Jagmeet Singh is the self-styled candidate of connections and emotion

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

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Jagmeet Singh certainly knows how to attract attention to himself.

He entered the NDP leadership race late, months after the four other candidates, yet there is polling and anecdotal evidence that he already has higher, and more positive, name recognition than any of the others. One gesture, in particular, gained Singh a pile of favourable coverage: a one-minute video in which he explains what motivated him to learn French early in life.

In that video, he compares his own Punjabi people to the Québecois, speaking in fluent French. He tells how listening to singer Roch Voisine, who was especially popular in the late 1980s and 1990s, helped him learn the French language. He does this little riff while tying his turban; and winks at the too-cool-for-school folks in his audience by admitting that Voisine's music might sound "kétaine" (corny) today.

This writer has spoken to people who have scant interest in the NDP or its leadership race, but who know all about the video. They are impressed with Singh's flair and audacity, and the way he turns what might be concerns in Quebec about his turban on their head, no pun intended.

Elected in difficult territory for the NDP

So far, Jagmeet Singh seems to have led a charmed political life, although he has not chosen an easy route. He made his first try for political office, as a federal NDP candidate, in 2011, in a riding in the suburban Toronto Peel region, not usually fertile ground for New Democrats.

Like other New Democratic politicians, Singh found his way to politics through activism. As a law student he worked for refugees and immigrants, and did know-your-rights seminars. Once he began practicing law, he continued the same work. In 2011, youth groups, mostly in the Sikh community, convinced him to run federally, in an area where, as he puts it "the party had never won any election at any level of government …" He came agonizingly close, losing to the Conservative candidate by only 539 votes.

A few months later, Singh ran for the NDP in the same riding provincially and won. He quickly became a prominent and active member of the legislature. Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath named him justice critic and, later, her deputy leader. He was having a successful provincial career, so why run for the federal leadership?

His answer is based, without false modesty, on an evaluation of his own talents and appeal and, in particular, his communication ability. As an acknowledged rising star in the party, Singh has travelled around the country on behalf of the NDP. During those travels, he says, he has met many people who seem to share NDP values -- on inequality and social justice, for instance -- but do not vote NDP.

"I realized," he says, "that I am in a unique position. I am a bit disruptive. I represent a suburban riding, but I am known for being an urban person who cycles in a suit. I have stood up on discrimination and policing. Stood up to insurance companies, stood up for precarious workers. I did a lot of bold work, and I had built a great relationship with a whole lot of different communities. I won an award from the coalition of Black trade unionists for my work on carding. I have a great relationship with many communities, from the Muslim to the Black to urban hipsters. I think I am in a unique position to appeal to people who share our values, but don't necessarily feel at home in our party."

Four policy pillars

On the policy front, other candidates have accused Singh of being vague, but he is quickly putting meat on the bones of his proposals. The four pillars of his campaign, he says, are: inequality, electoral reform, Indigenous reconciliation and climate change. When this writer pushed Singh to choose one of those as his highest priority, he answered, "It would have to be inequality."

To address growing inequality in Canada, the young Ontario politician says he has an "income security and tax fairness agenda." On income security, he proposes a targeted guaranteed annual incomes for seniors, for low-wage working Canadians and for Canadians living with disabilities. These targeted income guarantees, Singh explains, "would immediately lift those three groups out of poverty." He would pay for these measures with tax reforms, which would "ask those who can afford it" to pay more -- or, as he puts it, "to invest a bit more in our beautiful country."

Jagmeet Singh argues that his idea is better than Guy Caron's universal guaranteed annual income because it would be means tested, focused exclusively on "those who need it the most." In addition, he adds, his plan is fully costed.

"Guy Caron's idea is great and noble," Singh says, "but it is not clear to me if it is fully costed and practically achievable. As well, it is not clear if it is targeted toward those most in need."

Of all the candidates, Singh portrays himself as being the most able to counter the ineffable Trudeau factor. In addition to being youthful and a global celebrity, Trudeau has wrapped himself in the banner of boosting the middle class through economic growth. Does Singh have a message for that middle-class cohort, however one might define it, which is primarily concerned with the state of and prospects for the economy?

The candidate counters, first, by pooh-poohing the obsessive political preoccupation with the "amorphous middle class."

He then brings up the disruptive impact of technology. Singh makes the point, at first, that he is excited about technological disruption; but then corrects himself to explain that he is, in fact,  "concerned." He raises the example of driverless vehicles, which, he says, will have a big impact on the transportation sector, and offers that "as a country we need to make the investment in training so that our workforce can transition into good jobs."

"That is something I will be looking at," he says, and then, on a personal note, adds: "I have a lot of friends in the tech and creative sectors and I will seek their advice as to how we can train people to transition to the new, good jobs that will be created by technological change."

Split in the party over a pipeline and reflections on 2015

Like most other NDP leadership candidates, Singh is unequivocally opposed to Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline proposal, a project Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley enthusiastically supports (as does Prime Minister Trudeau).

When asked about his position, Singh's first response is to praise Notley's great work on climate change. He then adds that he took his time before declaring himself on the Kinder Morgan project because he is respectful of the Alberta government's need to protect existing jobs and create new jobs in its province.

"It wasn't an easy decision for me," he says, "but in the end I had a number of key concerns, including the need for any project to have the full consent of Indigenous people. I also believe an energy project has to be in line with our climate change targets, and should create sufficient benefits or local jobs. Those were some of the factors I took into account in deciding to oppose Trans Mountain."

As to the fact that the proposed pipeline has created a major rift in his party, Singh argues that it is just one issue.

"There are so many issues on which we align, " he argues. "At a time when, with the dropping price of oil, Conservatives were talking about cutting health and education, Rachel Notley implemented plans to freeze tuition fees, and put in policies around workers' rights and minimum wage. Plus, Notley's climate change plan is one of the strongest in the entire country."

Finally, what does Singh believe went wrong in the last federal campaign, in 2015?

"We actually had some great ideas," he replies. "Pharmacare, daycare. But we did not connect with people emotionally. People, in their heart, did not feel that the New Democrats were the true progressive party. They thought the Liberals were. It may not have been rational or based on facts; it was about connection and emotion. That is what I will be working on. Developing connections."

So far, for a politician who has zoomed quickly into the national spotlight, Jagmeet Singh has done remarkably well at the job of connecting.

This article is part of a series profiling candidates in the 2017 NDP leadership race. Read the full series here.

Photo: ideas_dept/flickr

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation. Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

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