Rest Well, Bon Jack: Jack Layton 18/7/1950 – 22/8/2011

It was announced this morning that Jack Layton, the leader of the Official Opposition in Parliament and leader of the New Democrat Party of Canada, nearly lifelong politician and champion of what many would call socialist causes, has died at the age of 61. Having successfully battled back from prostate cancer, many hoped that he would be able to overcome this second, unspecified cancer. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.

Jack leaves behind a wife and children in mourning, a party in shock and disarray, and a legacy that many wouldn’t consider unless they consider the man himself a little more carefully. There may not be another of his kind for some time.

Even though I consider myself a lot more center than left and have never really agreed with the NDP policies, it’s impossible to say I didn’t like the man. Jack Layton always portrayed himself as the champion of the people, a defender of common families and workers across Canada, and there doesn’t seem to be a significant difference between his public persona and what admirers remember of his private self. His political pedigree is exceptional, reaching back to Confederation, and Jack was involved in politics from even his earliest years of post-secondary education. Of course, his crowning acheivement was winning unprecedented support in the last federal election to catapult the NDP into the role of Official Opposition to Stephen Harper’s majority Conservatives, but that’s the superficial result of something deeper and more important that he accomplished.

Jack made politics human.

The NDP are in Official Opposition by the grace of the seats they gained in Quebec, some in ridings where the NDP candidate was completely invisible and inexperienced. The truth is that Quebec was ripe for change, and that their level of political unrest had more to do with dissatisfaction and frustration with Liberals, Bloq and Conservative candidates that had underdelivered than it had to do with the NDP themselves. I’ve written before (“And the Meek Shall Inherit”) that the calibre of candidate put forward by some of the parties is an indication of their abject disinterest in our benefit, and that their election to office was proof of our habit of party preference; the NDP benefitted from the fact that they weren’t them. They were the equivalent of showing your displeasure over the attitude of a waitress or waiter by leaving a two dollar tip in pennies.

No, I’m not discounting the accomplishments of Jack Layton.

It’s not an insult to his accomplishment because he was able to turn that displeasure and frustration into a vote for the NDP instead of a vote for nobody. Through his force of personality and passion, Jack tirelessly worked to present the NDP as a viable option for disaffected voters uninspired by the other candidates. He was optimistic and boisterous, and never admitted that they couldn’t win. Because of that, the NDP won more than it ever had. Quebecers began referring to him as the good buy, un bon Jack, and more than anything else that is his legacy and the greatest element of what the country has lost this morning. Jack Layton was genuinely a champion for the people, of the people.

How many other political leaders do you call by their first name? How many want to be? I have never heard people affectionately refer to “Steve,” and certainly never heard people refer to “Michael.” Conservative supporters may suffer under the delusion that Stephen Harper is a good Prime Minister and is leading the country in the right direction, but I’ve never heard anyone refer to him as a good guy they would gladly have over for dinner and coffee. Jack was accessible, a politician that people could actually connect to and picture as one of them, and that’s no small feat. It’s also something I can’t see us finding in another politician in the next while.

It’s also why I don’t see the future of the NDP being particularly bright. The “protest vote” isn’t a sure thing every election. Will people feel as disaffected in the next federal election as they felt in this last one? And, without the tireless passion and personality that Jack Layton brought to the NDP campaign, will the personality of the party be strong enough to hang on to this votes and win new ones? I doubt it. And, it’s a shame. I’m not a supporter of the NDP myself, but it’s unfortunate to see the work of Jack’s lifetime come to such a fleeting but brilliant end.

Whatever comes in the next few weeks as the party tries to pick itself up, a family buries their loved one and tries to carry on and a country moves on from the shock of losing such a vibrant public figure, I hope some remember that the lesson learned by watching Jack Layton’s career is that politicians can be people. Some pretend for the sake of the “common man” effect, but Jack exemplified a common man who was also a leader of people. Let’s hope we find more like him.

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