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Layton Triumphant: Day Two, NDP Leadership 2003

By Barton Wong
web posted January 26, 2003

The Final Speeches

Toronto - Well, listening in on other people's conversations is always an useful way to obtain information. For example, I found myself seated right behind a Layton staffer and his close friend from the CBC on the streetcar this morning on my way to the National Trade Centre. The Layton flack was complaining about how the inscrutable Toronto Star, a liberal Toronto-centric paper, seemed to be playing up stories of an anti-Layton backlash, which was odd given that Layton was the liberal Toronto-centric candidate. Next came the complaint against the Globe & Mail's Jeffrey Simpson for obsessively running attack column after attack column against the NDP, the latest one being today's Where's Tommy Douglas when you need him? Nevertheless, the staffer was confident that Layton's "orange army of the night" would prove triumphant by the end of the day. Well, we would see.

This morning had the final speeches for all six candidates. I missed Lorne Nystrom's apparently unmemorable final appeal, so when I walked into the convention hall, Joe Comartin's stentorian voice greeted me with his proclamation of "full employment without ecological sacrifices." He then whipped up a bit of frenzy with his declaration to "my brothers and sisters," that "we will never have more money than the entrenched interests, but what we do have is the people." Not surprisingly, Comartin's supporters were wearing red T-shirts, which had the slogan: "Win for a change." Oh, and as for visiting Iraq, Comartin replied to his many critics, "I took a risk when I travelled to Iraq." (Loud cheers.) "I showed solidarity with the people of Iraq [ed.by posing in front of a picture of Saddam Hussein with an Iraqi official?]. I took a risk when I showed the consistency of my position." Of course, the very moment he even mentioned the word, "Palestine," even louder cheers erupted from Comartin's supporters, not many of whom actually appeared to be Muslim. "Go Joe! Go Joe! Go Joe," was echoed over and over again. He left the platform to the sounds of Elvis vs. JXL's A Little Less Conversation. The cheers of "Win, win Joe! Win, win Joe!" lasted over eight minutes. When the mob switched to "Comartin! Comartin!" the cheer quickly died. The musical extravaganza on the speakers continued with Woody Guthrie's I'm Sticking with the Union and Bif Naked's I Love Myself Today.

Then came Socialist Caucus candidate Bev Meslo. She was introduced by a Halton-area "Raging Granny" wearing an absurdly large hat. When the Granny paused at the applause line that Meslo's goal was to get the NDP to "turn sharply to the left," there was only the mildest of cheers. The Granny also praised Meslo for her "articulate, feminist analysis." Of what exactly, was not answered. When Meslo herself made an appearance, she combined a lot of vehemence and a touch of vanity into one long harangue of a speech. She opened by declaring herself "one of the proudest working-class citizens in Canada." Both Comartin and her spoke of putting "people before profits," even using that exact phrase. She proceeded to tell the convention floor the history of the Meslo family, starting with her veteran father who realized that "war was not for freedom, it was for free enterprise." There was praise for her Doukhobor ancestors ("the original Russian environmentalists"). She spoke of her veteran-turned-trade unionist father and his nasty encounter with the baseball bats of management. "Dad, I love you!" Meslo said emotionally. She spoke of her mother, who served spaghetti and ketchup to the union picket line. She assured the assembled NDP delegates, "You will decide if democracy lives on in Canada. You will decide if social justice will shine in Canada." She told us the NDP grassroots which she purported to represent were "irritated, frustrated, and compromised." "Do you think that foreign investment gives a damn about your environment, your children?" she asked us. The real axis of evil, "Bush, Blair, and Chretien," was telling us that "we must die for oil profits." Her solution? Send the United Nations weapon inspectors to the United States, where they could help "disarm the U.S. armsmakers." Meslo wanted Canada to become a base for revolutionary activity, a country which supported "the struggle for popular sovereignty around the world" and had "the power to win true socialist freedom around the world," which also meant "freedom from the global capital agenda," instead of us signing what she called a "social con-trick." Meslo ended by quoting a lyric from Travis Tritt's Rough Around the Edges, "I'm a little rough around the edges, but I think I'm exactly what you need," and the song predictably enough started up immediately. But this quickly segued into another, rather better known song:

Arise ye workers from your slumbers
Arise ye prisoners of want
For reason in revolt now thunders
And at last ends the age of cant.
Away with all your superstitions
Servile masses arise, arise
We'll change henceforth the old tradition
And spurn the dust to win the prize.

