Layton betrays the party faithful (or did he?)

“Jack Layton respected the term “democracy”. The latest polls show that only a minority of Canadians have any faith in the long gun registry, and the vote reflected that. I’m sick and tired of party whips telling our elected M.P.s how to vote. They are supposed to represent their constituents in Ottawa, not represent Ottawa interests to their constituents. I’d suggest that a good many M.P.s stood to lose their seats if they’d taken party advice and voted against the legislation to abolish a deeply failed system.”

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“Not much room in Gerald Caplan’s world for elected members to accurately represent their constituents’ views. It’s called democracy.”

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“Voting along “party lines” is undemocratic; the idea that a constituents representative would disregard their wishes because his or her party mandates they should vote a particular way is the most dictatorial part of Canadian politics. The position of party whip should be abolished, and MPs should be accountable to the people that voted for them.”

Gerald Caplan

Layton betrays the faithful

New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton speaks during an emergency debate in the House of Commons on Monday, November 2, 2009.

By allowing a third of his caucus to vote in favour of killing the gun registry, the NDP Leader leaves a bitter taste with a core constituency

Special to The Globe and Mail Published on Friday, Nov. 20, 2009 6:08PM EST Last updated on Friday, Nov. 20, 2009 6:17PM EST

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The bitter divisions over the long-gun registry are by no means over. When the House supported the bill to abolish the registry, it left significant numbers of Canadians feeling betrayed and wondering how to vote in the next election.

Many of us lobbied publicly and privately against passage of this bill. The Liberals and New Democrats in Ottawa heard in no uncertain terms from a large, spontaneous alliance of their own political supporters and potential supporters. Trade unions, feminist organizations, NGOs, ordinary women, social activists of all kinds, women like Suzanne Laplante-Edwards whose daughter had been murdered by Marc Lepine in the Montréal massacre – all pleaded with both parties to stand united to defeat the bill. It did no good.

That the Conservatives voted unanimously for the motion was hardly a surprise; everyone knew it was really a Harper government initiative from the get-go. But the government couldn’t pass the bill without the support of some opposition MPs; that’s why they made it a private member’s bill. It worked, even more successfully than they expected. Everyone expected a squeaker. But thanks to 18 Liberals and New Democrats, the bill sailed through by a comfortable 164 to 137 votes.

Both the Liberals and NDP allowed their members a free vote on the grounds that such is the custom with private members’ bills. But that was just a charade. Since this was obviously a government-driven bill, both Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton could have insisted on a party vote. That neither even attempted to keep their dissidents in line has deeply shaken supporters of both parties. They wonder what to do now (other than lobby hard again in preparation for committee hearings on the bill).

Clearly most of us who opposed the bill are not Conservatives. Few believe in the government’s “law ‘n order” initiatives. That the Harperites have even repudiated the Canadian Chiefs of Police and the Canadian Police Association, strong advocates of the long-gun registry, is seen as proof that the Conservative agenda is really based on politics, not public policy, playing to the Conservative base rather than attempting to strengthen Canada’s justice system.

As for the Liberals, while there is some disappointment, it seems of a muted kind. Gun control advocates, like most Canadians, have watched Ignatieff and found him wanting. Pulling his caucus together on this issue would have been a pleasant but unexpected surprise. In fact most gun control supporters believe Ignatieff was perfectly happy to have eight of his members bolt from their peers to reassure rural Canada that the Liberals hadn’t lost touch with their sensibilities.

Which leaves the NDP, where a full third of MPs broke ranks with party policy and voted to abolish the long-gun registry. It’s clear that many NDP loyalists and many others sympathetic to the party were bitterly disappointed both by the number of breakaways and the failure of Layton to rein them in. The subsequent excuses have merely poured salt in these wounds.

After the vote, a number of these people, many of them women, wrote Layton directly to express their deep disappointment. Normally, Layton is known to welcome such direct contact. I doubt this was one of those occasions. When he eventually responded, it was with a form letter that infuriated his correspondents even more. Many found his position completely unacceptable, even reprehensible.

“We believe all Canadians support gun control,” Layton wrote. “But the long-gun registry is a contentious issue that Stephen Harper has exploited to divide urban and rural Canadians. … It didn’t have to be this way. He could have shown real leadership. He could have helped bridge the divide. Instead, he betrayed you and millions of others who support the registry.”

In fact, not one of these women felt betrayed by Harper; they expected nothing more from him. They feel betrayed by Jack Layton and the NDP. They are outraged that Layton had the chutzpah to accuse Harper of failing to show real leadership when he allowed a third of his own caucus to vote against the party’s position. Some think he should be punished for the hypocrisy and opportunism of this stance. (Others think he needs better advisers, much as Ignatieff did. How could his staff allow such a dumb message to be sent?)

But if you can’t vote for Layton, or even Ignatieff, and of course not for Harper, do you just stay home? Many of those who passionately supported gun control are activists; they believe in political action. And most would never forgive themselves if they sat out the next campaign and helped Harper win. So they’ll probably swallow their bitterness and return to the fold. But they won’t be proud of their party in the same way. When you back a party that will likely never form a government, pride in its principles and actions is really all you have.

Gerald Caplan is a former national campaign director for the New Democratic Party and author of The Betrayal of Africa