revived when the minority Libs under Martin knew they were doomed to lose a budget vote. And it was revived for just this reason. Not because they suddenly saw the social and economic value to a national childcare program, but because they were desperate to hang on to power. Ultimately all too many liberals are driven by a desire to have power, contrary to what Marche would have us believe. That’s what makes him so bitter — the power has shifted, and many Canadians now believe only the NDP has the moral rectitude to deliver what Canadians need. Liberals still, years after the sponsorship scandal, have a hard time looking inward, reflecting on their own responsibility for the mess their party is still in.

  • John S.

    Cynism aside the NDP needs to stop believeing it’s own news releases. The reality of the NDP will come crashing hard in the next election. Do they think Quebec will hold in another election? Ask Mario Dumont and the (former) ADQ about their experience as the official opposition. Not to mention the embarrassment for voters who assumed they were at least choosing qualified canadidates – how is Ruth what’s her name.

    Mulcair at least has some vision the rest of them are same old same old. Drop the unions or forever be relegated to 3rd with the occasional foray into second.

  • Julie C

    Bravo, this needed to be said.

    Fiscally, their platform in the last election made even less sense than the Conservative platform. It was completely irresponsible.

    Of course I highly doubt most people were paying attention to that when they parked their votes with Layton en masse during the last week of the campaign, even though it was deconstructed by virtually every media outlet that finally turned their attention to analyzing actual NDP policy.

    If people wouldn’t trust the slick, charismatic salesman at the car dealership, why would they trust those same traits in a politician?

  • David

    Always believed Jack Layton was Stephen Harper’s best asset. Sanctimonious attacks that started at City Hall. Where was he during the Harris years? Nowhere. When dogs were being killed in Withrow Park? Earning the nickname “Grandstand Jack”. The 2011 Election? Attacking Ignatieff for being the Official Opposition Leader – a job that naturally resulted in his absences from the Commons (a feat now equalled by Thomas Mulcair).

  • Horny Toad

    Its interesting to read how out of touch lefties really are. The comment about Harper and “They want us poor, oppressed and ready to move cross-country just to get a mcjob,”illustrates their ignorance. Rather than getting “mcjobs” these people have some of the highest paying jobs in Canada, certainly in an industrial environment. The kind of job may not be for everyone (i,e, the feable minded )but for those who do move the remuneration is substantial. Of course, if you don’t want to move out of your mothers basement and would rather “demonstrate” for your entitlements its obviously not for you.

  • Thomas L

    I don’t know where to start. Is this life-saving Universal Daycare of the same type as in Quebec where all the providers went on strike? My wife stayed home and raised three kids while I went to work and we did without a I-phone and Wii for everyone. Perhaps Jack Layton did us a solid even if by accident.

  • John West

    Layton was in show business pure and simple. Under Harper, Canada is faring well during this time of global economic insanity. We should be thanking the lord (or good luck if you are a non believer) for Harper at this time.

    We should also be thrilled that the left is in political disarray. I can only imagine what horrors we may be facing in Canada if we had a leftist federal government in power over the past five years.

    Ontario has had a inept leftist government for many year now and just look at the mess they are in. Look a Quebec …. Look at the USA.

  • Peter

    “…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…”
    I rather like getting a $1200 annual contribution to our child’s RESP.

  • Albireo

    An “assessment” of Layton’s legacy should be an account of who he actually was, what he really did, and what his impact was. Instead, Marche decides to refight an old battle from Paul Martin days, and blame Layton for everything that the *Conservatives* have done (and which Layton opposed). Marche also tries to stuff Layton into the pigeon-hole of “socialism”, and then blames him because he doesn’t fit. What does this have to do with Layton, and why must he be viewed through that lens?