Yes, it was The Internationale, a song which has amongst its many vices, the quality of being damnably catchy. People were humming it in the washrooms. After this, I seated myself among what was left of the Nystrom supporters, half of whom seemed to be wearing suits. Layton was close by doing a CBC interview.

Next up was Pierre Ducasse who chose Eurodance as his theme music. "Pierre! Pierre! Pierre!" his supporters chanted over and over again. "We believe in democratic socialism," he assured us and for the very first time during the speeches, I was impressed when Ducasse backed this up by quoting Michael Harrington to the effect that "democratic socialism is a hope, the hope for humankind." Ducasse's motto (which he repeated five times to illustrate each of the main points of his platform) was that "To have the results that you have never had, you must do what you have never done." "We must never set our ways," Ducasse emphasized. It was funny when he took a not so subtle shot at the Bev Meslos in the party by denouncing a radical move to the left. The Nystromites began applauding. They promptly stopped, when Ducasse took a not so subtle shot at the Lorne Nystroms in the party by denouncing any move to the centre as well. Ducasse, as I think I have mentioned before, is a very impressive candidate and an equally impressive speaker. In a fair world, he'd be up there with Jack Layton claiming his share of the youth vote. It's a pity then that Ducasse insisted on putting in so much French robbing his speech of any sense of build-up, since the overwhelmingly anglophone delegates could not understand it nor would they put on their translation devices. The result was that he would stop at an applause line, there'd be a moment of silence, and then everyone would wake up and start clapping.

His platform was strictly centre-left. While Ducasse denounced our present economic system as producing "very few winners and a lot of losers," he also made clear his opposition to mass nationalization, preferring what he called a "worker-owned, community-based, co-operative market." Ducasse got a standing ovation from the entire house when he pledged to create "a contract of solidarity between the Quebec left and the Canadian left." It was quite possible he said to be "left-wing and mainstream; that's not a contradiction (Nystrom appeared at this moment but he was ignored.) "We are not a minority," he continued, "we are a majority...we will boldly go where no New Democrat has gone before." This got loud cheers. "If," Ducasse began, then grinning mischievously, "when I'm leader-" but yet more cheering cut him off. I was even more impressed by Ducasse's political realism. It would take at least a decade, he said, of rebuilding the party organization and recruiting good candidates before the NDP could even think of challenging for the federal government. A brave, but lonely soul actually applauded this. Then came Ducasse's climax. "We have everything we need," then an intake of breath, "if we have nothing but our hope." Cue dance music. The entire house stood for a sustained ovation. The stage was mobbed by his supporters. Ducasse was that good.

While The Guess Who's Share The Land played over and over again on the speakers as everyone waited for Bill Blaikie, I went to the washroom, only to encounter Lorne Nystrom. Someone asked Nystrom if he thought it was going to be a close race. "Yes it will," he replied, looking unconvinced. I noted that Nystrom had not bothered to say whether he was going to be on the final ballot of this close race.

A really, really jazzed up Gary Doer introduced Blaikie as "a big man with a big heart," which is all too true, though the introductory film showing Blaikie speaking halting French and the campaign slogan of "He's Prepared" (an obvious attack on Layton) did not help matters. Then the lights went low, Celtic bagpipe music began playing (Blaikie plays the bagpipes), and the very large Blaikie contingent began cheering as their man walked onto the stage. It was painfully obvious that Blaikie's attempts at French were rehearsed, but in English he was in his usual rhetorical mode. There was mention of the social gospel along with quotes from Tommy Douglas' The Road to Jerusalem and Ghandi. Blaikie told us that while some might feel that the NDP is irrelevant, "the struggle against poverty and for justice is never irrelevant," that "the market is not God and the New Democrats will never bend their knees as if it is." He told the house that the perception of him being an Establishment candidate is just wrong: "I have suffered and survived the status quo. I have seen it from the outside and I have seen it from the inside." "As New Democrats, let us see nothing less than the redemption of politics," he declared. "They [the Right] have crushed Alan Rock, but not the NDP." New Democrats needed to "speak truth to power," make sure that "the economy was made for humanity and not the other way around," and "stand up and be counted" in regards to the possible war in Iraq and the total abolishment of nuclear weapons. This 60s-revivalist atmosphere continued when Blaikie paraphrased John Lennon's Imagine, first in French, then in English. There was a gaffe, when in regards to the frozen minimum wage in this province, Blaikie shouted, "Shame on Ontario!" but then realizing where he was, he added, "Or at least on the Tories," but otherwise it went well. Eric Sorenson and Buzz Hargrove whom Sorenson was interviewing as the speech ended were swept away by oncoming tide of Blaikie supporters.

