On Saturday, Canadians said goodbye to their Leader of the Official Opposition and one of the most popular political figures in the country. New Democrats laid to rest the most successful party leader in their history, and a man whose name will likely be repeated in future with the same reverence as that reserved for Tommy Douglas, first head and spiritual heart of the NDP.
The 2011 election was, by far, the NDP’s best result in its 50 year history. Even against the standards of the Liberals and the Conservatives, Jack Layton’s achievement on May 2 was remarkable. At 103 seats, Mr. Layton tied for the fifth largest opposition ever sent to Ottawa in the 41 elections that have taken place since 1867. But even before 2011’s historic result, Jack Layton stacked up well against the party’s two other great leaders.
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Such a list of accomplishments might seem unattainable by any other leader of the New Democrats. Did the party hit its peak under Jack Layton? Time will tell, and the race to become the next leader of the NDP is underway. Of the three vacant postings on Parliament Hill, this is the most attractive but it is no more of an easy assignment than the leadership of the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois. Those two parties have hit rock bottom, and there is only one way to go from there. For the NDP, the next leader needs to hold on to Layton's success and improve upon it.
Four years is a long time, however. Certainly long enough for the next leader to put his or her stamp on the party and prepare it for the 2015 election.
This isn't the first time that an NDP leader has had this long to prepare for an election. Ed Broadbent in 1975 and Audrey McLaughlin in 1989 each had four years to prepare. Broadbent used the time wisely and grew his party's support, while McLaughlin led the party to its worst ever result. So history is no guide in this regard.
The Liberals under Jean Chrétien had three years to prepare for the 1993 election, and were swept to power. Jean Charest took over the PCs in 1993 and increased the party's caucus from two to 20 MPs four years later.
Likely the biggest event to take place outside of the NDP's control between now and 2015 is the Quebec provincial election. What happens there could play a huge role in how Quebecers feel about its adherence to the NDP at the federal level. Whether it be through a sovereigntist re-birth or the rise of the right under François Legault, it could hurt them. If the result of the election and a failure on the part of the new (or re-elected) government leads to another backlash against the establishment parties, it could boost them. We shall see.