    Apparently, the best of “socialism” was somehow embodied in Paul Martin (!) and his national child care plan — and we’d be reaping the benefits of it to this day, if only Jack Layton hadn’t killed it. This claim ignores 3 important facts: (1) the Liberals had been promising universal day care for over a decade, at least since the 1993 Red Book, and yet they never delivered on it through two majority mandates; (2) the Liberals finally moved to implement a child care program only because Jack Layton made them do so in a minority parliament; and (3) when the Liberals were defeated (over the sponsership scandal, not a budget vote) Paul Martin himself had already vowed to call an election within a few months. Unless you believe that the Liberals would have won that election, and/or implemented everything lickety-splt, we weren’t getting that child care plan — and certainly not by Layton “simply letting things happen”.

    The author gives Layton no credit for the child care plan itself, and full credit for killing it. It would be more accurate to say that the Liberals ignored their own promise for 12 years, then Layton made them act on it, but then they were defeated because of their own corruption.

    Aside from the bizarre claim that Jack Layton failed to (single-handedly!) save the Liberals and prevent the Conservatives from gaining power, Marche has little more to go on than name-calling, with his puzzling term “Raffi socialism”. The term needs explanation, because it is unique to Marche. So: “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.”

    What does any of that have to do with socialsim, or Raffi for that matter? Why is that whole paragraph more true of Layton or the left than it is of *anyone* on Toronto city council, even Liberals or Conservatives? Yes, it’s hard to get elected (“you have to win a lot of votes”!) and then you are one of 45, and you have to serve constituents. And yes, the province and the OMB have power over municipalities, and it’s hard to make a real difference. None of that is Layton’s fault, and you may as well talk about “Raffi Centrism” or “Raffi Conservatism” — everyone works under these same constraints.

    Layton was far from perfect, but he did care about people and worked to make a difference. By nature and necessity he was a pragmatist. Both municipally and federally (and outside of elected office) he had to work within the limitations of circumstance. Even within those constraints, he did more good than I or most people will ever do — even if he failed to live up to Stephen Marche’s exacting standards.

  • Tim in YK

    Deadon assessment, exactly what I’ve been saying for years. Champagne socialists who have no vision, no ability to work towards anything positive because they hate everything in life, especially businesses. They do not deserve to govern because they are clueless and destructive. Jack Layton was an opportunist and is held up in regards as if he were a god…someday people will wake up and realize he was just ambitious and would have sold his soul to win at any cost….not unlike many others.

  • Melissa

    i love how the above comment by “Albireo” betrays how warped the NDP worldview continues to be.

    Canada was written off by The Economist and other observers as a fiscal banana republic that might go bankrupt in the 90s, before Paul Martin made the choices necessary at that particular time to put the house back in order.

    if it wasn’t for that, the NDP could probably write most of universal health care goodbye too, nevermind introducing more new expensive social programs.

    of course the NDP doesn’t believe in choices (except when it comes to choosing what “convenient” facts they’ll remember or report) because everyone can have it all, whenever, wherever, immediately — including a national daycare program during a period of massive deficits! it’s like their supporters never grew out of the narcissistic omnipotence of infancy. Canadians, that position said it all. it is an explicit statement of just how (ir)responsible they will be with your money and the economic health of our country should they get elected. “childlike, sentimental, and completely ineffective” is correct.

    the definition of Raffi socialism — “feel-good, conventional, childlike ideas about how the world should work”.

    i would add that Raffi socialists apparently have a delusional, egotistic sense of their own relevance and influence in previous Canadian parliaments. pretty much everything good that happened they’ll claim it is because the NDP made it happen somehow. unfortunately they are sort of cornered into such a rhetoric because they have never come close to being in actual power and thus have nothing to show for it. in addition, they are forced to claim credit however miniscule or merely apparent their role actually was because otherwise they would actually be forced to admit that they hate Canada, since everything the Liberals or the Tories have ever done is hateful in their eyes (just listen to them speak if you can stand it), yet of course those are the only parties that have ever been entrusted by Canadians to hold power.

    what a dilemma.

    the more the NDP becomes a religion centred around their god Jack, the more dangerous the party will be to the country in the future.


  • Beaver boy

    Just love it when the lefties get all wrapped up in themselves, and so far no one has mentioned Tommy what’s-his-name.

