Layton’s hiatus presents a critical time for the NDP: expert

NDP leader Jack Layton is temporarily stepping down to focus on his health. To preserve the other party's gains, other members will have to take the spotlight, says a Brock expert. Photo:

NDP leader Jack Layton is temporarily stepping down to focus on his health. Other members will have to do "heavy lifting" to preserve the party's gains, says a Brock expert. Photo:

With Jack Layton temporarily stepping down for health reasons, preserving the NDP’s recent gains depends on the ability of its prominent MPs to step into the spotlight, says a Brock expert in Canadian and labour politics.

All eyes have been on the NDP this week after Layton announced Monday that he had a new type of cancer. He is stepping down as leader but plans to return in the fall. The party has backed his pick for interim leader, rookie Quebec MP Nycole Turmel.

Larry Savage

Larry Savage

This is the time for some of the party’s other potential stars to step into the spotlight, said Larry Savage, associate professor of Political Science and Labour Studies. And it’s critical that they present themselves as able to govern.

“When people think of the NDP, they think of Jack Layton,” he said. “His personal popularity outstrips the popularity of the party. Life without Layton will be difficult for the NDP, so it’s important for his shadow cabinet to step up.”

Savage predicts that in addition to Turmel, the public will see more of foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar, and deputy leader Libby Davies, and even agriculture critic and Welland MP Malcolm Allen.

“They’re going to have to do some heavy lifting,” he said.

The NDP saw a landmark growth in this spring’s election. By becoming the official opposition, it knocked the Liberals out of second place and the Bloc Quebecois into near extinction. Much of this had to do with Layton’s personal charisma, particularly with “Layton Liberals” – people who previously voted Liberal but instead switched to the NDP.

Layton’s announcement has created a crucial moment for the party, Savage said. In the coming months, it is critical that the party consolidates its support in Quebec to get repeat voters. It is also important for it to perform competently and flawlessly to earn the public’s trust, and to keep the Liberals in third place. The party seems to be aiming for the latter by drifting closer to the centre, he said. Recent moves include proposals to remove the word “socialism” from its constitution earlier this year.

Layton’s gaunt appearance at the press conference startled people, but he would not be the first opposition leader to come back from a health crisis, Savage said. Jean Chretien underwent surgery to remove a nodule from his lung in 1991 and eventually became Prime Minister. Former Bloc Quebecois leader Lucien Bouchard lost his leg to necrotizing fasciitis (“flesh-eating disease”) in 1994 and went on to become Premier of Quebec.

Turmel is not a shocking choice for leader, Savage said. She is bilingual and uncontroversial. She is an experienced labour leader and has no leadership aspirations of her own.

“It makes sense to put someone with her organizational experience into an interim leadership position,” he said. “She does, however, have pretty big shoes to fill.”

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