Jack Layton is an unlikely oracle for the NDP's political dreamers. A white male from downtown T.O., he doesn't have the underdog credentials of former leaders like Audrey McLaughlin or Alexa McDonough that NDPers like so much, or the reassuring ordinary-Canadian style of Ed Broadbent. Some of his most loyal supporters don't even like him -- they complain of his arrogance, vanity and self-righteousness. But they can't help being buoyed by his energy and political inventiveness. On the local scene, he has remained for 20 years one of the city's most effective councillors. He's tilted at windmills -- and now we're getting them, as a source of clean power.
More than any of the other leadership candidates, Layton is the vehicle for the ambitions of frustrated NDPers. Some of them want the party to finally realize that their Canada includes Toronto, which hasn't elected an NDP MP in 15 years. Others want to do politics in a way that makes it relevant for younger Canadians.
Perhaps most of all, Layton is the beneficiary of those who believe that the lethargic federal party can't afford to treat the leadership like a gold watch automatically awarded after a couple of decades of loyal service. If such a prize were being handed out, there'd be no more worthy recipient than respected Question Period inquisitor Bill Blaikie, Layton's main competitor. Layton the animator better suits the needs of a party whose members don't any longer want a prisoner of Parliament as leader and who have become estranged from the bureaucratic outpost on the Hill.
For all his talents, Layton has never quite mastered the art of political timing. Two futile flings for a federal seat, one against the eccentric but entrenched Dennis Mills, and a failed bid for the mayor's chair -- pushing policies too green for the time -- shows a politician whose considerable ambition sometimes overwhelms his sense of timing. The failures, though, have never cracked an inner core, fortified by the self-confidence of one born to power. (His late father, Robert, was a minister in Brian Mulroney's government.) Finally, the star councillor might just snag that larger platform he's always sought. So now, as he always does, he's created a new opportunity for himself -- and for the party.