Jack Layton (1950-2011): A socialist who earned the admiration of conservatives

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I had hoped to write my first Daily Caller op-ed on early vice-presidential speculation, or Sarah Palin’s upcoming presidential campaign, or something remotely conservative. But sometimes major events snuff out our plans, and instead I find myself penning an obituary for a socialist Canadian politician who most Americans have never heard of.

Jack Layton was little known outside Canada, and frankly I found his political ideas to be both appalling and dangerous, but he was arguably the single greatest politician of his generation — anywhere in the world.

People will be studying Layton’s achievements and strategies for decades to come, and those of us who watched him rise to the top of Canadian politics are in awe of what he built. If you’ve never seen somebody set out to achieve a totally impossible task and then succeed despite seeing his objective ridiculed for almost a decade, you don’t know Jack.

For those not familiar with Canada, Layton was the leader of the openly socialist New Democratic Party (NDP), which for decades was Canada’s third-largest political party. The NDP always had a good number of diehard supporters, but due to its extreme leftism, it always lagged far behind the country’s major center-left and center-right parties. Instead of aiming to govern, the NDP aimed to serve as Parliament’s left-wing conscience. The party had never won more than 43 of the 282 seats in Parliament, and as recently as 2003, its parliamentary delegation had just 13 members.

That’s when Layton took over. His efforts culminated in this May’s parliamentary election, when a wave of “Jackomania” swept Canada. The NDP emerged from the election with 103 seats, overtaking the Liberal Party to become Canada’s second-largest party. Not bad for someone who, before taking over the NDP, had never been elected to federal, provincial or citywide office.

Prior to becoming the leader of the NDP, the only office Jack had ever held was a seat on the Toronto City Council, where he served from 1982 to 1991 and from 1994 to 2003. During that time, he was twice an unsuccessful candidate for mayor of Toronto and three times a failed candidate for Parliament. However, he developed a reputation for being a charismatic voice of the left and became the head of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. Then, in 2003, he mounted an unexpected bid for the leadership of the national NDP. Picking up the support of former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, Layton scored a surprising victory over multiple veteran members of Parliament, beginning his crusade to transform the NDP from a protest party into a force capable of winning control of Parliament.

It soon became apparent that Layton was the most charismatic and likable politician in Canada. Not everybody supported Layton’s policy positions, but everybody wanted to have a beer with him. His personal popularity fueled a steady rise in the NDP’s fortunes. His party won a meager 19 seats in the 2004 election, but that total increased to 29 seats in the 2006 election and then to 37 in the 2008 election.

Layton did something else no NDP leader before him had done: focus on the French-speaking province of Quebec. The NDP had always been a party of Western Canada and was closely associated with the English-speaking community. It held no parliamentary seats in Quebec and had no real organization there, but Layton knew that a truly national party needed French-Canadian support. Luckily, he was a native Quebecer and a fluent French speaker — two traits he successfully used to introduce Francophones to the NDP.

In 2007, Layton’s party picked up its first seat in Quebec when Thomas Mulcair shocked Canada by winning a special election to a vacant parliamentary seat. Layton’s performances on French-language television in the run-up to the 2011 election electrified Quebecers, who piled onto the NDP bandwagon, abandoning their traditional allegiance to the separatist Bloc Quebecois party. Thanks largely to “Bon Jack,” the NDP picked up 58 seats in Quebec in this May’s parliamentary election, growing its Quebec delegation from one member to 59 — an outcome that surprised even the party’s leadership, since most of the NDP’s newly elected Quebec MPs had been nothing more than paper candidates recruited to give the party a name on the ballot in “unwinnable” districts.

The NDP’s new MPs included a 26-year-old bricklayer with a Mohawk, a 27-year-old bar manager who spoke almost no French, a 19-year-old freshman in college, and four members of the McGill University NDP club. One new parliamentarian didn’t even own a cell phone; another had no driver’s license and had to pedal her bike from campus to her district to meet constituents. One thing was clear: nobody voted for their local NDP candidate — most people didn’t even know who the local candidate was. They all voted for Layton.

Unfortunately, Layton only had three months to enjoy his new perch as Leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. On August 22nd, he died from a sudden and aggressive bout with cancer. Ironically, part of his popularity stemmed from the public battle with prostate cancer that he waged last year — a battle he triumphantly won. The image of Layton storming along the campaign trail despite being forced to use a cane was one of the most endearing images of the 2011 election. Throughout his first parliamentary session as opposition leader, he looked strong and healthy.

By July 25th, things had changed. That day, a skeletal Layton appeared before the press to announce that he was taking a leave of absence to fight a new, undisclosed form of cancer. His dramatic change in appearance indicated that this time he might lose the battle. Still, no one expected the illness to claim the life of Canada’s toughest politician just a month later.

It remains to be seen whether the NDP can maintain its newfound standing, especially as it now seems that Layton’s hot-tempered deputy, Thomas Mulcair, may replace him. However, it is impossible to deny that Layton is among the greatest political leaders of his generation. He may have been wrong on every issue, but he single-handedly transformed a fringe party into a government-in-waiting — an achievement that’s impossible to ignore.

So, Jack, although I never would have voted for you and I would have been scared to death if you had become prime minister, you showed everyone that anything is possible. And for that, you have my profound admiration and thanks. I have a sneaking suspicion that your story is going to be made into a major Hollywood blockbuster someday. If it is, even hard-core conservatives like me will be in the front row at the midnight screening on opening night. It’s just a shame you won’t be around to see it.

Adam Brickley was the founder of the website “Draft Sarah Palin for Vice President” (palinforvp.blogspot.com). He has contributed to Race42012.com and The Weekly Standard’s blog, and is a contributor at Conservatives4Palin.com.