A way forward for the NDP - and Canada.
I drafted this note to my MP, Peggy Nash, about three weeks ago, but thought better of sending it at such a fraught time. My riding is blessed with one of the most competent MPs in the Commons, and I came away from lunch with Peggy early this month in a pragmatic and hopeful mood. It was nonetheless overshadowed by Jack Layton's struggle with cancer. I was not among those who believed Jack would return to Parliament, and thought the NDP needed now to prepare now for a future without him. That's the spirit in which this note was written August 7:
It’s time to think about a party without Jack. He will need a long period of convalescence. And I doubt his doctors will condone a return to leadership, not least because the rigours of the past campaign contributed to the worsening in his condition.
Jack’s stepping aside does not diminish by one iota what the party has accomplished under Jack’s leadership. If it did, than nothing was accomplished in the last election and the many years of preparation that preceded it. And 103 seats proves that’s not true.
I have to disagree that it’s unusual for leaders to falter. Actually, this happens all the time. To Churchill in 1945, to an ousted Thatcher in 1990, to Olaf Palme’s party when the Swedish leader was assassinated, to Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. on the four occasions when their leaders were killed, to the U.S. civil rights movement after the tragedy in Memphis in 1968...
What matters is how a party or movement reacts to the setback.
In fact, I’d say we’ve not been well served by the tradition of the leader on horseback who is expected single-handedly to vanquish threats and lead us to prosperity. Martin Luther King told his flock that "I have seen the promised land" but also that "I may not get there with you." King's vision is being realized with greater strength every day, with women and people of color long excluded from power now running Fortune 500 companies and the U.S. itself. Such is the legacy of inspirational leaders on the side of the angels; often their ideas and ideals are made manifest only after their passing.
In the modern Canada, our own fixation with the Leader dates from Trudeau, and has continued with Chretien and Harper. This is the phenomenon of “the single combat warrior,” as Tom Wolfe famously described Americans’ love of lone, omnipotent heroes. Such figures often have been overbearing, control-obsessed, isolated, and out of touch with colleagues and other fellow Canadians.
Canada and the NDP can make history by pioneering a new type of leadership better able to advance the social progress of our country. Team leadership best suits the variety and complexity of the challenges facing our nation, and coincidentally of a party caucus largely populated with newcomers to political life. With or without Jack, a way would have to be found to engage the newcomers in fulfilling work, in a sense of mission, in a national project. That project is to transform this most nearly perfect country into the world's most advanced “caring society.”
“Team leadership” contrasts with the one-man rule so commonplace in the world. It merely makes official the fact that team efforts account for everything from the Regina Manifesto to Medicare (implemented by a minority government) to the Maple Leaf (minority NDP MPs helped broker the compromise that made a new flag possible) to patriating our Constitution and conceiving the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
It puts goals ahead of personalities, and achievement ahead of pettiness and resentments. The past several years of Grit upheaval are indicative of how self-destructive it can be to invest the usual great hopes in a sole leader who is expected to possess the healing powers to bring about internal party harmony and ballot-box triumph.
Practically, I would begin soon, in dividing caucus into 12 policy teams of eight or nine MPs each, with shadow ministers assigned to each team. Using the greater research resources that come with Official Opposition status, the policy teams would tackle Canada’s most stubborn challenges – job creation, a renaissance in education and health care, climate change and energy conservation, the global disgrace of abysmal living conditions in too many of our aboriginal communities, and a more effective leadership role for Canada on the world stage in humanitarianism and peaceful dispute resolution. In contrast with our American friends, we have a uniquely multi-talented armed forces competent in peacekeeping - which the U.S. traditionally has shunned - as well as civil defense and external combat capabilities.
Another group of five MPs would constitute a new leadership team, working with the Interim Leader and traditional shadow ministers. Parties too often are hobbled by disputes and simmering resentment between the Leader's office and caucus. A leadership team, constantly assessing the work of the policy teams to which all members of caucus belong, would more tightly bond caucus with the Leader and the non-elected officials toiling in his or her office. It also would demonstrate wisdom and energy across several party leaders commanding the attention of Canadians, each exhibiting outstanding competence. In time, there will be a traditional leadership race.
These three phases of restructuring the party - policy teams, a leadership team, and the selection of a new Leader - will each garner the media attention required to show Canadians that, absent Jack, the party is not wandering aimlessly, but instead has no less a sense of national purpose than it showed in the latest campaign. That the NDP is devising a streamlined system for generating solutions to Canada’s most pressing issues and proposing how they can be practically and promptly implemented.
A hopeful country will want to know, and soon, about the NDP’s future, and the future the NDP sees for Canada. That’s why this structure needs to be put in place now, and why the teamwork needs to begin now. Canadians have given themselves an historic opportunity by elevating the NDP into a social-justice party that is viable as a governing party. An NDP that acts like a governing party – a party of solutions, cohesion and disciplined energy – will be embraced by voters when the current government wears out its welcome (which governing parties tend to do, no matter how initially popular, after 10 years or so, namely 2015).
The proposed caucus teams are all about developing solutions to the challenges the country faces, from narrowing the income gap and eradicating child poverty to promoting genuine reforms to world financial governance. Canada is a problem-solving nation, first devising the means of internal governance, transportation, communication and prosperity across the northern half of North America, then spearheading the resolution of the Suez Crisis and the fight against apartheid, and championing a new International Criminal Court in The Hague and the Land Mines Treaty. The NDP’s role is to highlight and refine that capacity for innovation, at home and abroad.
The skills and effort of every backbencher will be called on in this effort, and each MP will derive fulfilment from it. The party will be in a constant state of policy development. This often is the weak link in governing and opposition parties alike, a preoccupation with tactics over policy - and Jack's leadership was not immune to that syndrome. Since to govern is to choose, a party must be an incubator of ideas, so that promising options from which to choose are in ample supply. A party with a policy "factory" is able to anticipate challenges to the country rather than merely reacting to them, having drawn upon breakthroughs in every realm in every part of the world.
As such, the NDP will nurture leadership talent within its parliamentary ranks, and earn its status as a government in waiting. And when given the chance by Canadians to lead this great nation, the NDP will be prepared for the task with an abundance of progressive ideas, competence, and compassion that the country has never before seen in a new government.