Progressive politics, ideas & culture

September-October 2004

Layton’s last hurrah

Annette Bourdeau

The charismatic NDP leader fell far short of an unqualified electoral triumph. But as kingmaker to the minority Liberals, Jack Layton wields enormous power. And that could be the party’s salvation— or his personal downfall

Illustration by Dushan Milic

It’s a week before election day, and the York Event Theatre in Toronto is filled with middle-aged New Democrats waxing nostalgic and rocking out to protest songs from the ’60s. The theatre is a sea of orange and green signs, carried by candidates and campaigners. There’s a contagious air of excitement as the crowd anxiously awaits the arrival of Jack Layton, the man who in a little more than a year has pulled the New Democratic Party from oblivion. A Toronto Star poll released the day before showed NDP public support at 20 percent nationally and 26 percent in Ontario—highs not seen since the party’s glory days in the late ’80s.

In a nod to the past, Ed Broadbent, 68, who led the NDP from 1975 to 1989, takes the stage to introduce Layton: “It is my pleasure to bring you the greatest political leader of our time: Jack Layton!” That’s quite the compliment coming from a man who claimed in an online spoof during the campaign that he was once more popular than Pierre Trudeau. Layton is the first Ontario-based NDP leader since Broadbent, and both share a love of academia: before sliding onto the political scene, Broadbent taught at York University, and Layton taught at three universities, including the University of Toronto. The crowd erupts into thunderous applause as Layton winds his way to the stage surrounded by camera crews and reporters, energized by the upbeat rhythm of the party’s theme song “Bring All the People Together,” a remix of the Parachute Club’s gay rights anthem “Rise Up.” Layton takes the stage with his wife and fellow federal candidate, Olivia Chow, on one side, Broadbent on the other, and dozens of the party’s Toronto-area candidates behind him, and declares: “We’re going to paint the town orange!”

An ambitious goal; some said too ambitious after the votes had been tallied just seven days later—the predicted “orange wave” across Toronto having dwindled to a lone orange island (Layton) in a sea of red. Layton had predicted 43 seats and an influential role in Parliament. In the weeks after the election, NDP officials claimed victory for doubling their popular vote, but to go from forecasting a role as the official opposition to winning just a few more seats than required for official party status has left many asking what happened. Layton’s charisma and mass appeal pulled the NDP out of oblivion, but ultimately Jack Fever, coupled with one of the slickest campaigns the party has ever delivered, just wasn’t enough to lure centrists, and even some scared lefties, away from the scandal-ridden Liberals and edge out the status quo.

Of course, it started out great. The NDP went into election mode soon after Layton, 54, was named leader in January 2003. Though he didn’t have a seat in the house, New Democrats knew they had a jewel in Layton; strategists now had to decide how to market him. “There’s no question that Jack Layton’s leadership was paramount to the momentum of the campaign,” says Brad Lavigne, the party’s director of communications. “We have more money because Jack is an exciting leader who people want to donate to. Everything flows from Jack.”

Thanks largely to donations generated from excitement about Layton, the NDP was able to spend twice as much on advertising in 2004 as it did in the 2000 federal election. The party was determined to increase its popular vote, which had slipped to 8.5 percent, and, more importantly, to increase its seat count, which, at the time, stood at 14. “Sitting in the corner being the conscience of Parliament was no longer an adequate goal,” Lavigne says. “We wanted a larger role and greater influence.”

In August 2003, the NDP hired Vancouver-based ad firm NOW Communications to handle the looming 2004 campaign. NOW is a progressive company that specializes in public-advocacy marketing. Paul Degenstein, the firm’s vice-president, managed the NDP file. Degenstein is no stranger to the party—he was a speechwriter for former NDP leader Audrey McLaughlin. (In 1992, a cartoon in Saturday Night magazine depicted him as the ventriloquist to McLaughlin’s dummy. He responded in the media by calling the cartoon “stupid and unethical.”) The firm has handled several provincial NDP campaigns, including recent runs in Nova Scotia and Manitoba. The Nova Scotia election saw the NDP gain five seats and retain its position as the official opposition. In Manitoba, NOW helped the party increase its majority and carry Premier Gary Doer to an easy re-election. Lavigne says the federal NDP watched the firm closely during the provincial campaigns: “They have a fantastic track record.”

Soon, NDP television spots began popping up where you least expected them: on prime time television. Once relegated to late, late night TV, NDP ads now played during the Academy Awards and Stanley Cup play-offs. The ads also infiltrated various community papers and radio stations, in multiple languages.

Despite the high-profile TV spots, marketing experts say the message was soft. Early ads touched briefly on issues like health care, cities, pensions and the environment, but didn’t focus on one point in particular. “If they’d given [voters] something to latch on to, they may have done better,” says Richard D. Johnson, chair of the department of marketing, business economics and law at the University of Alberta. Marketing specialist Martin Wales agrees. “They didn’t give me enough reason to vote for them—they didn’t present anything unique.”

However, the NDP was getting valuable screen time outside of the ads, as Layton began regularly making the evening news. “Layton has a skill for good soundbites—even without a seat he was in the national media for a year,” Wales observes.

