Can the NDP's popularity survive the death of its leader?

The NDP ran an all-about-Jack campaign to nearly steal the last election. But Jack Layton's deathbed letter to Canadians makes clear that can't be all there is, Greg Weston writes

It was the eve of this year's federal election and some NDP strategists were sipping wine and trying to explain why a New Democratic Party, languishing near the basement of public opinion, would try to engineer such a quick trip to the polls. 

One adviser observed that 18 months of internal party polls had consistently indicated the NDP could do "serious damage" to Liberal support in a showdown between Jack Layton and then Grit leader Michael Ignatieff. 

Another said Layton's popularity was giving a huge boost to the fortunes of the entire party. 

In the minds of voters, she said, Jack was the party and the party was Jack. 

So why the rush to the polls? After all, overall party standings still put the NDP in third place, and if the party's campaign was to be all about Jack, why not give him more time to recover from prostate cancer and whatever hip problem was forcing him to walk with a cane? 

No one would answer the question directly, and certainly not for the record. 

But all, in their muted way, left no doubt there was a fear that if the party waited too long, Layton's health could take a turn for the worse.

A jaunty optimist

Sadly, it turns out their concerns about their leader's health were as prescient as their political calculations.

Jack Layton and his victory cane in April 2011. (Reuters)

The ensuing NDP campaign was indeed all about Jack, and the jaunty optimism reflected by his trademark cane. 

In Quebec, where the party swept an astounding 59 of the province's 75 seats, candidate lawn signs commonly advertised Layton's face and not much else. 

Layton's performance in the televised leaders' debates, especially his embarrassing Ignatieff, is widely credited as a turning point for the NDP — and a downturn for the Liberals. 

Elsewhere in the country, Layton's popularity carried local victories that not even the dreamiest NDP strategists had imagined possible. 

But all of this has now left New Democrats with one obvious and chilling question, even as they mourn the tragic loss of their leader.  If the NDP victory was so much about Jack, what is the party without him?

A political will

Ordinarily, discussing the future of a political party so soon after its leader died would be of questionable taste. 

But Layton clearly wanted it discussed immediately. 

Forever the political pragmatist, he spent last Saturday penning what has aptly been called a political will, an extraordinary letter to supporters, friends and all Canadians, made public hours after his death. 

Regardless of one's political views, the missive is touching, poignant and almost impossible to read without tears. 

But its intent is clear — to provide the party with a road map through the politically perilous months ahead, and to make an appeal to supporters not to abandon ship when the going gets rough. 

Layton entreats party members to stay the course in his absence, saying the party's cause "is much bigger than any one leader."  "There will be those who will try to persuade you to give up our cause," Layton writes. "Answer them by recommitting with energy and determination to our work."

A plea to Quebec

Layton implores NDP voters in Quebec not to turn their backs on the party. 

Instead, he asks them to view their sweeping support of the NDP in the last election as ultimately the best way to replace the Conservative government with a progressive-minded party. 

It was, he writes, the "right decision then; it is still the right decision today." 

Finally, to all Canadians, Layton asks voters to give the NDP "a careful hearing" as the party moves forward without him. 

Any way you read Jack's final public words, the document is as politically brilliant as it is touching. 

But the leader who made a career of smiling optimism may be asking a lot of Canadians this time. 

Even with Layton at the helm, the NDP's success in the last election left the party facing enormous hurdles, not the least of which is trying to keep harmony in a caucus where large numbers of its new Quebec MPs were elected by mostly Quebec nationalists, if not diehard separatists. 

At the same time, leadership races are by their nature fractious and can often inflict long-term damage on a party. Just ask the Liberals. 

Truth is, modern politics is driven in large part by leadership, and the loss of a leader such as Jack Layton leaves a gaping hole in the NDP that cannot be papered over. 

He leaves extremely big shoes to fill. 

Listening to the tributes from New Democrats and just ordinary Canadians across the country, one is struck by an unusual commonality to them all. They all call him, Jack.

Nice guys can finish first

What could be a more fitting epitaph for a political leader who ends his career and life on a first-name basis with the country he served? 

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the last national political leader to have earned the first-name affection of the country was Layton's friend, mentor and predecessor as NDP leader, Ed Broadbent. 

Both leaders sold Canadians on an image of humility, sincerity and concern for average families. 

But make no mistake: Both had a love for the microphone and camera, and were highly skilled in the world of spin. 

At the same time, they also proved voters can be persuaded without degrading personal attacks on partisan opponents, or the mindless attack ads that have come to dominate so much of the Canadian political contest. 

Both Broadbent and Layton achieved notable success with Canadians. 

In 1987, just-call-me-Ed led the New Democrats to the party's historic high point in national opinion polls — for a while, the NDP was Canadians' leading choice to form the government. 

Just-call-me-Jack did even better, translating public support into this year's break-through election that put the NDP into the Commons as the Official Opposition. 

In his final words to Canadians, Layton declared that "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." 

As Canadians mark the loss of an extraordinary public servant, it can be said that, in many ways that matter, Jack Layton was one nice guy who finished first.