Teflon Jack’s Narrative

When the Liberals moved non-confidence in the Harper Government, I was surprised that the NDP went along. Jack Layton was ailing, fighting prostate cancer and recovering from hip surgery. A campaign with a leader who looks tired or unwell does not often succeed. Examples that came to mind were Jimmy Carter in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1992, and Ernie Eves in Ontario in 2003. Yet Jack Layton was willing to take the risk of a grueling national campaign.

Starting in the debates and continuing since, Layton has managed to project himself as engaged, self-confident, and regaining his health, despite the demands of a national campaign. Jack Layton’s personal story has come to reinforce, perhaps even to dominate the NDP’s policy narrative. In terms of our four-quadrant narratological analysis, the NDP campaign is staking out the upper-left quadrant, combining policies that it claims will benefit the country – more spending on popular programs like training doctors and nurses and improving public pensions – with Jack Layton’s story of personal renewal. Notice that his story isn’t about renewal by achieving an ambition but rather a much more elemental struggle of renewal against illness.

The latest NDP commercial – “you do have a choice” – blends the two narratives of policy and personal renewal very skillfully. It shifts from policy – “I will fund more doctors and nurses and strengthen your pension” – to personality: “you know I’m a fighter. And I won’t stop until the job is done.” Layton presents himself as a fighter, both for policies and for his own health. The ad runs 30 seconds, and Layton, in 12 different clips, is present the entire time. Layton has now become the NDP’s best asset, and the party is shrewdly putting him front and centre for the remainder of the campaign. I want to make clear that Layton isn’t eliciting sympathy or pity because he is ill, but rather that he is eliciting admiration because he is, or at least appears to be, overcoming his illness.

I titled this post “Teflon Jack’s Narrative,” because for the remainder of the campaign Layton will be Teflon. The Liberals and Conservatives will continue to attack his policies. But because his main adversary is his health, it would be unseemly to attack him personally. In contrast, the Conservatives’ constant attacks on Ignatieff have done considerable damage to his image, and the attacks on Harper at least some damage to his. Layton, personally, will be above the fray.

Layton’s powerful personal narrative is strengthening the NDP in the polls, and it may be very difficult for the Liberals (or Bloc in Quebec), by focusing on policy alone, to drive the NDP vote down to its historic level. While I’m not a pollster, it seems to me that the NDP is taking votes from the Liberals, Bloc, and Greens, rather than the Conservatives, in the Atlantic provinces, Quebec and Ontario.  In the west, however, the NDP may be taking votes from the Conservatives. Say that the Conservatives maintain their vote share at 35 percent, but the NDP gains a bigger share of the 65 percent who oppose the Conservatives. The ultimate beneficiary would be the Conservatives. With a deeply split left and centre-left, a majority government of the right might be a possibility.

If a Conservative majority is the outcome, on May 3 the Liberals, NDP, Greens, and at least some Bloc supporters, rather than denying Harper’s coalition accusations, might start to think about some sort of coalition, alliance, or even merger that would allow the majority of the population to regain power.

1 comment

  1. Hi Professor Borins, I’m trying to wrap my head around the reasons for this apparent late NDP surge. In the past, left-leaning voters flocked to the Liberals in order to stop the Conservatives. A good example of this was when Paul Martin squeaked out a minority government back in 2004 as NDP support evaporated.

    But this time around, it seems – as you pointed out – the left-leaning voters are consolidating around Jack Layton and the NDP. Layton has been the federal NDP leader for many years and should be a known quantity to most voters. However, it seems only now that Canadians have taken a serious look at the NDP and have decided they “like” Jack – and more importantly, will vote for his party.

    Some may disagree, but I think the turning point for the NDP was when Layton pointed out during the English debate that Ignatieff had the worst House of Commons attendance record of all the party leaders. The Liberals had been placing themselves as the “only alternative” to replace the Conservative party. Leaving aside the validity of such a statement, Layton derailed Ignatieff’s message that the choice for voters was either Liberal or Conservative. Layton contrasted himself as someone ready to work and – again, as you pointed out, – “won’t stop until the job is done”. This, I think, went a long way to solidify Layton’s “fighter” persona.

    Layton and the NDP, for the most part, were an effective opposition against Harper’s government during the last five years. While the Liberals sat on their hands for fear of triggering an ill-opportune election, Layton filled the void and was the “unofficial-Official opposition”. Since Ignatieff (and most Liberals) often did not vote (or vote at all) against the Conservatives in the House, it is difficult now for Ignatieff to explain to Canadians why he is their “only other choice”.

    If the election plays out as most polls predict, disregarding all the uncertainty of a Conservative minority or majority government, one thing is clear:

    The Liberals did not do a good job of framing the issues. The Conservatives wrote Ignatieff’s narrative long before the elections started but forgot about Jack – giving him a clean slate to tell his narrative even though he has been NDP leader for seven years.

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