Monday, April 11, 2011

The Jack Party



The NDP released their platform today. A bit late, but better late than never, right? Anyway, the first thing I noticed about it had nothing whatsoever to do with the words in the document. So let me speak about it first, without offering comment on the contents of the budget.

The document has nineteen pictures in it. This document, which represents the shared ambitions of 308 candidates and of 36 incumbent MPs, is illustrated with pictures such as these:
  • Jack Layton smiling in front of a big Canadian flag.
  • Jack Layton smiling at a baby.
  • Jack Layton looking a bit awkward in front of a big Canadian flag.
  • Jack Layton smiling at a big scary-looking machine.
  • Jack Layton about to be attacked by a pharmacist.
  • Jack Layton buying tomatoes.
  • Jack Layton speaking into a mic in front of a big Canadian flag.
  • Jack Layton and his wife and fellow NDP MP Olivia Chow playing with Play-Doh.
  • Jack Layton smiling at a lectern.
  • Jack Layton looking at children.
  • A two-page spread of Jack Layton smiling in front of a big Canadian flag.

This party, with a candidate in every riding in the country, feels no need to show pictures of any of them who do not presently live in the Layton household. The front page uses the same logo that you see on signs in front of houses - the logo that puts Jack Layton's name before the party's name and in a bigger font. The preamble to the platform uses the first-person singular, 'I' or 'my', fourteen times. The word 'we' appears four times.

Now don't get me wrong: I like Jack Layton. I think he's a great leader for the party and would make a very good prime minister. I'm happy that he is as admired and liked as much as he is by the Canadian public. I like that he's a 'likeable' guy. I'm pleased at the number of Canadians who think he'd make the best Prime Minister.

But I think the NDP is currently going too far in what analysts might call a 'cult of personality'. I think the extent to which they're willing to hide the identity of a 79-year-old party behind the smiling face of a single individual is worrying. It's worrying for the long-term identity of the party, which will be around long after Jack Layton has entered his richly-deserved retirement. I worry that people see the NDP as 'Layton's party' - particularly in Québec, where its current good polling numbers are by no means permanent and appear to be at least as much a reflection of a personal attraction to Layton as to anything the party, which got 1.8% of the vote in Québec in the last election before Layton took over as leader, has to say.

We've seen it before, after all. For whatever reason, the NDP is a party that gets more attached to its leaders than other parties. And whenever they leave, the party struggles to recover its momentum. Will it happen this time too? Well, barring the remote possibility that Layton will be replaced by someone with off-the-bad star power even greater than Layton's, yes. And potentially the fall will be hard.

And will that party that abhors the Conservatives' rebranding of the Government of Canada as 'the Harper Government' but has no problem rebranding itself 'Jack Layton NDP' be able to rebound? I hope so... but it might be a long itme coming.

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