Canada's left mourns its leader

Jack Layton's death from cancer leaves the NDP, Canada's social democratic party, with no obvious re

Quicker than anyone expected, far more quickly than anyone wished, Jack Layton died of cancer today, aged 61.

Proud, principled, ambitious for his party, Layton was born into politics (his father had been a Progressive Conservative minister) in the Anglophone enclave of Hudson, Québec, in 1950 and remained a politician to the end, signing off with a moving Letter to Canadians two days before his death. An accomplished athlete at school (and urban cyclist later on), Layton undertook everything he did with the expectation of winning. He was driven and unrelenting in his championing of the poor and the marginalized, and a vocal defender of universal health care, better public transit and housing in Canadian cities. He made his mark in municipal politics in Toronto over two decades before, in 2003, successfully campaigning to become leader of the NDP, Canada's social democratic party. An actual MP's seat would not come until a year afterwards, in the 2004 election, after which the NDP won only 19 of 308 seats but held the balance of power and forced upon the Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin's short-lived minority government what Layton called Canada's "first NDP budget."

Four years later, he was instrumental in a failed attempt to replace the Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper with a Liberal-NDP-Bloc Québecois coalition and, come the 2011 election, Layton would have none of conventional truths suggesting that as the leader of a third party in a fiercely contested parliamentary election, the destiny of his was to be squeezed out. The unprecedented rise of his party to 103 seats and to the benches of the official opposition in May was unforeseen, and largely attributed to the zeal and persistence of the bilingual NDP leader in Québec, the historically dissatisfied province where he made a point of avidly campaigning. Layton sought amnesty for American Iraq War resisters, better conduct by Canadian mining companies and, in 2006, was nicknamed 'Taliban Jack' for arguing, well ahead of the 2010 London Conference, that members of the Afghanistan enemy should be invited to the table. He was, in Canada, alternative, and will be sorely missed - not just by a party that has, at the moment, no obvious replacement, but by a broad swathe of Canadians wondering now, what is their representation in Parliament.

Noah Richler's letter from Canada appears in the current issue of the New Statesman.

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.