The NDP hired a professional fundraiser and, in January, began mailing promotional packages to gear up for the expected spring election. The party targeted 100,000 NDP members and donors, and 200,000 addresses gleaned from progressive Canadian organizations. “The response was unprecedented for the NDP…. I would say we tripled our predictions,” marvels Diane Alexopoulos, the party’s fundraising coordinator. “We’ve surpassed our goals twice already—we have to keep drafting new plans.” She, too, attributes the sharp rise in support to excitement about Layton.

Coupling the NDP’s grassroots history with the growing power of the internet, the party borrowed a fundraising tactic from the American Democrats. Personal e-campaigns recruited NDP supporters—young, tech-savvy ones in particular—to run their own electronic fundraising campaigns on behalf of the party. Campaigners used their personal address books, and set fundraising goals for themselves. The average goal was $1,000. The initiative attracted 500 personal e-campaigners and raised almost $10,000. “The NDP did a good job of using the internet,” Wales remarks. He credits the party with innovative initiatives to lure people to their sites, pointing to Broadbent’s satirical online video in particular. “I think [the video] did do a number of good things, primarily introducing the internet to the election process,” he says.

In another attempt to attract younger voters, the NDP staged concerts like the Toronto event “Let’s Jack it Up,” hosted by Layton and Barenaked Ladies’ singer Steven Page. The event featured indie rock bands popular with the young folks like The Sadies and the Constantines. Lavigne says the artists themselves approached the NDP with the idea. “The artists come out and say, ‘We play for these people day in and day out and they’re hungry to hear a leader talk about how to make their country great,’” he says. “Let’s Jack it Up” played to a sellout crowd of over 2,000.

Jim Laxer, a York University political science professor and former NDP research director, attributes part of Layton’s youth appeal to his progressive platform. “It’s a very positive agenda that could actually speak to younger voters.” He notes that past NDP platforms have focused more on defending existing social programs, an appeal that targets older voters. “Let’s face it—Jack Layton is the first [NDP] leader to be able to speak at universities to a packed room in a long time,” Laxer says.

Perhaps the strangest example of the party’s cross-generational appeal came from a New Democrat with a cult celebrity status of his own. Ed Broadbent’s decision to join Layton’s team and return to politics after stepping down as leader in 1989 stirred up nostalgia among older NDP supporters. Strategists played up Broadbent’s return through traditional campaign tools like flyers and public appearances. Then, in late spring, the party received a gift of sorts. TV show This Hour Has 22 Minutes produced a mock music video featuring Broadbent rapping: “I’m the one you all should know/ Once more popular than Trudeau … Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee/ It’s time for voting NDP.” The show decided not to run it, and the NDP jumped on the chance to adopt the video as its own. “When we saw it, we realized its great potential to attract young people to the website,” Lavigne explains. “It was very successful—it went viral.” The video never ran as a television ad, but it received plenty of news coverage, drawing people to the NDP website where they could download and play the video. Its self-deprecating humour was a welcome step away from the perception that the party takes itself too seriously. “The NDP has a certain air of puritanism and self-righteousness,” Laxer notes. “Anything self-deprecating sounds good to me.”


It’s less than 60 hours before the polls open, and the waitresses at the Woolwich Arms pub in Guelph, Ontario, are saying it’s the busiest night they’ve witnessed. It’s just after midnight, and the pub is crammed beyond capacity with a crowd of 40- and 50-somethings who staked out a place at the Wooly in the early evening to ensure they’ll get to see Layton. Guelph is the final stop on today’s eight-city campaign trail. Layton’s NDP is near the height of its popularity. Today’s polls—the last before the election—place public support for the party at 17 percent, and even the most conservative pollsters are predicting 25 orange seats.

When the campaign bus arrives, two and a half hours late, more than 100 people are lining the grass outside. Layton exits the bus, again surrounded by camera crews and reporters, smiling and shaking hands. He makes his way through the cheering crowd into the pub’s small darts room. “The man, the legend,” one man remarks. “I shook his hand!” a flustered woman gasps, laughing like she’s just encountered a rock star.

Layton’s uncanny ability to draw people in, paired with tireless touring, helped give the NDP campaign a human face. Everywhere he went he spoke to packed rooms—that’s normal for larger parties, but for the NDP it was a surprising new development. The Toronto-Danforth all-candidates debate in a small community centre in Layton’s riding packed in several hundred residents, leaving at least 150 more outside in the rain, straining to catch the action on loudspeakers outside. (The all-candidates debate in Defence Minister Bill Graham’s neighboring Toronto-Centre riding drew just 40 people.) Layton’s relentless campaign schedule didn’t seem to bring him down—he always looked invigorated. “I’ve known Jack now for over 30 years, and he’s always had this tremendous energy,” says Laxer. “He’s an extra-human phenomenon.”

