OTTAWA (Reuters) - Jack Layton, who died of cancer on Monday, was the charismatic voice and heart of the New Democratic Party, which he led to its best ever performance in the May 2 election.
Layton, 61, took over the NDP in 2003, when it was floundering on the margins of Canadian politics. He pulled the party toward the center while stressing the importance of social justice and he built support with a beaming smile and his trademark good-natured enthusiasm.
Layton, generally seen as the party leader that voters would most like to have a beer with, made clear he had little interest in old-style adversarial politics and would cooperate with other parties to advance his agenda.
In an open letter written two days before he died, he said that New Democrats would “put a compelling new alternative” to voters.
“Give them a careful hearing, consider the alternatives and consider that we can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together,” he wrote.
Under Layton’s leadership, the NDP improved its standing in the elections of 2004, 2006 and 2008. In 2011, thanks to a near flawless campaign, it vaulted from 36 seats to 103 seats to became the main opposition party for the first time.
Layton was diagnosed with prostate cancer in early 2010 and had surgery on a fractured hip weeks before the 2011 campaign began. Yet he turned his illness into an asset, waving his cane as a symbol of resistance and defiance.
He was the face of the party to such an extent that many voters in French-speaking Quebec, the NDP’s new stronghold, described themselves as Jacquistes, a play on his first name, Jack. Some could not name their local candidate, yet they voted in excitement about Layton.
“He moved us forward by conveying to the people of Canada that (he) was a doer, that he wanted reason in politics, he wanted to work with others,” former NDP leader Ed Broadbent told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
But the campaign clearly took its toll on Layton, and he said on July 25 that he was stepping down to fight a second kind of cancer. It was his last public appearance.
Layton entered politics in 1982 as a city councilor in Toronto, where he was on the left wing of the council of Canada’s largest city.
In federal politics he wanted to roll back corporate tax cuts and boost social spending, and he differed from the Liberals and Conservatives -- then the two biggest parties -- in opposing Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan.
But he was also ready to work with opponents.
In 2005, he famously wrung C$4.6 billion in social spending from Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin in return for supporting the budget, and in 2009 he helped Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper defeat a Liberal no-confidence motion in return for C$1 billion for Employment Insurance.
“Jack gave his fight against cancer everything he had. Indeed, Jack never backed down from any fight,” Harper said.
Layton came close to becoming a cabinet minister in December 2008 when he agreed a deal with the Liberals and the separatist Bloc Quebecois that would have toppled the Conservative government and installed a Liberal-NDP coalition.
The deal fell through when the governing Conservatives suspended Parliament, and managed to stay in power.
Born on July 18, 1950, Layton is succeeded by his wife, NDP Member of Parliament Olivia Chow, and by two children from his first marriage.
Editing by Janet Guttsman