Canada’s latest federal election ended in bitter recriminations for some party leaders. Voters who had heard Stephen Harper set aside his very own law against snap elections, had heard him proclaim that governing had become impossible for him without a majority. Now, largely through his own campaign errors, Harper is back where he was before he spent $300 million and endless hours of our time as election workers. While most of his fellow Conservatives will probably be too terrified to say so, even a small fraction of Harper’s blunders would have had the old-fashioned Tories baying for his blood. Urged on by most English-speaking media, frustrated Liberals were already in full cry for Stéphane Dion’s scalp on the morrow of the election, and they did not have long to wait for his resignation.

Having secured a strengthened minority, while falling a dozen seats short of an absolute majority of 155 seats, Harper may gain a few months of unchecked power while ambitious Liberals parade around the country, raising the cash their party obviously lacked this fall and nailing down potential delegates.

Other parties have, so far, been more appreciative of their leaders. The Greens have an understandable grievance that close to a million votes could not win them a single seat. Despite her little deal with Stéphane Dion to rob Central Nova Liberals of a candidate, not even the eloquent and charming Elizabeth May could place better than second. Occasionally an embarrassment to supporters in earlier campaigns, Gilles Duceppe proved almost faultless in 2008, picking up Stephen Harper’s Quebec clangers with admirable agility for a man showing his physical age.

The party that seems most pleased with itself on the morning of October 15 actually fell farthest from its proclaimed goal. Hardly was the writ dropped before the NDP’s Jack Layton staked his claim to be the next prime minister. If Harper had quit because he didn’t like the working conditions, Jack was ready, willing and able to take on a vacant job. Instead, the NDP fell short of its 1988 maximum of 43 seats.

The party that seems most pleased with itself on the morning of October 15 actually fell farthest from its proclaimed goal.

It was wiped out in its ancestral province of Saskatchewan and did poorly, especially relative to expectations, in British Columbia. Layton lacked flash in both televised debates, though his French far exceeded previous NDP standards. Did his claim to be in contention for the top job alarm voters?

Oddly enough, many years have passed since New Democrats last dared to be so bold. In 1971, a freshly chosen Ontario leader, Stephen Lewis, appeared on a bluetinged leaflet, kicking the leaves in Queen’s Park and billing himself the province’s next premier. Even the NDP’s internal polls suggested that this was a mite ambitious for a party running third, behind even the Ontario Liberals of Bob Nixon. A Tory fundraiser later boasted to me that the Lewis leaflet was an invaluable prop whenever he and his chums trolled for corporate cash on Bay Street. Shaken by Lewis’s disappointing showing, subsequent NDP leaders buried their dreams under more modest slogans. That “more New Democrats” would make things better became the theme for a party unwilling even to be caught dreaming improbable dreams of wielding power in any foreseeable political future.

In 1990, when I modestly suggested organizing a pre-election conference to prepare Bob Rae and his followers for the challenges of governing Ontario, the notion was instantly shushed to silence as a dangerous step into the realm of the unthinkable. No doubt the cautious felt vindicated when, to general astonishment, Rae and his fellow campaigners won power in Ontario’s next election.

I had suggested that a pre-election meeting for potential ministers could be a sign of both ambition and prudence. One result was that when Ontario voters punished David Peterson’s Liberals for ignoring their plight in a post-FTA recession, the NDP victors were, to put it kindly, unready. A radical new government has literally a couple of months in a parliamentary system to grab the levers of power. Unless they know where they are and how to manipulate them to fulfill their minimal promises, most potential for change will jam and voters will feel legitimate disillusion.

Was Jack Layton’s claim to power in 2008 a mistake? Or was it about time? So far the evidence is that it forced both the media and his opponents to pay more attention to him and the NDP than they had intended. Layton may not have galvanized the extra million voters the NDP needs for an electoral victory but neither did he frighten those potential supporters back to the Liberals.

When the NDP was formed more than half a century ago, one of its prime goals was to cross the Ottawa River and become a “two-nation” party. On October 14, it got closer to that goal than at any time in its history. If Quebec voters disappointed the NDP on election night, they saved Outremont for Tom Mulcair, the sole Quebec NDP MP at dissolution, and they gave the NDP a bigger raise in its share of the Quebec popular vote than any other party got, at a time when the main competitor for that vote, the Bloc, had been allowed by Stephen Harper to reclaim its founding turf. The NDP formed in 1961 to promote bilingualism and the two-nations concept of Canada, and Jack Layton emerged as credible alternatives both to the traditional bleus and rouges of Quebec politics and to the Bloc. Indeed, on October 14, Canadian voters saw Layton’s party emerge as a panCanadian force from the eastern tip of Newfoundland to Vancouver Island, and in every major city, even downtown Edmonton, Alberta.

As with other party leaders, election night brought Layton both joys and disappointments. Losses like those of the veteran Peggy Nash in Toronto’s Parkdale-High Park and a valiant, highly articulate newcomer, Anne Lagacé-Dowson, in Westmount-Ville-Marie were wounds any political party must accept as the price of politics in the hundreds of local struggles against apathy and partisan tradition that make up any Canadian general election. Parliament and the NDP will also be richer and more effective for other, as yet unknown newcomers who benefited from Layton’s solid, almost erro-rfree trans-Canada campaign.

Layton’s campaign message, contrasting his kitchen table preoccupations with Harper’s concern for the boardroom table, remains to be played out in the coming months of economic crisis. His policies, like those of Dion and Harper, were never re-costed during the campaign to fit revenues that will lag as our US-dependent economy sheds profits, production and employment.

The pragmatic wisdom that Toronto city councillor Layton brought to the national shame of homelessness should be redeployed and aligned with the fresh talent in Layton’s new caucus. Canada needs fresh thinking for the cruel and complex social issues that entrap the people sitting at our kitchen tables and in shelters for the homeless.

The NDP’s direct ancestor, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, made its richest contribution to Canada in a wave of humane, progressive policies for families, students, the sick and the disabled. Impossible to ignore after the CCF had enough strength in opinion polls to form a government in 1943, its ideas had to be accepted if our Liberal Party wanted to survive.

Most of them had been born and taken shape in our awareness during some of the cruellest peacetime years we have yet experienced, from 1930 to 1935. Great things can be done in hard times, and the strongest levers for human betterment often begin as policy ideas.

Desmond Morton was the Hiram Mills Emeritus Professor in the Department of History and Classical Studies at McGill University and a past director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. Morton was a graduate of the Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean, the Royal Military College of Canada, Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and the London School of Economics. He spent a decade in the Canadian Army before embarking on a career in teaching.

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