Tyee Books

Resuscitating the NDP: The Jack Layton Saga

Without him the New Dems might now be a Canadian nostalgia item, finds this insider account.

By Crawford Kilian 21 Nov 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

A thousand years ago, the Icelandic sagas described the struggles of the hard-bitten Norse adventurers who had sailed west to settle a new land, only to fall into life-or-death battles with one another.

The key element of the sagas was detachment: We never saw inside the characters. We knew only what they said and did, and from that we had to imagine what was going through their minds. It's a powerful literary style, and Ernest Hemingway revived it with great success; so did hardboiled detective authors like Dashiell Hammett.

But it's not a style usually adopted by political histories, least of all in Canada, and when Brad Lavigne uses it in his story of Jack Layton's last decade, it seems a bit too detached. Layton, after all, was the least hardboiled of our recent leaders. Lavigne sticks to externalities -- what people said and did -- with the rigour of an Icelandic saga, never inquiring into people's inner states of mind.

Even so, this is a very readable, well-written book. The communications people in the Conservative and Liberal parties will read it carefully and repeatedly, highlighting many passages. But for much of its length it's a technical manual, not a political history. Only near the end does Lavigne's detachment develop the surprising power that Layton exerted in 2011.

Brad Lavigne was the only person who could have written it; he got interested in Jack Layton in 2001, when Layton, then a Toronto city councillor, was considering whether to run for the federal leadership of a moribund New Democratic Party. Thereafter Lavigne played key roles in Layton's success, from the leadership convention to the victory of 2011.

No piercing insights

No doubt Lavigne has read other such accounts, like Tom Flanagan's account of the rise of Stephen Harper, which Harper saw as a betrayal and which cost Flanagan any further influence in the Conservative Party. Lavigne is very careful not to offer any piercing insights into the mind of Jack Layton or the other insiders on the Layton team. And the only insights he offers into the Conservatives and Liberals are reminders of their inconsistencies and hypocrisies as seen from an NDP point of view.

This is not entirely bad. Lavigne, after all, is a spinmeister like Flanagan, and a wiser one, because he knows how to be discreet. Lavigne is telling an ultimately tragic story, and he doesn't burden it with his own self-importance or inject phony psychology into it.

The genre that Theodore White launched half a century ago with The Making of the President 1960 relies on the author's gossipy cleverness to keep readers moving through democracy's boring details. That's easy, and many Canadian journalists have blindly followed White right out the window.

In very rare cases, when the author is Norman Mailer writing Miami and the Siege of Chicago, the authorial ego throws real light and makes history as well as recording it. No Canadian political events or characters have drawn the attention of Mailer-quality writers. Or needed such writers, for which we should be grateful.

Headed for the exit

As the story develops and we realize that this isn't The Making of the Opposition Leader 2011, Lavigne makes it quite dramatic. He reminds us that at the turn of the century the federal New Democrats looked as if they were headed for the exit like the old federal Creditistes, a handful of cranks left over from the Depression who once had some influence in Ottawa.

The NDP was an archipelago of regional parties with a pretense of a federal presence. Four decades of effort had made the New Democrats the choice of one or two per cent of the Quebec electorate. Bob Rae, once a rising NDP star in Ontario, was now a Liberal dismissing the NDP as "a movement, not a party."

Even the Liberals, losing altitude as the Chretien-Martin civil wars raged on, looked to Rae like a better bet than the NDP that Audrey McLaughlin was leaving in 2002. The New Democrats seemed to speak for a few Canadians who would rather be self-righteously correct than be government. They might be the conscience of Canada, but Liberal and Conservative governments listened to them only to steal their ideas or win their MPs' votes in a minority government.

Without Jack Layton, the NDP might now be a Canadian nostalgia item, like Saturday home deliveries by the Royal Mail or playing hockey without a helmet. Instead, Layton grabbed a dying party and breathed life into it while the Liberals disintegrated and the Conservatives went from success to success.

Lavigne was part of the resuscitation process, and he's happiest when describing the logistics of a tour and the wording of a commercial. No ideologue, he never talks about why he was in the NDP to begin with, nor how it differs from the Liberals and Conservatives. He and his colleagues might dislike their adversaries, but they studied them carefully and stole whatever worked.

Advice from the old maestro

They also liked and respected one another more than you might imagine from watching Question Period (unless you were in the visitors' gallery and watched them schmoozing and laughing together before sitting down to heap scorn on one another). Like the headshots in hockey, or Tessio's treachery in The Godfather, the attacks were "only business." It's striking to see how Layton, renegade son of a Mulroney cabinet minister, could turn to the old maestro for advice (and how wise the advice was).

Lavigne does heap some sincere scorn on the Liberals, mostly as a technician ridiculing the ineptitude of Dion and then Ignatieff. They were still coasting on the inertia of a century of Liberal rule, and paid a high price for it. He is equally scornful of strategic voting, arguing that the NDP's purpose is not to put Liberals in power.

The pace of technological change is a theme in the book as well: by 2011, social media like Twitter were crucial in both getting out the message and in putting out fires like the massage-parlour story.

The book turns abruptly from technical manual to Icelandic epic with the NDP victory and Layton's sudden relapse. After turning his prostate cancer and later hip fracture into selling points (making his cane part of the brand), his team found itself with a mortally ill leader. The chapter on the 113 days between the election and Layton's death is emotionally powerful, precisely because Lavigne sticks to what people did and said.

And what Layton said in his famous valedictory was far more emotional than any Icelandic warrior's last words: "My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful, and optimistic. And we'll change the world."

Looking back on Jack Layton and his achievements, we have to put ourselves into his mind as Brad Lavigne carefully does not. And that imaginative effort tells us that he -- and we -- are indeed capable of changing the world.  [Tyee]

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