You can’t deny that the NDP likes to make history by shattering old anachronistic traditions. It began way back in the early seventies in British Columbia when Rosemary Brown became the first black woman to be elected to a provincial legislature. It continued when the party chose Audrey McLaughlin as the first woman to lead a national political party in Canada.
Then, only two months ago, Wab Kinew was elected leader of the Manitoba NDP. Mr. Kinew has a real chance of being not only the first Indigenous leader of a party, but becoming the first Indigenous premier of one of the 10 provinces.
Now, the federal NDP has gone and done it again. In Jagmeet Singh, the party becomes the first party in Canada to put its diversity money where its mouth is.
Mr. Singh brings to the NDP qualities it has desperately needed since the debacle of the 2015 election: self-confidence, pride, ambition and a clear sense of social-justice goals based on egalitarian principles. The media loves him and he reciprocates. This is no small foundation on which Mr. Singh intends to build.
With his overwhelming victory, Mr. Singh now owns the orphan NDP. But he can’t move far forward alone. Fortunately for him, he begins with an impressive team to flesh out his ambitions, beginning with his three leadership competitors. It’s evident that of the four, Mr. Singh alone had the royal jelly, the ability to make his listeners soar to new heights. But each of his opponents brought real front-bench strength to the process. I take for granted that he called them first thing to ask them to be part of his new opposition front bench, and I take for granted they all agreed.
Niki Ashton is the beacon for activist youth. Guy Caron is the solid policy man, grounded in the kind of progressive economics that have always been the NDP’s Achilles heel. Charlie Angus is the NDP everyman, a guy just like the rest of us except for his deep ties and commitment to Indigenous peoples. With Mr. Singh not in the House of Commons, these three will have their time to shine.
Still, there’s a vast gap between confidence and cockiness. Smart New Democrats are never overconfident about their prospects. As the leadership candidates were repeatedly reminded, doing well in Quebec above all remains an elusive goal. I must confess to personal frustration here, that Quebec progressives seem so perversely inflexible on questions of secularism and politics. Believing that one’s headdress should be more important than one’s humanity seems to me bizarre and perverse. Maybe you can’t understand it unless you’re there, or from there. But it’s a huge challenge for Mr. Singh and his team.
Otherwise, Mr. Singh begins with something like a tabula rasa when it comes to the NDP. Few Canadians could tell you what the party stands for, at least not in any detail. Sure, it’s the party of the people. It’s on the side of “hard-working Canadians.” But who’s not these days? What does the NDP stand for? Where are the fresh, new, creative policies that were once the NDP’s stock-in-trade, that other parties rushed to steal? How would an NDP government drive the economy?
On the other hand, the Singh NDP finds itself blessed. As we’ve already seen, the freshness of the new leader promises media attention that’s largely been lacking since the 2015 election. The Trudeau government has lost its early glow. It has, arguably, nowhere to go but down. A strong opposition could wound it, maybe even mortally. The Conservative Party has already demonstrated that it can’t blow the Liberal house down. Its new leader – sorry, I can never seem to recall his name – is mostly memorable for being so forgettable.
Whatever else is true, we can be confident this will not be Mr. Singh’s fate. This is not a man easily forgotten, as he has just demonstrated. He has overwhelmingly won over a party that mostly knew nothing about him until he belatedly threw his hat in the ring. But as we have seen, once met, he stays in the mind. He is a remarkable character, and Canadians will not ignore him easily. He does not, he asserts persuasively, back down from a challenge. Don’t expect him to back down from this one.
This man has “winner” written all over him.
Gerald Caplan is a former New Democratic Party national director
This column was first published in The Globe and Mail.
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