Jack Layton isn't officially out of the gate yet, but he's already attracted a flurry of flattery, some of it from unexpected quarters. It's not only members of the alternative New Politics Initiative who are rooting for Layton as leader of the federal NDP, but even some centrist -- some would say right-wing -- activists as well.Since the outgoing leader made her announcement last week, the listserv of NDProgress, a party group that wants to scale back the role of labour, has been chockablock with superlatives about the Toronto city councillor. One contributor hailed him as "neither of the right or the left, but someone with energy and enthusiasm who will take us all forward."
Meanwhile, Layton basks in the glow of his just-ended term as president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, where he appears to have been a big hit with the mayors not only of the metropolises but also of places like New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, whose mayor, Ann MacLean, tells NOW he's an "inspiring leader, extremely effective, a very hard worker and a good listener."
Heady stuff, but it may not matter. Even though the official leadership campaign has not yet begun, the rules under which it will be conducted are being put in place as we speak. It's the choices that will be made at meetings this week and at the party's federal council in Halifax next month that will determine whether the new kid on the block has a winnable fight or the game is as good as over before it begins.
Members of federal council had assumed they could convert the policy convention planned for March 2003 in Hamilton into a leadership event. But, says party president Adam Giambrone, that timetable may no longer apply. Outgoing leader Alexa McDonough raised eyebrows last week by suggesting that the leadership will be decided this fall -- news to many who assumed the March date was operative.
Late November or early December would be the worst possible time for party members consumed with final exams, says Giambrone. "We have to look at what's good for young people, and when they hear end of November or beginning of December, they'll have an apoplectic fit." A date in January would be better, he says.
The decision will be taken this week, when Giambrone and the other party officers meet during the Canadian Labour Congress convention in Vancouver.
From the Layton camp's point of view, later is better, says organizer Bob Gallagher. On the one hand, the one-member-one-vote system helps Layton, because there's less of a premium on the old-boy connections that veteran MPs like Bill Blaikie and Lorne Nystrom -- Layton's likely opponents -- can use to their advantage.
"It's not to Jack's advantage to be earlier, and it's not to the advantage of the party if it wants to use this as an opportunity to sign people up and to win some public attention and momentum," Gallagher says.
Any advantages accruing to Layton from being a new face for a tired federal party could be squelched by procedural details. One issue, says Gallagher, is the cut-off date for signing up new members eligible to vote. The official report of a party committee says 60 days, which means that any new member not signed up two months before the actual date of the election would not be able to vote.
The period currently being discussed is 30 days, but even that, Gallagher says, would be a problem for Layton if there's a fall vote. "During the summer you can't do much. So if the vote is in November, you just have September and October -- and maybe even not all of October."
As well as the date, there's a question about what kind of ballot will be used. One type being considered is the "cascading ballot," in which the party member at the outset indicates first, second, third and subsequent choices. The trouble with that, says one Layton helper, is that the campaign becomes meaningless. "If there were some momentum for a new candidate, by the time the media started to pay attention the votes would already be in the mail."
On top of that, labour is still guaranteed 25 per cent of the votes. Says Michael Isaac, a member of the committee that drafted the new voting rules, "The labour vote will be done in exactly the same way that they used to vote at conventions. The unions will pick delegates to vote (for a certain candidate). It's disappointing and not as democratic as it could be."
There will be greater than usual interest among party members in the arcane deliberations in Halifax next month about voting procedures. After a decade of two lacklustre social workers, both with the initials AM, there's a yearning for a leader NDPers can feel good about.
"The people who've drifted away, I'm not sure they're going to join for Bill Blaikie," says one prominent member of the Ontario party. "Jack has a vision, and I think that's maybe what Canadians are looking for -- someone who's got a plan."
Of course, there are those who have misgivings about Layton. The first chance he'd have to take another run at a seat would be in the next election, two years from now, and a leader without a seat would be of little use to the party, says Lorne Nystrom. First elected in 1969, he believes experience still counts. "We've seen fresh faces before. The most recent one was Stockwell Day. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. Jack is a very good city councillor."
Layton has run in two federal elections and lost, and there will be those who'll worry that it won't necessarily be three times lucky. But Ontario party secretary Bruce Cox says the extra profile that a candidate gets from being a federal leader would allow Layton to do what he couldn't in the past -- beat Dennis Mills in Toronto-Danforth. "You shouldn't underestimate what it means to have the leader of a party running in the seat," says Cox.
Layton faces another hurdle. He is, after all, from downtown Toronto, haven of the homosexual, countercultural and self-centred, who think that, yes, they are indeed the most sophisticated people in the country. "If they (the Layton people) focus too much on using the Toronto media to reach the membership, Bill (Blaikie) will stomp all over them," says party member Jordan Berger, who has been offering some assistance to the Layton camp but has not committed. "I don't think Jack really understands the party."
Blaikie is not without friends in Ontario. One of them is party leader Howard Hampton, who, if he could, would probably support his old friend. However, that may not be possible.
"Howard and Bill go way back, and long-term friendships count for something," says MPP Marilyn Churley, an enthusiastic Layton backer who was recently in her native Newfoundland talking up her guy. "But no one votes for Howard Hampton and Ontario New Democrats in Manitoba, and let's look at this from a selfish point of view. To have Jack Layton running in Ontario and the potential to sign up new members and strengthen the party in Ontario cannot be sneezed at. I think that's the kind of thing Howard is going to have to weigh."
Meanwhile, Layton's "thinking tour" continues. He was in Vancouver this week for the CLC convention before taking the red-eye back to T.O. in time for a debate on the privatization of water, a must-attend session if he hopes to get any of the 25 per cent of NDP convention votes earmarked for labour. Already, he's starting to sound like the unity candidate.
"One of the tests in my mind (about whether to run) is whether there will be people from various factions who'd be willing to support my campaign. I would like someone looking at the people on my opening list to say, "That's interesting. I wouldn't have thought those people would have been on the same page.'"
Timing is everything -- if the NDP picks the fall for a convention, Layton's in trouble.