  • F. S. Salanha

    Jack did, at the end of his life, raise a banner of hope and humanity in that pithy, sloganish statement, and let’s be honest: hope and humanity are sadly lacking not only in the political landscape but in the broader population as evidenced by the comments.

    Having said that, this article is exceptionally bang on about Jack Layton, and to a greater extent, the NDP. Although Tommy Douglas did good things for the country, and many of the ideas and ideas of the NDP were stolen by the other parties, as of today, it’s pretty clear that the NDP abandoned social democracy a long time ago: almost as much as the conservatives abandoned conservatism and the liberals abandoned liberalism. Political party dogma might be fine in theory, but none of them work perfectly in an imperfect world with imperfect people whose concerns tend to be immediate and generally, self-centred in a changing and scary world.

    If there was an NDP strategy, and if that strategy worked on Canadian voters, it’s because the strategy pandered to fear. Which is what all politicians and their backroom boys and girls do, but the NDP platform for addressing those fears is old, tired, and impractical and does not work in any sustainable manner anywhere on the planet that it’s been tried.

  • Kate

    Finally! These things really needed to be said. “Dubious” is a charitable way of characterizing his legacy; “inflated” and “unwarranted” are also accurate.

  • Wilfred Day

    The best answer to this ill-founded argument was given by Michael Ignatieff, on a coalition with the NDP: “I could be standing here as Prime Minister of Canada. I turned it down.” Despite this, a Liberal blames the NDP for not working with the Liberals? Give me a break!

  • Malcolm French

    Yes, the Harper government’s record on childcare and on greenhouse gasses is simply appalling.

    Yet even so, it is still better than the Chretien-Martin Liberal record.

    The Liberal meme, so pervasive in the corporate media and among self-important hacks like this author, is utterly vapid.

    There is a word to describe a person who believes that the 2006 Liberals actually meant to keep the promises on childcare and greenhouse gasses that they’d been recycling since 1993.

    That word is “fool.”

  • thedingo8

    Do you mean the Irwin Cotler who just a few short weeks ago said that he didnt believe that the average Canadian was capable of making a rational decision? This was said in committee about citizens arrest and was reiterated by Olivia Chow. That is the totalitarian view Canadians..

  • Sharon

    I’m not sure I agree with everything in the article, but I did feel that there was “vague feel-goodery” at play during the NDP’s filibuster over the back-to-work legislation for the postal workers. The bill ended up passing. The filibuster was also cut short because the Canadian Union of Postal Worker asked the NDP to stop. The filibuster didn’t change the public’s mind since most people sided with the government on the issue. It must have felt good standing up to the Conservatives on this, but it changed nothing.

  • Katherine

    Anyone else appalled at how incredibly amateurish — and frankly embarrassing — it is that the editor of the magazine allowed her *husband* to rant in the pages of her own publication? Usually most professionals go to great lengths to avoid such obvious conflict of interest (not to mention plain bad taste). Not surprised, though — yet another nail in the coffin of a once-great magazine. A shame.

  • jeff316

    Considering Layton is the guy who tried to make a Liberal Prime Minister, I’m not sure how this article holds water. Iggy would likely be the Prime Minister today if he hadn’t believed his own hype.

  • Tom Pascoe

    Well, I can’t remember a more blatant example of sour grapes. Guess there are many who would rather forget the grass-roots display of spontaneous affection shown at City Hall in honour of the memory of Jack. My wife and I lined up for over 3 hours to pay our respects to him. Grandson Andre also joined us, even though he was attending the funeral next day. Just ahead of us was a young woman from Hong Kong. We got to know her and found out that she was visiting Toronto. She was so impressed by Jack’s message and the outpouring of love displayed, that she wrote almost continuously. We asked why and she explained that she intended to take the message back to China. Raffi socialism? If that’s “Let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic and we’ll change the world”, then I’ll sign on to it every time. Memory does fade, but, Jack’s legacy has gone around the world and will long be remembered when such drivel as this article by Stephen Marche has long been forgotten.