Building the Orange Wave shows how Jack Layton brought federal NDP back from brink of ruin

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Building the Orange Wave

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By Brad Lavigne. Douglas & McIntyre, 286 pp, hardcover

The fall season is a boon and a curse for book lovers.

The upside is an onslaught of new titles. The problem is that there's never enough time to get through all the worthwhile reading material in a timely manner.

Such is the case with Building the Orange Wave: The Inside Story Behind the Historic Rise of Jack Layton and the NDP.

I managed to finish it over the Christmas holiday, even though it was released in October.

Author Brad Lavigne is no idle bystander, having worked closely alongside Layton from the time he entered the federal NDP leadership race in 2002.

Lavigne later served as Layton's principal secretary and director of strategic communications, as well as the NDP campaign director in the 2011 election.

His book is chock-a-block with revelations that could only have come from an insider.

Right near the beginning, Lavigne discloses that B.C. NDP MLA Rob Fleming wrote an email to Layton in 2001 urging him to seek the federal leadership—and that it had a "profound effect" on Layton, then a Toronto city councillor. At the time, the federal New Democrats were on the verge of extinction with just 13 seats in Parliament.

Lavigne also dishes details on private conversations between Layton and former prime minister Brian Mulroney about the NDP's prospects in Quebec during the 2011 election campaign.

Mulroney, an old Quebec hand, predicted to Layton that the orange wave would result in more seats for the NDP than the Conservatives captured in 1984. The former prime minister was proven right when the NDP won 59 ridings in Quebec, one more than Mulroney's greatest haul.

In addition, Lavigne offers up a raft of email correspondence between Layton and others over such issues as his party's position on a Quebec secession vote and his negotiations with other parties in a minority Parliament.

Lavigne describes Layton's final days

The book is mostly a record of Layton's challenges as federal NDP leader, with detailed accounts of the 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2011 election campaigns.

But closer to the end, it gets far more personal as Lavigne shows how a gaunt and cancer-ridden Layton prepared for a news conference to announce his "temporary" resignation as Opposition leader.

Lavigne also takes readers into Layton's Toronto home as his health deteriorated in the summer of 2011.

There's a section about how his wife Olivia and two of his closest political allies, Brian Topp and Anne McGrath, helped him prepare his final letter to Canadians. Lavigne also includes a touching note from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's wife Laureen.

According to Building the Orange Wave, Layton died not long after mother Doris called to tell him that he'd had a great life and that it was time for him to go to sleep. For those who loved Layton, it's an emotional roller-coaster to read about his final days.

Layton's political strategies outlined

Meanwhile, political junkies of all persuasions can feast on the rest of the book.

Lavigne delivers deep insights into how Layton's leadership got off on the wrong foot when he appointed animal-welfare advocate Rick Smith as his chief of staff. This prompted a caucus revolt, leading to Smith's resignation before the ink was barely dry on the announcement.

Layton soon faced with another controversy: Burnaby-Douglas MP Svend Robinson having to resign from politics after getting caught stealing an expensive ring.

What comes through in the book is how shrewdly Layton and the NDP positioned their opponents in the 2011 election after learning from mistakes in previous campaigns. 

The orange wave in Quebec was no freak of nature in 2011. It came as a result of assiduous planning over many years.

After laying a foundation for the NDP, Layton framed the Bloc Québécois to Quebeckers as a party of hockey defencemen that couldn't put the puck in the net.

The Bloc and other parties were portrayed in TV ads like hamsters on a wheel, doing nothing positive for the province. This left the NDP as the obvious alternative. Anyone who minimizes the effect of political advertising will revise their views after reading this book.

Lavigne shows how Layton was careful never to criticize the Bloc too directly because that would have only caused a backlash. It's a remarkable lesson in how federalist politicians can make inroads in Quebec.

Layton and Lavigne also focused enormous attention on destroying federal Liberals across the country. One of Layton's tricks was to urge the citizenry to "lend" him their vote in 2006 while Liberals were under fire for the Quebec sponsorship scandal.

Lavigne steers away from chastising his former boss

As one of Layton's closest confidantes—Lavigne was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral—there's virtually no criticism of the former NDP leader in Building the Orange Wave. He doesn't recall any shouting matches or intense arguments, even though they worked together for a decade.