Even with Layton’s drive and appeal, the NDP just wasn’t equipped to fight in a new and unexpected battlefield. There are a few factors that can help explain—with the benefit of hindsight—the party’s reversal of fortune. The Liberal sponsorship scandal changed the dynamics of the campaign before it even officially started. After Christmas, the Liberals seemed untouchable. The NDP kicked off its TV campaign early in the year by taking aim at the Grits. After Adscam brought the Liberals down, and the united right suddenly became a huge player, the NDP shifted its focus to position itself as an alternative to the Conservatives. NDP TV spots began targeting both parties instead of focusing on just one, using catch phrases like “If you don’t trust the Liberals and you’re worried about the Conservatives’ hidden agenda, there is a positive choice.” Ken Wong, a marketing professor at Queen’s University, says this shift hurt the party. “I think that if they had stuck to their original message, which was anti-Liberal, instead of switching to anti-Conservative, they would have been more successful,” he says.

Laxer cites this “who to target” dilemma as a chronic thorn in the party’s side. “The biggest weakness of the campaign was the inability to figure out what to say to voters about the threat from the right,” Laxer says. He points to the NDP’s attempts to dismiss the Liberals as Conservatives in disguise as a huge mistake. In June, the party launched an Ontario-only TV ad that pegged Stephen Harper, Dalton McGuinty and Mike Harris together. “I would regard myself as someone on the left, but when they try to tell me that the Liberals and the Conservatives are the same, what’s left of my hair stands on end because I just don’t buy it.”

By June, Harper’s Conservatives had made enough public gaffes to effectively scare most moderate Canadians. As gay rights and abortion edged their way into the election spotlight, the Liberals pounced and positioned themselves as the social justice-loving, tree-hugging, progressive choice. On June 22, Paul Martin told British Columbia voters: “There are two parties that could form the next government. If you are thinking of voting NDP, I ask you to think about the implications of your vote. In a race as close as this, you may well help Stephen Harper become prime minister.” The Liberals were hijacking the NDP platform in a last-ditch attempt to save themselves. And it worked. Even when it didn’t make sense—in ridings where the Liberals stood no chance—many previous NDP supporters checked the Liberal box, ironically pushing the Conservatives ahead just enough to win in dozens of NDP/Conservative swing ridings across the country. Henry Jacek, a political science professor at McMaster University, points to Oshawa as a perfect example of counter-intuitive strategic voting. Just a few days before the election, the NDP candidate Sid Ryan was in the lead in this southern Ontario riding, followed by the Conservatives, with the Liberals a distant third. After Martin’s appeal to vote Liberal, voters pushed the Conservatives into the lead, with just enough progressives voting Liberal to put the NDP in second place. Lavigne attacks the logic behind strategic voting, claiming the randomness of the outcome takes all the strategy out of the act. “I call that voting for something bad to avoid something worse,” he says. “I don’t call that str
ategic at all. That’s the opposite of strategic.”

He says the party will keep grappling with how to address the problem of strategic voting, but he offers no insight into what exactly it will do. “Liberal scare tactics elected more Conservatives,” Lavigne contends. “We’ll continue to appeal to voters to not buy into the fear.”

The NDP also may have underestimated the Green Party threat—a party that came from obscurity to qualify for funding from Elections Canada. Jacek recommends that in the leadup to the next election the NDP attack the Greens. “I suspect Green Party voters are far to the left of the people running the Green Party. This is not a European-style Green Party,” he says. “The NDP largely ignored the Greens. In hindsight, perhaps that wasn’t wise. Even if they got half, or even one third of the Green Party votes, they’d have more seats.” Lavigne agrees. “We’d probably have another 10 to 20 seats had the Green Party vote not been at four percent nationally,” he says. “I think in the next election people will understand that the Green Party is not progressive—it’s a right-wing, regressive party…. I think with scrutiny and closer examination people will see the Green Party for what it really is.”

As the NDP prepares for the first sitting of the new government in October—just one seat away from giving the Liberals the balance of power—Layton’s role is still uncertain. But the next election may be sooner than anyone expects. And, for all Layton’s political experience, he’s still a rookie in Ottawa. Laxer notes that run-off elections, the type that occur soon after the election of a minority government, tend to treat third parties badly. But he’s optimistic that Layton will be able to buck this trend. He predicts the Parliament convening in October will be a progressive one, and if the NDP can take credit for its role in implementing popular new policies, the party just might be able to improve its showing next time around. “Jack has got to take credit for things,” Laxer says. “And—I’m saying this in the most complimentary way—Jack is pretty good at taking credit. As a political leader, you have to be.”

Lavigne says the party has no regrets. “I can’t think of any tool that we could have used that we didn’t,” he muses, noting that the NDP is already gearing up for the dropping of the writ. “The next election could be 12 to 24 months away. We’re going to take all the good things from this campaign and use them again. And, our guard is going to be up.”

Wong gives the NDP the nod for running the best marketing campaign, but he’s careful to point out that being a winner among losers is not much of a victory: “That doesn’t mean I think it’s done a good job. I think the other two parties have done a horrific job.” Johnson criticizes the Liberals and Conservatives for relying too heavily on attack ads, and credits the NDP for incorporating a positive message in its television appeal. “You don’t give people a fear message without a positive way to solve it,” Johnson says.

“When everyone looks like a loser, people tend to stick with the status quo, which looks like what happened here.”

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