As I am sure many of you have already heard, Jack Layton, leader of the NDP, has died. While there is a tonne of stuff that has been written as a tribute to him throughout the media, I am only going to post two things. The first is a segment of Jack Layton’s own final letter to Canadians, dated August 20th 2011:
To young Canadians: All my life I have worked to make things better. Hope and optimism have defined my political career, and I continue to be hopeful and optimistic about Canada. Young people have been a great source of inspiration for me. I have met and talked with so many of you about your dreams, your frustrations, and your ideas for change. More and more, you are engaging in politics because you want to change things for the better. Many of you have placed your trust in our party. As my time in political life draws to a close I want to share with you my belief in your power to change this country and this world. There are great challenges before you, from the overwhelming nature of climate change to the unfairness of an economy that excludes so many from our collective wealth, and the changes necessary to build a more inclusive and generous Canada. I believe in you. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today. You need to be at the heart of our economy, our political life, and our plans for the present and the future.
And finally, to all Canadians: Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one — a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity. We can build a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly. We can look after our seniors. We can offer better futures for our children. We can do our part to save the world’s environment. We can restore our good name in the world. We can do all of these things because we finally have a party system at the national level where there are real choices; where your vote matters; where working for change can actually bring about change. In the months and years to come, New Democrats will put a compelling new alternative to you. My colleagues in our party are an impressive, committed team. Give them a careful hearing; consider the alternatives; and consider that we can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together. Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.
My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.
All my very best, Jack Layton
The second is a portion of a piece written about a month ago when Jack Layton first announced he was stepping away from his role to focus on his health. I’m sharing this one because I think that while many of us feel a lot of sadness, we might also be tempted to feel fear, fear that the NDP’s success will dwindle without Jack Layton as leader and we will also lose the viable, progressive alternative to the Conservative Party that the NDP has become.
This self-replicating tale, which says the “Orange Wave” was driven by 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 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, 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.