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.