February 17, 2004
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, ’ÄúI'm proud to be in a party that
welcomes progressive women instead of driving them out.’Äù 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, ’ÄúSee, they still need the patriarchs.’Äù 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. ’ÄúI signed up some of my anarchist friends
in Parkdale to vote for Peggy,’Äù she told me, ’Äúand they went to the
nomination meeting and just loved her speech. They are totally
committed to working for her during the elections.’Äù
Dave Meslin, a young public-space activist who is well-respected
in the Toronto activist community is an organizer for the campaign.
’ÄúJack is bringing people like you and me into the party and it's
changing,’Äù 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, ’ÄúThe Liberals are lining their
corporate friends' pockets because they think no-one can stop them.
It's time we broke up this corporate club.’Äù
In what sounded a lot like a stump speech, Jack outlined what
will probably be key election issues. ’ÄúWho 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?’Äù 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
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.