Notably, social issues absent from negotiations between two left-of-center parties

How We Almost Gave the Tories the Boot
(The Inside Story Behind the Coalition)
by Brian Topp
(Lorimer, $24.95, 192 pp.)

The coalition that almost usurped power from the Conservatives in the fall of 2008 seems like a distant memory in the spring of 2010, but How We Almost Gave the Tories the Boot (The Inside Story Behind the Coalition), the political memoir of one of its negotiators, NDP strategist Brian Topp, is worth reading to understand how the opposition parties nearly grabbed power away from the governing Tories.

Topp is almost uniquely qualified to write this insider’s account of the coalition negotiations between the Liberals and NDP. In his day job, he is an executive director with ACTRA (the performers’ union), but in his political life, he co-ordinated the federal NDP war room (1997 and 2004 campaigns), served as the party’s national campaign director (2006 and 2008) and served as the deputy chief of staff to Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow in the 1990s.

It was while working for Romanow in the 1990s that he got a taste of coalition politics (recall the NDP-Liberal party coalition in 1999) and that led to NDP leader Jack Layton tapping Topp to be part of the team to work on a coalition proposal for the 2006 election (more as a theoretical what-if exercise), a plan dusted off in November 2008 when Stephen Harper announced plans to rescind public financing of political parties.

There is a lot of detail about backroom politics in this book, which reads more like a novel than a political memoir of a critical moment in Canadian history. Topp has the story move along briskly with a day-by-day account of the discussions and activities necessary to hastily negotiate the coalition and, in doing so, provides rare glimpses of how politics is conducted in the backrooms: the give-and-take of negotiating with a party that was in the middle of a leadership fight (and how that contest affected the ability of the Liberals to make a deal); the inner workings and relationships that, just as much as shared values and principles, make politics work (or not); the personalities involved, from political staffers to elder statesmen such as former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, former Saskatchewan premiers Allan Blakeney and Roy Romanow and former prime minister Jean Chretien.

What is striking is that there appeared to be very little policy to be negotiated and there was nary a word from Topp specifically about moral issues. While Topp seems to give a nod to some socially progressive ideas using code words, the lack of any discussion of abortion and same-sex “marriage” implies that these issues were unimportant, unmentionable or unremarkable. Perhaps it indicates that there is little difference between the parties on most moral issues, at least at the top of the party, where strategists and leaders agree on a broadly left-wing consensus. Perhaps it represents a misreading by the NDP on the unanimity among Liberals on such issues.

But, as the motion on reproductive health in March of this year exposed, the Liberals are themselves still divided on issues such as abortion and the NDP was quick to criticize Michael Ignatieff for not making his party toe the line. It would be interesting to know what socially conservative Liberal MPs thought of the possibility of getting into bed with the NDP and Bloc Quebecois (which, while not technically a member of the coalition, was willing to support a Liberal-NDP government for at least one year) during those nearly fateful days in 2008.

Regardless of the dearth of moral issues in the book’s narrative, it is easy to imagine that a Liberal-NDP coalition government supported by the Bloc would move this country far to the left socially, assuming a critical mass of Liberals would not have defected from the party if the unholy union was actually consummated.

Reading such a memoir, it is vital to remember one caveat: for any such endeavour, the author has any number of biases – political but also of perspective. Topp is not a disinterested party, but if he could be, even as a central figure in the negotiations, he was not privy to the whole story and thus can only re-tell what he saw and heard and what was reported to him from others. He only knows the NDP side of the story and what he personally witnessed from Liberals during negotiations. It would be interesting to read something from the Liberal perspective.

That said, How We Almost Gave the Tories the Boot has a certain credibility because of the inclusion of specific times and places (facts that can be checked) and, in some specific criticisms of the Liberals, by naming names. One of the most telling details of the tenor of negotiations regarded the number of cabinet posts reserved for the NDP. Liberal MP Marlene Jennings informed the NDP negotiators that no MPs in their party would get cabinet posts because Liberals were entitled to them. This story seems more credible with the name attached to it.

Even if only half the book is perfectly accurate, it is still important for its glimpse into the sordid world of backroom politics and, more important, to understand how close this country came to a Liberal, socialist and separatist alliance running the government. If that grouping seems frightening or implausible, it almost came true for a reason. Jack Layton understood that (for better or worse) power is the goal of politics and when there is a chance to grab it, parties will. In that, the NDP and Liberals are not unique.