This is the Life: Will the spirit live on?

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I wouldn’t have predicted the national response to Jack Layton’s death. In the week leading up to his state funeral, not even hurricane Irene and the defeat of the HST could move the story to the side. It is, obviously, a reflection of how Layton connected to people as he worked tirelessly to promote his values.

First, a confession. I wasn’t a card-carrying member of the Jack Layton fan club. While he was obviously personable, the sincerity to which so many have attested wasn’t as apparent to me. I’m willing to admit that I might have underestimated the man.

That he became admired to the point that it was determined he was deserving of a state funeral is a testament to a man with personality, principles and perseverance. After all, he never served as a mayor, premier or prime minister.

Jack Layton was a study in contrasts when placed alongside then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. Both were academics — Ignatieff a Harvard lecturer and Layton a former Ryerson professor with a PhD in political science. The results of the last federal election, in which the NDP, for the first time ever, formed the official Opposition, were a clear indication that Layton was the superior communicator. That he was able to push the Bloc Québécois out of its dominance in Quebec was a surprise, but less so in hindsight. Reports last week said that in as the federal election campaign got rolling, more and more Quebec voters began to refer to Layton as “Jack”, which is apparently a sure indication that he was making a strong emotional connection.

It has been refreshing in recent years, I think, to have Canadian federal party leaders who are not lawyers. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is an economist, Ignatieff a historian and author, and Layton a political scientist. It’s a bit of a departure from the traditional Canadian political scene and one wonders whether it will continue when the NDP and Liberals select new leaders.

As NDP members struggle through their grief and try to sift through potential successors they will undoubtedly find the challenge daunting. In Layton, not only did they have a man who lived and breathed public service, but they got a “twofer”. Layton’s wife, Olivia Chow, was a partner in every sense of the word, and certainly just as much a political animal as her husband. When Layton was defeated in a Toronto mayoralty race the loss was tempered by the fact that Chow was elected to city council. They were an inseparable political team and seemed to form a tandem that was greater than the sum of its parts.

What happens in Canadian federal politics now? For all his kind words about Layton, Harper must be privately smiling at his good fortune. First he was handed a majority when Ignatieff failed miserably to ignite the imaginations of Canadians and now he no longer has to look across the House to see a popular and effective Opposition leader.

Neither the NDP or Liberals have to be in any great rush to find successors to those who led them in the last campaign. Harper’s government has four years to enjoy its majority and there is some danger in selecting a leader who might not currently be a member of Parliament. For a new leader to get defeated in a byelection — an unlikelihood, but not an impossibility — it would be a huge setback for the party. It might be prudent for a successor to follow Layton’s example and lead from outside, which would provide ample opportunity to travel the country and build up grass roots support.

As they head toward leadership campaigns, the Liberals have an advantage in that their choice will not have to be constantly compared to Ignatieff. A new NDP leader will not enjoy such a luxury. He or she will be succeeding a man who was a tough act to follow.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.