The NDP should’ve been the ‘change’ option this election. Instead, it’s grasping for relevance: Robyn Urback

Jagmeet Singh’s leadership got off on the wrong foot, and it still hasn’t found the other. 

If this was a different NDP — a better funded, better focused, better led NDP — the 2019 federal election would present a real opportunity to regain ground lost over the past several years as the party tried to define itself post-Tom Mulcair. 

With the NDP seemingly struggling to fend off the Greens for third place, the 2019 election is shaping up to be a race between two men who, despite the partisan hyperbole, aren’t really all that different.

One is a career politician, the other is part of a political dynasty. Both were born and raised in Ottawa, steeped in the politics of their respective circles. Find one or the other at the Albany Club, or the Chateau Laurier, or Métropolitain Brasserie breaking bread with other important people.

The differences in policy between Justin Trudeau and Andrew Scheer mostly come down to footnotes: on climate change, for example, it’s a choice between the Liberals’ ineffectual carbon tax, or the Conservatives’ even more ineffectual climate policy. Both parties have terrible records on access to information, on the use of sneaky political tactics, on crossing ethical boundaries with and for important friends. The NDP should — should — be the logical alternative. 

The 2019 election is shaping up to be a race between two men who, despite the partisan hyperbole, aren’t really all that different from each other. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

But Singh isn’t even registering as an option. He stumbled in the early days and weeks of his leadership, struggling to find the correct line to take on Air India terrorists, flubbing his own party’s position on language requirements for Supreme Court judges, and learning about his own caucus’s support of gun-control legislation live in front of cameras. 

One could, if feeling charitable, chalk it up to the typical troubles of a leadership in its early adolescence. Blame mom for forgetting to pin a note that said “terrorism = bad, bilingualism = good” to the inside of his jacket. 

But by the time the election came around, the NDP was supposed to be on solid footing: Singh won his seat in the B.C. riding of Burnaby South and the NDP had finally brought some experienced hands on deck to steer the ship. It was time to get going.

On top of that, the Liberals have yielded space on the left that they occupied during the 2015 campaign, which forced Mulcair to adopt an ill-fitting centrist platform. Four years ago, the Liberals hijacked the progressive space with their promises of legalized marijuana (Mulcair promoted decriminalization), big spending commitments (Mulcair said he would balance the budget) and electoral reform. 

Since then, the Liberals have betrayed that space: they bought a pipeline and failed to stay on track to meet Canada’s climate change targets under the Paris Agreement. They broke their promise of electoral reform for nakedly political reasons, and continued to sign export permits to ship arms to Saudi Arabia, despite a so-called feminist foreign policy. And most notably, in their dealings with SNC-Lavalin, they reaffirmed their credentials as the sons of the St. Lawrence, who will trample conventions to help out their high-powered pals in trouble.

In doing so, they’ve vacated a space that could allow the NDP to return to its roots as a true workers’ party: one that actually reflects the working and middle classes, as opposed to the Liberal flock of Armani shoppers who wear Moores suits on the campaign trail. Singh could, theoretically, harness the desire for change that the Liberals left unfulfilled because they used the same sort of Harper-style governing tactics during their tenure. If only the NDP could figure out what it’s doing.

Money is an issue — the NDP doesn’t have any. Daily operations are still a problem — the party is still making amateur-style mistakes, such as sending journalists Singh’s speech with stage directions, and distributing a press release with the wrong date. More than a dozen incumbents have opted not to run again. Caucus solidarity is still bruised from the ousting of MP Erin Weir. 

The NDP is still making amateur-style mistakes. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

That said, the talking points are right — “We’re in it for you, not the rich and powerful.” But Singh lacks the charisma to deliver them effectively. He sounds like he’s talking to the University of Victoria student union, not an electorate exhausted by the same old establishment politics.  

It’s unlikely that a Singh-led NDP will gain much, or any, ground in Quebec. (To be frank, if a man in a turban can’t get a job as a teacher in a province, he probably won’t get much support to form government.) But the party can make plays in other areas.

The 905 — suburban areas around Toronto — is definitely not NDP territory, but years ago, it wasn’t really Conservative territory either. That changed with Conservative on-the-ground outreach in 2011, when Immigration Minister Jason Kenney demonstrated the enormous value of showing up in, and really understanding the concerns of, ethnic communities. Singh, a son of immigrants, can no doubt relate to those communities on a level inaccessible to politicians who have never lived as first-generation Canadians. 

One of the many successful strategies of the Jack Layton-led NDP was coveting voters who never would have considered voting orange before, but were tired of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and uninspired by Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. Singh has been blessed with similar conditions, and ample room to tap populist sentiments from the left.

But he has not been blessed with the same natural ability to channel the frustrations of the everyday Canadian, and reflect it back with galvanizing zeal. For this NDP, that might be the difference between Official Opposition and grasping for third.


This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.



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