NDP's Singh can prove his critics wrong, but must up his game

Wayne Polk/Flickr

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s chances of winning the February 25 byelection in the British Columbia riding of Burnaby South look better by the day. But if he wins, he still has a long road in front of him heading into the fall general election.

About a month ago, before the prime minister called the byelection for Burnaby South and two other ridings, the media were reporting polls that showed the NDP trailing badly in the B.C. riding. More recently, however, a new poll showed Singh quite comfortably in the lead.

That newer poll came after the byelection call, but before the Liberal candidate was forced to step aside. Former candidate Karen Wang’s offence was telling voters they should support her because she is Chinese, while Singh is Indian.

Until the most recent developments, there had been a lot of chatter about what would happen if Singh were to lose the byelection.

Former NDP leader Tom Mulcair said openly what others were thinking: Singh would have to quit, and the party would get itself a new leader before October’s vote. That prospect, apparently, worried the Liberals. At least, that has been the conventional Ottawa insider opinion.

Liberals need a weak NDP to win again

The chattering class view is that the NDP is in trouble, what with poor fundraising results and mediocre poll numbers. And they lay the blame for that trouble at the leader’s door. Singh has been weak and ineffective, they say. He is largely absent from Ottawa, and has been unable to articulate a clear, progressive message much at variance with that of the Liberals.  

If the Liberals have any hope for a second majority, the argument goes, they need the NDP to stay weak. Liberal and NDP votes are like a teeter-totter. When one side goes up, the other goes down.

And so -- again, according to Ottawa insiders -- the Liberals have been not-so-secretly hoping for Singh to win the Burnaby seat and then lead his party to a dismal showing in the next election.

Well, the Liberals might get their wish, or, at least, part of it. Singh is now an odds-on favourite to get himself a seat in the House of Commons on February 25.

The second part of the Liberal wish list might not, however, be such a foregone conclusion.

The next election will present very polarized options to the voters.

There is a Conservative Party that, in effect, denies climate change, wants to radically tighten immigration and refugee rules, and lower taxes for the wealthy. In other words, it wants to return to the Harper era. Further to the right, there is Maxime Bernier’s party that openly appeals to bigotry, while advocating a radical, Ayn-Rand-style reduction of the state, which would include ending Canada’s supply-management system for agriculture.

Meanwhile, the Trudeau Liberals, commentators say, have been offering the most progressive government Canada has seen in many decades. The Liberals have left little room on their port side for the NDP. In such a polarized environment, say the experts, potential NDP voters will flock to the Liberals -- especially given the fact that Singh has not done much to differentiate himself from Trudeau.

Singh is in favour of electoral reform, while Trudeau betrayed his promise on that. But changing the electoral system is an arcane matter for most Canadians, not likely to sway many voters.

Singh also opposes the Trans Mountain pipeline, which Trudeau’s government now owns. But the NDP, as a party, is not united on that issue. Alberta’s NDP government is 1,000 per cent for the pipeline.

Charisma and charm are not enough

When they chose Singh as leader, many NDPers seemed to be seeking the magical and ineffable quality of charisma Trudeau brought to the Liberals. They wanted someone very different from the cerebral, tough-talking, prosecutorial Mulcair -- a candidate who had the indefinable ability to “connect,” to use Singh’s own word.

The view of Ottawa insiders is that what the NDP got, in the end, was someone who had all of Trudeau’s flaws -- like a tendency to be vague on policy and a preoccupation with image to the detriment of substance -- and none of his strengths.

The chattering class should not count its chickens, however, be they free market fowl or marketing-board hens.

Singh has stumbled a few times since becoming leader. But those missteps have been the inevitable growing pains of a new leader. Many tend to forget that the late NDP leader Jack Layton made a few serious blunders of his own early in his tenure.

In 2004, for instance, commentators excoriated Layton for suggesting that Liberal finance minister Paul Martin’s austerity policies had caused the deaths of homeless people. The Liberals had, in fact, cut funds for affordable housing, but the commentariat faulted Layton because housing is largely a provincial, not federal, responsibility.

The late NDP leader also alienated many potential supporters when he seemed to suggest his party would recognize the legitimacy of a Quebec vote to secede, even if carried only by a single vote. Layton’s failure of leadership was not necessarily the party’s nuanced and reasonable policy on the federal government’s duty to negotiate in the event of a yes vote. It was his inability, at least at first, to convincingly explain that policy.

In the end, Layton gained his political sea legs, and the NDP went on to increase its seat count in each of his four elections, culminating in the orange wave of 2011.

A clear vision and bold policies

Singh is still, by and large, an unknown and untested quantity, but he does bring a lot to the table. He has an accomplished career as a criminal defence and human rights lawyer and deputy leader of the Ontario NDP. He also has a compelling personal life story.

In addition, when the next election rolls around, the Liberals will be running on their record, not merely on the prospect of getting rid of the nasty and negative Harper regime. They will have to answer not only for the promises they kept, but also for those they failed to keep.

There are, for a start, the Liberals’ failures to fully live up to their promises on both democratic reform and Indigenous rights. Those failures might matter to a lot of people to whom Ottawa insiders rarely speak. 

In addition, the gulf between the top and bottom ends of the economic spectrum in Canada continues to grow, despite a bit of Liberal tinkering. That, too, could weigh in the balance for many voters who supported the Trudeau team last time. The Trudeau government’s main measure to deal with poverty, to date, is a late-mandate, on-paper strategy they might or might not ever implement. Economic inequality could provide an obvious issue for Singh and the NDP.

And finally, while the current government talks a good game on the environment and climate change, it has not significantly delivered results in the form of reduced emissions, as Canada’s Environment Commissioner has reminded it more than once.

All of this could provide ammunition for a reinvigorated Singh, if and when he wins a seat and enters the House of Commons as party leader.

The NDP leader’s big challenge will be to go beyond a critique, however trenchant, of the failures of the Trudeau government.

In addition to tearing a strip off the Liberals for their many betrayals and failures, Singh will have to communicate a clear and compelling vision for his party. Even more important, he will need to articulate a muscular and tangible set of policies that would give life to that vision.

Photo: Wayne Polk/Flickr

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

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