KAMLOOPS, British Columbia (Reuters) - For most of his three decades in politics, Jack Layton has been a figure on the fringe. Now he stands poised to pull his pro-worker New Democratic Party into the mainstream.
The bicycle-riding grandfather has used his charisma and a mostly smart campaign to seize an outside shot at power in Monday’s federal election, an ambition that once would have been a left-wing fantasy.
At minimum, Layton, whose hip surgery and battle with prostate cancer generated whispers that this campaign would be his last, seems set to become leader of Canada’s Official Opposition, if his party gets the second largest number of seats in Parliament after the Conservatives.
That would give him a shot of heading any coalition of opposition parties that could oust the Conservatives, if the ruling party fails to win a majority.
It’s a startling resurgence for both the NDP and Layton himself, who pumped the cane he still uses after hip surgery in the air at rallies to punctuate his fighting spirit.
“There’s a level of energy in the campaign, of determination,” said Layton. “It feels steady and I think we’ve been able to convey the same messages from the beginning to the end, that Ottawa is not working well.”
Layton, a rare western politician to sport a mustache, promises to balance the budget in four years by hiking corporate taxes and raising other revenues to offset C$69 billion ($73 billion) in new spending over four years.
His strong performance in party leaders’ debates and overtures to the mostly French-speaking province of Quebec helped the party there, and that appeal has spilled over to other provinces too.
But Layton’s prospects of power have left him walking a thin line.
He has fortified his appeal to left-wing supporters with promises of a carbon cap-and-trade program and yanking billions in subsidies from oil companies, while still painting himself as nonthreatening to investors and business.
Layton, who in 2003 told a magazine he was proud to be called a socialist, made his first widely reported campaign gaffe Thursday, telling Reuters the fiercely independent Bank of Canada should hold off on raising interest rates because the economy was too fragile to cope.
That alarmed some investors and allowed the Conservatives to blast him for “shooting from the lip.” [ID:nN29134635]
But Layton insists the party will play nice with investors if it wins power.
“It’s a question of working in a predictable and stable fashion with business,” he said Friday. “That’s what business is looking for, that’s what New Democrats will provide.”
Also critical will be the NDP’s ability to get out the vote in areas where the party didn’t expect to contend.
In Quebec, which could bring the party’s biggest gains, the party admits it may not have the volunteers necessary in rural areas to herd supporters to the polls.
Layton, 60, has headed the New Democrats since 2003, winning a reputation as someone prepared to do business even with those at the opposite end on the political spectrum.
In 2005, Layton wrung C$4.6 billion ($4.7 billion) in social spending from the then Liberal government in return for support for the budget. In 2009 he helped the Conservatives defeat a Liberal no-confidence motion in return for $1 billion in additional funding for Employment Insurance.
He came close to becoming a federal cabinet minister in December 2008 when he agreed to a deal with the Liberals and the separatist Bloc Quebecois that would have toppled the Conservatives in favor of a Liberal-NDP coalition government.
The deal fell through when the Conservatives suspended Parliament, and stayed in power.
Layton’s deal-making skills may again be tested after the election if, as polls suggest, the Conservatives win another minority and leave Layton in charge of a large opposition.
Additional reporting by Randall Palmer in Ottawa