Nor is there a serious examination of how Layton steered the federal New Democrats on a more conservative course.

Lavigne alludes to this with revelations about how the party pared down its election platform to avoid becoming a target. But the portrait of Layton as Canada's great progressive prevails, even as he went more mainstream with each passing year as NDP leader.

In fact, Layton's legacy is more complicated than Lavigne suggests.

The author conveys the impression that there are still enormous policy differences between the federal Liberals and federal New Democrats, but that's not obvious to most Canadians. 

Lavigne also repeatedly demonstrates how eager Layton was to work with others in Parliament to benefit Canadians.

This was certainly true in the 2005 federal budget. That's when the New Democrats negotiated with the Liberals for an addition $4.6 billion in spending on affordable housing, transfers to the provinces for education, public transit, and foreign aid.

However, Layton never cooperated with those who advocated strategic voting to end Harper's reign.

Under Layton's leadership, the NDP employed a ruthless strategy to undermine federal Liberals. This approach was often advanced with more zeal than any of the party's attacks on the Conservatives.

Lavigne gleefully writes that in the 2006 election campaign: "In the end, we were able to build a firewall against strategic voting."

It benefited the NDP seat count, helping Chow get elected in Trinity-Spadina.

But this attack-the-Liberals-at-every-opportunity strategy also cleared the way for Harper to become prime minister.

Layton's tactics marginalized Liberals

The efforts to poach the Liberal vote continued through the 2008 and 2011 election campaigns. And this proved extraordinarily successful for the NDP, even though it helped cement Harper's hold over Canada.

The NDP might have fared even better in 2008 had it not been for the nomination of three B.C. candidates—Dana Larsen, Kirk Tousaw, and Julian West—who all stepped down before the election. West's name remained on the ballot because his decision to suspend his campaign came after the deadline for withdrawal.

"In the end, we lost four candidates, the Liberals lost two and the Conservatives and Greens each lost one during the 2008 campaign," Lavigne writes. "But in our case, we had a unique internal party arrangement that did not allow the national campaign team to deal effectively with candidate selections that went awry. Jack was extremely motivated to fix that before the next election."

Now, the NDP is led by former Quebec Liberal politician Tom Mulcair, who was courted by Layton to run in the Outremont by-election in 2007. And he's hardly a fire-breathing revolutionary in the image of Dave Barrett, Tommy Douglas, or David Lewis.

In fact, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau can come across as more progressive on certain issues, notably the legalization of marijuana.

It's still true that there are differences between the federal NDP and the Liberals—look no further than the Liberals' support for a Chinese state-owned oil company's takeover of Nexen. However, the gap isn't nearly as large as when Layton became party leader.

That's not a message that many New Democrats like to hear. And it was worthy of more scrutiny from Lavigne, who was at the table when decisions were made to move the federal New Democrats toward the centre.

Another insider's book about the federal NDP, Ian McLeod's Under Siege: The Federal NDP in the Nineties (James Lorimer & Company, 1994), went into much greater detail about policy differences within caucus. 

It would have been intriguing to hear more from Lavigne about Layton's more adventurous policies, such as his early support for withdrawing Canadian troops from their combat mission in Afghanistan.

Despite the lack of policy analysis in Building the Orange Wave, Lavigne has still written a highly readable, informative, and often entertaining account of Layton's years in Parliament. The former NDP leader's audacity and cheerful nature shines throughout.

It took chutzpah for Layton to campaign in 2008 as if he were a contender to become prime minister. This was done against the wishes of some party insiders.

Layton, alone among federal NDP leaders, also managed an electoral breakthrough in Quebec by applying his keen intellect to the task.

McLeod's book shows how former NDP leader Audrey McLaughlin did virtually nothing to leverage the election of an NDP MP in a by-election in 1990 into greater support for the party in the province.

Lavigne, on the other hand, goes into considerable detail in revealing how Layton helped clear the way for Mulcair's by-election win. Layton then promoted Mulcair to a key position as finance critic and deputy leader. That helped bring about much more electoral success in 2011.

Lavigne has done a fine job demonstrating why this didn't occur by fluke. In fact, very little of what Layton achieved occurred by fluke. He was a master strategist—to the point of even composing a final letter to Canadians to advance his party's prospects after his death.

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Arm Chair
Layton and Mulcair would've been a formidable one-two punch for the NDP party.
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