Layton's speech came at 11:55 am. As Sunny Days played on the speakers, a parade of youths, all wearing their Layton bandannas and carrying the flags of all the provinces and territories of Canada arrived. Soon, it seemed half the hall was filled with Layton cheerleaders and it stayed like that till the very end of the day. Nystrom quietly arrived again, while a slickly produced black-and-white Layton campaign film distracted everyone. After Ed Broadbent arrived to deafening cheers, the former NDP federal leader assured us that Layton wasn't just an image-obsessed opportunist. He was "a man of substance." Nevertheless, his smoothness couldn't hurt matters. "Does personality matter?" asked Broadbent. "You bet!" Layton was a man who would "get Canadians to listen to us. A man who would mobilize the young and get the votes of their parents." The hometown crowd lapped this up with delight.

There is only one way to describe Layton's entrance: he strutted in. Layton thanked not just Alexa McDonough, but threw in the new members, Audrey McLaughlin, and the First Nations, "on whose ground we stand today," in the bargain. Thankfully, when he spoke French, it was clear he was competently bilingual. His theme was simple: "How can we re-energize the NDP?" because Canadians needed them. "Electing New Democrats ensures that fewer Canadians will die homeless, fewer Canadians will choke on smog," etc. There were the usual suspects as well: Premier Eves (cries of "Shame!" filled the hall), Premier Klein ("Shame!"), Premier Campbell ("Shame!"), and "George Bush's trade war" ("Shame!"). None of the Nystromites with whom I sat joined in. When Layton spoke of improving Montreal, he cleverly spoke in French, but he continued speaking in French, when talked of his plans in helping Saskatchewan. There was a sharp attack on Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister John Manley as a man who "will pick up a phone to call a bank president to save a NHL team, but not pick up the phone to help a student with her student loan." The institution of this practice, I suspect, would leave Manley rather busy. He savaged Jean Chretien for doing a "slow motion exit in front of a hall of mirrors." "I am cool with barenaked people," joked Layton, "but this emperor has no clothes!" Layton answered those concerned about his lack of seat by saying, "I don't believe politics just happens in Parliament." When Layton turned to attacking President Bush, "George Bush, read our lips: your daddy was wrong and you're wrong too!" a single Nystrom supporter bothered to applaud. Layton praised what he called "the brave and beautiful comments by France and Germany this week." He could feel change in the air: "Seat by seat, we're going to take Toronto!" while reassuring rural delegates his campaign was not about "downtown versus small town." Layton ended with a reference to Toronto's recently built wind turbine, which operated close by: "They say we're tilting at windmills. We say, let's start building them now!" It was pandemonium. There were a few Blaikie counter-wavers, but they were overwhelmed. Nystrom was standing with a small knot of supporters as the sound of "Jack! Jack! Jack!" went on for so long, the chair had to eventually order everyone to quiet down. Nystrom was smiling rather desperately.

While I watched Layton's mob madly cheer their man on, a Nystrom delegate sitting right by me simply gestured and said, "It's all for TV."

"Judging from the optics alone, you'd think Layton had it all wrapped up," I replied.
"Don't worry, we have 30 000 supporters who aren't in the hall" (this was a wild exaggeration as it turned out).

"Yeah, well why the heck did they locate this thing in Toronto anyway?"
"What?" (The noise was making hearing difficult.)

"Why is this thing located in Toronto anyway?"

"Oh, I believe it's because the support in Ontario is really weak. And anyway, our last two conventions were in Winnipeg, so..."
"Oh."

"It's all for television."

"Jack Layton: the image candidate!" We laughed. I took to parodying Ed Broadbent: "Does personality matter? Yes it does! Uh, I mean, you bet!" More laughter.

I asked the Nystrom delegate about all the newspaper reports I had read about Nystrom's supposed collapse. He denied that anything was wrong and said that someone on the campaign must be spreading ugly rumours. Layton's supporters were still at it at this point, so the Nystrom delegate simply ignored them and began reading the Toronto Star. Thus, ended the speeches.

