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Rabble News

February 17, 2004

Jack Layton: bringing energy and new hope
By Judy Rebick

The hall, a broken-down theatre in Toronto's east end called the Opera House, was packed with more than 500 people. There were lots and lots of young people, many of them activists from a variety of social movements around town. The energy was electric and it wasn't the kind of phony cheering that political parties can call up on cue. There was something genuine about it. The event was NDP leader Jack Layton's nomination meeting and it was a hopeful sign of change in any number of ways.

Change was reflected on the stage. The first three speakers representing the riding and the party were women: local MPP Marilyn Churley, former leader Alexa McDonough and House Leader Libby Davies. When Jack spoke he said, I'm proud to be in a party that welcomes progressive women instead of driving them out. Of course, the males were also present, with Ed Broadbent, who introduced Jack, getting the second biggest applause of the evening. A friend I was with whispered, See, they still need the patriarchs. The left of the party represented by Libby and Svend Robinson had pride of place but there was unity and a real enthusiasm from everyone.

While you won't read it in the newspapers, there are several progressive people running and being elected candidates. In Toronto this week Michael Shapcott, a long-time housing activist was nominated in Toronto Centre and Peggy Nash, a feminist leader from the Canadian Auto Workers won the nomination in Parkdale-High Park. Kim Fry, an anti-globalization activist, is running for the nomination in Davenport. I signed up some of my anarchist friends in Parkdale to vote for Peggy, she told me, and they went to the nomination meeting and just loved her speech. They are totally committed to working for her during the elections.

Dave Meslin, a young public-space activist who is well-respected in the Toronto activist community is an organizer for the campaign. Jack is bringing people like you and me into the party and it's changing, he said when I expressed doubt that the party could really change despite Jack's positive direction.

While the NDP is slowly creeping up in the polls, its membership has almost doubled since Jack became leader and the hope, optimism and energy so necessary to a left-wing party's ability to mobilize support is higher than I've ever seen it.

What's more, Jack is bringing some pretty good politics and excellent process to a party that has lacked both. In his speech, Jack linked the sponsorship scandal to policy issues like tax cuts. One could even say that he is making a class analysis of the sponsorship scandal. He said, The Liberals are lining their corporate friends' pockets because they think no-one can stop them. It's time we broke up this corporate club.

In what sounded a lot like a stump speech, Jack outlined what will probably be key election issues. Who will miss a dozen or so Liberal MPs in Ontario when all they have done is bring us more smog, more homelessness, more kids without day care and more privatization of medicare? He also said that the NDP's non-negotiable demand to support a minority Liberal government would be a referendum on proportional representation.

There is little question that Jack Layton is bringing a new energy to the NDP and a singular talent for getting media attention, which is critical to any improvement in their fortunes. Jack also understands very well the importance of a relationship between social movements and the party that is one of equality and not one where the party just seeks to use social movements to its own advantage. His participation in the anti-war movement last year was exemplary in that regard.

For me, Jack's strongest quality and the one that gives me the most hope that he can really change something is his character and his commitment to positive democratic process. He has not an ounce of the sectarianism and egotistical pettiness that plagues the party and the labour movement. He values criticism and does not demand the kind of loyalty that prevents engaged dialogue within the left. Moreover, he is a genuine feminist and values and respects collective process, the contribution of women and young people.

But electoral politics are an intense game and the pressure of the media and the day-to-day demands of Parliament are such that making change within the system is tremendously difficult. When you add to that a moribund party that is still dragged down by old-fashioned social democratic ideas of how to organize, the challenge he and other progressives in the party face are enormous.

Next week on February 22, the New Politics Initiative, which formed two years ago to call for a new party on the left that would promote participatory democracy and a closer and more equal relationship with the social movements, will have a wind-up meeting. The NPI Co-coordinating Committee has decided that there is little reason to continue the organization as most of its membership finds enough in common with the Layton leadership to drop the demand of a new party and put some energy into transforming the old one. An indication of Layton's commitment to inclusion is that he will be taking the red eye from Vancouver to be able to participate in the discussion.

As an old leftie who has been in and out of the party for 30 years or more, I've never seen anything quite like it.

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