Canada's New Democrats, a third party in federal politics, selected Toronto City Councillor Jack Layton as their federal leader in January 2003 over five opponents at a leadership convention held in Toronto after 40,000 votes had been cast in advance on the Internet. As a small party, the NDP must carve out a niche it can exploit to advance its wedge issues, which differentiate parties from each another, and which nudge larger parties towards its policies. All parties large and small occupy a niche of some sort, affording a party its general orientation and its image and reputation with the media and the public. Small parties in plurality electoral systems like Canada's, where the candidate who secures a plurality of the votes wins the riding (district), must narrowly define their niches and target voters. They can use wedge issues to generate media and public attention and cluster their supporters in geographically defined strongholds. A small party may not realistically aspire to power, but it can exploit its wedge issues with its targeted voters to influence policymaking by nudging a large party in its direction.
The media described the choice of Layton as a "roll of the dice" and a "great gamble" that "set aside safer choices." (1) In this commentary on the NDP's best strategy for contesting future elections, we argue just the opposite: the New Democrats selected their safest alternative in their party's current situation. The word "safest" refers to whatever or whoever provides the most protection from risk or harm. Founded in 1961 from the Prairie-originated Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) of farmers, socialists, labor unions, and social gospel champions, the New Democrats face their most immediate risk or harm from losing their party status in Parliament. Canada's growing cities offer great potential. As Layton is ideally qualified to appeal to geographically clustered urban voters with salient wedge issues, he holds more promise to preserve the NDP's party status in Parliament than any of the other leadership contenders. We will justify our assertion that Layton represented the NDP's safest choice, and will briefly critique the leadership campaign that culminated in Layton's first ballor victory. We then conclude with a discussion of the NDP's prospects.
In many respects, the NDP's selection of Layton replicated the Canadian Alliance party's choice of Stephen Harper as its leader in 2002. These ideological counterparts hold views that seem well outside Canada's centrist mainstream but correspond closely with their parties' prevailing mindsets. Both secured the leadership with unexpected ease, gaining 53.5 percent (Layton) and 55 percent (Harper) of first ballot votes after multi-ballot contests had been predicted. Each one was his party's most personally attractive and media-friendly contender. Each offered a new face to attract the favorable media and public attention that had eluded his party in the 2000 election. In each case, the new leader assured his party's base he would maintain the party's ideological orientation, and would not reposition it closer to the center to win power. Layton and Harper supplied the best of both worlds: a new image and media message but also institutional continuity. They were safe in that both provided the best chance to protect their parties from the risk or harm they would suffer from the lack of media coverage or respect, or the loss of public support, that hinders a party's viability in Canada's politics.
The New Democrats' current situation leaves little room for error. The party has fourteen Members of Parliament (MPs), just two above the minimum for party status, and for the funding and publicity that status confers and the cash-strapped NDP needs. The leadership was vacated in 2002 when Nova Scotian Alexa McDonough announced her resignation. McDonough holds one of four seats from her Maritime region that she delivered to the party for the first time, and some of these seats may revert to another party without McDonough as leader. …