The Wait for the Results

The voting procedure seemed excessively complex, but it began almost immediately. Attendance was given at 1 063 delegates with 1 763 people in the hall total. So the party's fate was not really in the hands of the relatively small group here in the hall, because it was announced that the party now had a grand total of 82 236 members who would all be voting for their new leader (with the votes of the 1 600 or so union delegates being weighted at 25% of the total). As I said, it seemed rather complicated. The results of the first round of voting were supposed to be announced at 2:45 pm. A Toronto Star headline I spied, read, "NDP job is Layton's to lose."

Media types were everywhere. A plump, balding Mike Duffy accompanied by a worried-looking producer was shown the electronic voting procedure. The jolly smile he wore when on camera looked like it was plastered on. Holly Doan of CPAC was telling potential interview subjects not to worry: she wasn't really scary. At the door, like in some right-winger's bad dream, they were selling copies of the Socialist Worker. A friendly woman wearing a People's Liberation Army cap played with a baby nearby. A confident-looking Layton stood with one of his sons telling a supporter that he had done everything that could done. Another Layton supporter described the effect of his hero's speech in a hushed voice: "When he started, everyone stopped talking." Back in the convention hall, Mark Kelley of the CBC was interviewing a young Ducasse supporter, with other Ducasse supporters had arranged themselves artistically behind the interviewee, all the while making sure a Ducasse sign stayed in full view of the camera lens. On the platform, a Howard Hampton music video touting his "Bold Ideas" and "Bold Leadership" was seriously undermined by the choice of Madonna's Ray of Light as its soundtrack. Hampton himself showed up in person, only to rail uselessly against the Tories, the Liberals, and hydro privatization with hardly anyone in room listening.

To pass the time before the announcement of the first ballots, the NDP leadership decided to demonstrate their vehement hostility to any invasion of Iraq for the millionth time during this convention. Alexa McDonough repeated what had been said by her and so many others in her party so many times: "No to war in Iraq!" She boasted of our moral superiority to the Americans, saying that we have different values and different traditions. She told us yet again that we had to "make our voices heard." Someone in the audience said that this would be difficult, since President Bush is a "slow learner, just like his father, ha, ha, ha!" Hassan Yussuff, secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress and Associate President of the NDP, denounced "the dubious distinction the United States has embarked upon" in its respective treatments of Iraq and North Korea. His speech, given in an increasingly agitated and hoarse voice, met with light applause. I left the hall just as two labour activists from the group, Military Families Speak Out, began yet another ritual denunciation of Bush foreign policy.

Outside, two people in stilts wearing costumes and veils walked by. Duffy told them to do another pass and they'll put them on TV. A NDPer said she didn't know what to make of the pair: "I don't know. They're kind of freaky...It's just unnatural." "What's wrong with you?" was the response. Blaikie walked by, dwarfing his accompanying staffer. CBC host Jian Ghomeshi, a Layton supporter, sat by a window unnoticed by everyone. Getting back inside yielded a predictable result. "This war will not save Americans, but it will destroy the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Americans...This war will not liberate the Iraqi people, but give them a new master, one based on corporate greed," a disembodied voice boomed at me through the speakers as I walked in. Layton's supporters seemed to making preparations for a dragon dance. Paul Wells of the National Post was engaged in a discussion with the just-arrived Ghomeshi. CBC personality Ralph Benmergui was wandering around talking on his cellphone to a girlfriend or wife. "Bye love," I heard the great man say. I sat down in a chair beside two francophones. MP Yves Godin suddenly showed up with two coffees which he handed to his neighbours. I realized then that I had taken his seat. Godin ignored me, moved another chair over, and began talking loudly in French. Perhaps he assumed I hardly knew anything of the language, which is true. At 3:15 pm, as the sounds of Blue Rodeo's Bulletproof filled the hall, there was an announcement that there was going to be another announcement soon. At 3:25 pm, they said the results would be given in 20 minutes. And so we waited.

