Jagmeet Singh evokes hope, but must court blue-collar voters and Quebec

Jagmeet Singh at 2017 Pride Parade in Toronto. Photo: ideas_dept/flickr

Just before party president Marit Stiles and vice-president Hans Marotte announced the result of the NDP’s leadership contest on Sunday afternoon, the final speakers, MP Alexandre Boulerice and former MP Olivia Chow, just about gave away the result. Both pointedly used the phrase “love and courage” — more than once. “Love and courage” is newly elected leader Jagmeet Singh’s now famous tagline.

Singh’s motto quite consciously echoes Jack Layton’s final words to Canadians: “Love is better than hate. Hope is better than fear. Optimism, better than despair.” In selecting Singh, NDP members are hoping they can rekindle the cheery optimism Layton embodied. The members have signalled they want to shed the querulous image of a party that focused, perhaps too intently, on its oppositional role. Instead, they now want to present a positive and aspirational face to Canadians. Negativity and anger are out. The NDP’s version of sunny ways is in.

In his victory speech, Jagmeet Singh touched on more than one topic.

He made a point of not only thanking his fellow candidates; he gave highly respectful accounts of their contributions, in each case, to politics in Canada. He also spoke at some length about his own compelling biography, as he has throughout the leadership race. He talked about having to take over leadership of his family at the age of 21, when his father became ill; about the cops stopping him for driving-while-being-brown; and he explained, in more than adequate French, where his personal commitment to learn the French language came from, making the connection between his own, minority identity as a Sikh in India and the minority status of francophones in Canada.

There was one subject the new NDP leader did not broach, however — the current Trudeau-Liberal government. Instead, Singh’s speech was all about who he is, what he wants to do, what policies matter to him. He seemed to have no interest whatsoever in tearing down his political opponents.

No less an observer than former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said outgoing NDP leader Thomas Mulcair was Canada’s best leader of the opposition in more than a generation. Most in the media and among the political class concurred. Mulcair was a highly effective opposition leader, especially in the House. But that did not help him to become prime minister.

Singh appears to have decided, as best we can tell at this early date, that his road to success does not lie in holding the current government’s feet to the fire — the normal role of an opposition politician. Singh has adopted for himself Jack Layton’s approach, which was, in Layton’s own words, “proposition, not opposition.”

Appeal to working-class voters?

Not too long ago, the new NDP leader told this writer he is the candidate of emotional and personal connection, and he enumerated the groups for whom he might have particular appeal: hipsters, the young, people of colour, people in the technology and creative sectors, precarious and marginal workers.

Notable is one group he did not mention: the traditional working class. While the NDP lost all of its 11 Toronto seats last time to the Liberals, it continued to do well in urban working-class bastions such as Hamilton and Windsor, and in northern seats where the economy is dominated by mining and forestry, such as those held by leadership rivals Niki Ashton and Charlie Angus.

Singh brings the promise of the NDP re-taking urban and urbane ridings it lost last time, such the Danforth in Toronto. And he offers the possibility of breakthroughs in suburban zones, such as Ontario’s 905 belt, which have been largely an electoral desert for the party. He nearly won one such riding, Bramalea-Gore-Malton, in the 2011 federal election, and went on the win it provincially shortly thereafter. But can Singh appeal to miners, millworkers and factory workers, all of whom have been a longstanding source of loyal support for the NDP?

Angus said he decided to run for the leadership when he watched with horror as working-class voters in the U.S. allowed themselves to be seduced by an angry billionaire who claimed he cared about them.  What does Singh have to say to Canadian blue-collar workers who are worried about their jobs, their futures, their very relevance to the economy of the future? Now that he is leader, it is reasonable to expect that Singh will reach out to folks such as Angus and seek their guidance in connecting with working-class Canada.

Attack Liberal policies that annoy Quebeckers, such the Netflix deal

And then, of course, there is Quebec.

This writer has made the point that Quebeckers are not the narrow-minded bigots some politicians, such as Bloc Québecois leader Martine Ouellet, think they are. But the concerns of NDP MP Pierre Nantel, who represents a riding on Montreal’s south shore, cannot be entirely dismissed.

Nantel argues that the people of Quebec have bitter memories of the days when their province was a near theocracy — when, in certain domains such as education, the Catholic Church wielded more power than the state. In that context, a leader who visually proclaims his religious identity, as does Singh, could frighten Quebeckers, who have only recently thrown off the shackles of the church.  Or, at least, so say MP Pierre Nantel and more than a few others. 

They might have a point. There is also the uncomfortable fact that some voters who consider themselves to be tolerant and open-minded might draw the line at a candidate who insists on being so openly ‘different’ in his appearance as does Singh. Are such attitudes more common in Quebec than elsewhere in Canada? This writer, for one, is not sure.

The good news for Singh is that he is possessed of considerable personal charm – even charisma – and, equally important, he speaks more than passable French.

At one point, in the future, Singh would be well advised to put his charm and linguistic prowess on display on the popular Radio-Canada television talk show Tout le monde en parle. An appearance on that show gave Layton a big boost in 2011.

But Singh should not be in too much of a hurry. He should give himself time, working on making his good French even better. For now, we can expect him to focus on meeting small groups of Quebeckers, face to face, in more intimate situations. When the time is ripe, the new NDP leader will want to make a major media splash in Quebec.

In the meantime, Trudeau’s Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly has given the NDP an excellent opening to Quebec voters, with her ridiculous decision to anchor a new cultural policy on U.S.-based mega corporation Netflix’s pledge to spend $500 million in Canada, in ways that are not yet clear.

The government appears to be letting Netflix off the hook when it comes to paying taxes and respecting Canadian broadcast regulations, on the basis of a vague commitment. For English Canadian television viewers, there is the consolation of some new television programming. For French-speaking Canadians, there is no upside. Netflix has made zero commitment to invest in any French language production. And based on its record, the U.S. corporation has virtually no interest in either Quebec or French language television.

When asked about this at her news conference, Joly resorted to naming the handful of Quebec film directors who have made it big in Hollywood. That did not impress anyone in Quebec. Au contraire. Joly’s announcement was a complete flop in her home province.  

This is an ideal issue for the NDP. It touches on Canada’s cultural sovereignty and a government too willing to give away the shop to a powerful corporation, as well as on the particular concerns of Quebec.

As a matter of course, it should be Quebec MPs, such as Nantel, who carry the ball on the growing Netflix controversy. But Singh might want get his oar in as well. It would be a way for him to make the point that what should count most to Quebecers is not the new NDP leader’s appearance. It is, rather, where he stands on the issues. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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