Was I wrong about Jack Layton?

When he was alive, I always found him somewhat insufferable.  A glad-handing, ‘hi how are ya’ kind of politician who was forever seeking the spotlight, and finding it, thanks to a doting press.  I have always likened him to a used car salesman.

But not what Layton is gone (sorry, that should be ‘Jack’; everyone has taken to calling him ‘Jack’ like he was a close personal buddy), I’m wondering if maybe I was wrong. I see thousands of people lined up to pay their respects. I see makeshift flower shrines (we can credit the British for creating this trend after Princess Diana died), dotted with the occasional can of Orange Crush.  I read and hear of people talking about his integrity, and how he was trying to bring decorum back to politics, and his decency, etc.

Have I been wrong about Jack Layton? Was he, really, a politician who touched people in a special way that I have missed?

Clearly, yes. I missed the Jack Layton parade. But all this public grieving is a little over the top, don’t you think?

I know it’s risky to say anything negative about a person who has just expired. I’m sure when Charles Manson finally goes to hell, someone will extol his leadership abilities. But let’s put Layton’s career in politics in perspective, shall we?

Jack Layton had been in politics almost his whole life, with little to show for it. He has been the NDP leader since only 2003, and an MP only since 2004. In that time, his greatest success was in improving the fortunes of the NDP, luring away enough potential Liberal voters to ensure minority governments for Stephen Harper. His greatest success was in this year’s election, with the party’s stunning breakthrough in Quebec and the NDP’s elevation to official opposition status for the first time in history. It can safely be said that the NDP gains in Quebec had little to do with NDP policy or the quality of its candidates, and everything to do with pissed off Quebec voters turning their backs on the Liberals and the Bloc, and finding nothing else other than the NDP and their smiling, singing, casual French-speaking leader. Until further notice, it will have to be regarded as one of the great flukes in Canadian political history.

I guess you could say that Layton’s greatest accomplishment as NDP leader was in reigning in Harper’s worst right-wing impulses during the minority government years. For that, we can be thankful. But otherwise, the cupboard is bare. No legislation, of course, bears the Layton signature. I’ve tried, in fairness, to come up with something Layton can be credited with (aside from the success of the NDP) and come up with nothing.

Was he a decent guy? Apparently, but there are lots of decent people in politics, believe it or not. Did he have the country’s best interests at heart? I’m sure he did. I suppose he was a good human being, but he was also a political operator and a bit of a showboat.

So why all this supposed grief for a politician who was, up until this year, a secondary player on the Canadian scene? Maybe it’s because we have in Stephen Harper a leader who is so cold, so unappealing, that we’re lavishing our love on someone who actually knows how to smile. Michael Ignatieff (remember him?) left us cold, too. Layton was the only leader we could warm up to (well, not everyone), which makes his passing all the more painful.

A Jack Layton government would be reason to leave the country. But still, we are poorer for having lost him. He clearly connected with people in ways I don’t understand, and he was the only person standing in the way of the Harper juggernaut, even if he was only going to be a speed bump in the Harper majority years to come. Now, with Layton gone, opposition to Harper finds itself rudderless. The Liberals are a wreck, and the NDP is at sea and bewildered.

No, I didn’t like the guy at all, but I’ll give him this — Canadian politics is a lot worse off without him.


One thought on “A few contrary thoughts on Jack Layton.

  1. Thank you! I’ve been wondering if I was alone in thinking this Layton love-in was a little over the top. Yes, Jack was a popular fellow, and I probably would have enjoyed having a beer with him. But Jack was a career politician, who would certainly have irrevocably damaged Canada if he’d become PM – think Bob Rae in Ontario (shudder).
    And don’t think too long on the term “career politician” – debating laws is important, but realistically politicians spend over 90% of their time wooing voters and criticizing other-party politics that they produce very little for their paycheques.

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