As I sat in the bleachers assigned to "neutral" people, my neighbours spotted the famous abortion-rights activist Dr. Henry Morgentaler and began having an argument about his age. The stilt-walkers, three of them now, wandered in. The candidates' supporters, perhaps as anxious as we were, began having cheering matches. Layton's people, who were numerous, easily beat everyone at first, but Ducasse's considerably smaller group eventually outlasted them. Nystrom's people had drum sticks with purple and white ribbons attached which they knocked together. A woman came up to our bleachers and inexplicably said that she was "surveying the troops." A woman beside me told me that this convention was very different from previous conventions she had attended since instead of just delegates voting and their tense wheel-and-dealing that went on between ballots, which the media just loved, the "one-person, one-vote" system (with the notable exception of the labour delegates), ensured that most of the decision-making took place off the convention floor. A woman wearing a Ducasse sticker on her back in front of me, was discussing attending a fundraiser to help pay the legal costs for those arrested during the Quebec City protests. The platform party began thanking groups of NDPers not at the convention, but who were watching on television from coast-to-coast. Calgary, the most conservative city in the nation, quite naturally seemed to be full of Nystrom supporters. Blaikie's people, of course, cheered on Winnipeg. Hope rose when a woman walked onto the stage, but then she walked off. The woman beside me took to carefully studying a Bev Meslo pamphlet. The woman in front of me said the delay was "like overtime in a football game. One minute can be twenty-five minutes." A delegate on the convention floor began throwing paper airplanes in all directions. It was only when I got home that I found out what the delay was all about.

Nearly two hours late, at 4:41 pm the results were announced. First came a shocker. The NDP might claim to have 82 236 members, but only about half of them had bothered to vote for a new leader. This was disconcerting to my neighbours. For the moment, this didn't exactly worry Layton and his friends. They had a landslide on their hands. They had won over five opponents on the first ballot with 53.5% of the vote. Loud drums immediately began beating. Layton and his supporters appeared so quickly on the stage, it seemed as if the results had been leaked to them in advance. Every other group of supporters disbanded into the Layton-celebrating mass, though Comartin's gang seemed reluctant at first to join in the fun. Layton, wearing a NDP-orange tie, stepped up to the microphone while his insipid victory song blared out to us words of "togetherness" and "celebration." Surprisingly, he opened in French, but then he thanked all the delegates "for putting issues, our issues on the table, back in front of the country." "Canadian politics will fundamentally change because of your work," he assured the house. "Is this party on the move?" he asked. "Absolutely!" But while Layton celebrated, I felt worried for him. I turned to the woman beside me and said, "He better beat Dennis Mills or we're in trouble." I should have said "you're in trouble," but I'd been hanging around with leftists too long. She agreed. She had volunteered on other Layton campaigns and she simply could not understand why Layton had pledged to take on Dennis Mills, instead of running against the far more vulnerable Tony Ianno. I put the odds of Layton beating Mills at 30%, given that Mills had beaten Layton twice before in 1993 and 1997, Mills had a higher media profile than a lot of cabinet ministers, and with his multimillion-dollar fortune, he would bury Layton in terms of fundraising. The woman reluctantly agreed. She then left. She wanted to see how the television networks were spinning the Layton victory.

Layton was busily thanking everyone. He thanked his wife, the formidable Councillor Olivia Chow. He quoted Ducasse's slogan, "To have the results that you have never had, you must do what you have never done" and pointing at Ducasse, he shouted, "How many of you are going to volunteer for a campaign to elect our first member from Quebec?" The crowd roared its approval back. The chant of "NDP! NDP! NDP!" filled the hall. Layton went on to lavishly praise a conspicuously stone-faced Bill Blaikie. "I've always looked up to Bill Blaikie," Layton joked as Blaikie towered behind him. He called Blaikie, "a fundamentally decent man," who "roars like a lion at the Liberals. Bill doesn't just believe the social gospel. He lives it everyday." Blaikie didn't even crack a smile. "And if there's one place Canadians need Bill Blaikie," Layton continued, "it's in the House of Commons on Monday, on Tuesday, on Wednesday," and so forth. Layton concluded that, "Bill Blaikie is a gift to public discourse in this country." After all that, Blaikie just couldn't help but grin.

Three statements in Layton's victory speech got especially loud approval from the crowd: "No war in Iraq" of course, a statement in support of Stephen Lewis' work in Africa, and his pointing out of the fundamental difference between left-wingers and right-wingers, "Leave fear to the Alliance. We have always been the party of hope!" He ended with a loud appeal to all Canadians, "The New Democrats are interested in you. We're with you...Let's get going! Let's get moving! We're going to start it today!" I walked back outside where Layton's dragon dance, complete with ear-piecing drums, was winding its way through the galleria. A woman witnessing my obvious discomfort smiled knowingly at me. I smiled back. Without exchanging a word I think in our minds we both agreed: Jack Layton sure was a show-off.

According to his Identification Badge at least, Barton Wong is Observer No. 31, acting as a representative of the University of Toronto at the 2003 NDP Leadership Convention.

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