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What Singh Can Learn From Layton

New leader’s plan to stay out of Parliament until 2019 ‘a winning strategy,’ says Layton advisor Brian Topp.

Jeremy Nuttall 3 Oct

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee’s reader-funded Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

Stay away from road food and make time for the gym.

That’s part of the advice for new NDP leader Jagmeet Singh from Brian Topp, former advisor and campaign strategist to the late NDP leader Jack Layton.

Singh, like Layton, is starting as New Democrat leader without a seat in Parliament and doesn’t plan to seek one until the 2019 election.

Instead Singh, who won the leadership on the first ballot Sunday, says he’ll spend the next two years touring the country and reaching out to Canadians.

“I think Jagmeet’s onto a winning strategy here,” said Topp, who added that not having a seat in Parliament could be a plus.

Topp was with Layton as early as his first campaign for a seat in 2004 and worked in various roles including as NDP national campaign director.

Layton won the NDP leadership in January 2003 and spent 17 months building the party before being elected to Parliament in the June 2004 election. He died of cancer in 2011 after leading the NDP to Official Opposition status.

Singh will have to pound the pavement, like Layton, to build a following and help the party, Topp said.

“Jack Layton argued, fairly persuasively when you look at his results, that Parliament was important but it wasn’t where you won,” Topp said. “Yes, you have to pay attention to it, yes it’s part of the job, but it’s not where you’re going to win.”

Layton led the party to Official Opposition status in the 2011 election. He died of cancer less than four months after the election.

Layton learned about politics from watching his father, a Progressive Conservative MP, cabinet minister and whip in the Brian Mulroney Conservative government, Topp said.

Layton used his first 17 months as leader to talk to Canadians in their towns, Topp said, always trying to convince people he met to become campaign organizers, volunteers or supporters.

“He was relentlessly party building,” he added.

On a typical day, Topp said, Layton would land in a city and be on his phone calling local organizers who would then begin rounding up people for meet-and-greets.

He’d spend time talking to people in coffee shops and meeting volunteers, visit local radio stations and community papers and then hit a fundraiser or give a speech at a Legion branch. Layton would spend three hours answering questions at some meetings, and the pace was unrelenting, Topp said.

If Singh takes the same approach, Topp said, much of the effort won’t be covered by national media or get the attention of an effective clash in Question Period. But it will be more effective at building the party’s voter support.

Layton didn’t ignore Ottawa, Topp added, and the lack of a seat didn’t prevent him from establishing a presence on Parliament Hill. Layton met his caucus regularly and was available to national media outside the House of Commons when big issues were in the news.

Now it’s Singh’s turn.

“I’m glad Jagmeet is a young, fit person,” Topp said, “Because he is now going to be tested.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics

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