Layton studied at McGill and York Universities; he holds a Ph.D in political science from York. He has been an activist for over 30 years in a variety of causes, leading the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and writing several books, including Homelessness: The Making and Unmaking of a Crisis. He started the White Ribbon Campaign for men who opposed violence against women.
He was elected leader of the NDP at the party's convention in Toronto, on January 25, 2003. Layton won on the first ballot, with 53.5% of the vote. Since he currently has no seat in the House of Commons, he delegated runner-up Bill Blaikie as parliamentary leader. He has indicated his intention to run in the next general election.
Although he has no parliamentary seat, Layton has been successful in drawing considerable attention from the Canadian mass media. Much of his rhetoric has involved attacking the policies and character of Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin as a fiscal conservative subverting the ideology of the Liberal Party of Canada in order to realign with the political right. The Liberal party has responded by attacking Layton, which the NDP see as a sign that Layton's accusations have been effective.
He is married to Toronto city councillor Olivia Chow.