Jack Layton slides into a booth at the Queen Mother Café to help me read the tea leaves now that his first federal election campaign is a mere six months away. The good news is that he's been able to pull off a "unite the left" strategy, and even the most hard-to-please social movements are onside. The bad is those worrisome portents from focus groups the party has been conducting: it turns out the world has changed, and voters are no longer willing to mark an X for a party as social conscience. In fact, thousands of market research dollars later, the NDP has discovered that voters find it harder and harder to get behind a party that never wins.
So, will Layton's maiden trip to the national polls turn out to be more Howard Hampton than David Miller?
Certainly, a political leader can't do much without a united party base, and on that score Layton has been doing very well, so well, in fact, that he's getting converts from other parties. In the glow of his tenure as party leader, senior ex-Greens have recently signed on. There are encouraging words as well from social movement members of the New Politics Initiative (NPI), who not too long ago were talking about putting the party out of its misery, and from the marginal though still hearty Paul Hellyer, a nationalist and former Liberal cabinet minister.
"What Jack is doing is very good,' says Judy Rebick, a leader in the NPI. "It's very exciting, because you don't see in very many places in the world a social democratic leader trying to bring the party into the 21st century, build alliances and democratize the party.'
The NPI has wound down, she says, and will formally disband at a conference in February, in large part because Layton has adopted most of its ideas. The only concern now, she says, will be whether he'll be able to withstand internal pressures to run the same old campaign.
"Everyone in the NPI is positive toward Jack,' says Rebick, who quietly took out a party membership to vote for Layton in the leadership campaign but has turned down his entreaties to run as a candidate in the next election.
Other big names have said yes, however. Former CUPE prez Judy Darcy wants to run in Vancouver. Meanwhile, former Green Party of Canada chair Gretchen Schwarz has been asked to run in the Gatineau area just across the river from Ottawa. Greens usually badmouth the NDP, she says. "In the Green party we were building a vehicle, but we weren't getting our message out,' she says. Former Green party national leader Joan Russow has also joined the NDP and hopes other activists will follow.
Even Paul Hellyer, the iconoclastic ex-Grit cabinet minister and Canada Action Party founder who rowed with Pierre Trudeau, thinks "the NDP has in Jack Layton the only leader with the potential for the critically important job at hand' - saving Canada from assimilation with the U.S. of A.
Hellyer figures Layton is not as far left as PET was when he became leader of the Liberal party. But, he says, Layton faces a major problem - he leads a party that's unelectable and doomed to the political sidelines. Hellyer's answer: "Let's form a party that would embrace all the progressives and patriots from all the parties and make it the alternative.'
Leading that agglomeration, Layton could go places as unhappy campers in the disappearing Progressive Conservative party and left-wing Liberals signed on, Hellyer predicts.
Hellyer's improbable scenario is both flattering and cautionary for Layton, a reminder that as well as keeping the margins happy, he has to connect with Main Street Canada, which is more at home at a Tim Hortons than at a political protest.
The focus groups, he says, told the party that most people don't share the NDP's revulsion for the Liberals. "There was a disquieting level of comfort (with the Liberals), and that helped us understand what our challenge is,' Layton says.
On top of that, the emergence of a united right-wing party may set the stage for strategic voting that leads voters lemming-like to the Liberals, with disastrous consequences for the NDP. Even if Layton gets up a head of steam, what's to stop the Grits from temporarily occupying that territory, as the Ontario Liberals did so adeptly in the recent provincial election?
Despite the daunting challenge ahead, Layton is all bubbles as we sit in a booth at the Queen Mum, not far from his house in Chinatown. The ideas flow as easily as the red wine, from the inspired to the improbable, a sign of the people he's been talking to lately.
A new party? Well, what about taking the word "progressive,' which a certain party no longer wants, and incorporating it into the NDP moniker somehow? he muses. "It would give us a way of opening the door slightly more broadly than in the past. It's been suggested to me. I haven't dismissed it out of hand.'
Nixing NAFTA? Well, he says, the place to start is Chapter 11, which allows foreign companies to sue the Canadian government over policies they don't like. If negotiations (over Chapter 11) fail, then you pull the plug. So you're more for reform than abrogation? I probe. In any negotiation you have to be prepared to trigger the withdrawal clause, he says.
Even on Queen Street late at night, he's trying to balance reality with what the party base wants.