During eight years as party leader, Jack Layton has seen the NDP grow from a mere 13 seats to official opposition status. With this kind of reputation, people view Layton as resilient, determined and as the "Canadian Chuck Norris." Layton revealed on July 25 that, due to health problems, he is stepping down temporarily as party leader-- but only until September. Until then, an interim leader will be chosen the morning of July 28.
While there's some sense that the timing couldn't be worse, Layton's new backseat will undoubtedly have a positive effect for the party. Since the party has gained much of its popularity under Layton, the moustache-touting face has practically become synonymous with the NDP. Just as people are wholly dedicated to this strong label, many are turned away if they don't agree with Layton personally as opposed to disagreeing with the party itself. A new face paired with the NDP logo, albeit temporarily, will allow Canadians to see NDP for its policies.
Re-branding comes with its risks, of course. The main risk with re-branding is that voters won't connect with the new face and become cut off from party politics. Taking over the party after such a memorable personality-- they don't call it 'stache power for nothing-- will undoubtedly cause the new leader to either try to top Layton's image or fade into the background. There will be a lot of pressure to meet Layton's standards, making it difficult for the new leader to make his or her own image stand out from Layton's. Of course, there is the chance that the short time frame will have no effect on the party in the long run. Layton has vowed to return in September, and we've seen his resilience to cancer before. If he fails to recover, however, the NDP will likely have another leader election, meaning more change, more re-branding and more opportunity to alienate voters.
The outcome of Layton's health is one problem facing the NDP. Another is that the NDP only appears as strong as its leader. Not counting his health, Layton's reputation is steadfastly strong, which distorts how strong the NDP actually is internally. Whether the incoming temporary leader has a strong image or not, the NDP is facing new challenges as official opposition: conflicts of east versus west, French versus English and increased attention on all fronts. Layton anticipated this with his recommended choice of Nycole Turmel rather than one of the deputy leaders-- choosing one of them would potentially topple the party balance by giving one deputy more experience than the other. The recommendation, however, doesn't solve the issue that the NDP may not be as strong without the 'stache power of Layton. As of press time, it appears Turmel will likely become the anticipated interim leader.
Despite the risk that the NDP will lose voters, a temporary re-branding will allow the NDP's policies to stand out. Let's face it, people don't think of political parties as separate from the party leader. People are loyal to certain brands. There are voters who would never vote NDP because they disagree personally with Layton. Now, there's an opportunity for those voters to see the NDP without the bristling 'stache in the way. Rather than alienate voters, this will only serve to help the NDP in the long run-- as long as the NDP is as strong as they appear.