The NDP play the king: Singh takes the plunge

(Anita Bathe/CBC)

It’s been ten months since Canada’s NDP formally replaced their former leader, Thomas Mulcair.

Mulcair led them into the last campaign on a bold promise of a centrist, fiscally responsible platform that was markedly different for their party. For taking the party further down the track that Jack Layton set them on to — he was roundly turfed.

Enter Jagmeet Singh.

Jagmeet Singh was a telegenic, youthful voice in the Ontario NDP caucus that was seen as the logical successor to its leader, Andrea Horwath. Yet he wanted to move to the national stage.

He won the federal NDP leadership contest by courting diverse communities and voters who had not voted for their own party in many cases.

His approach was bold because he said that he would not run to sit in Parliament immediately following his win. He would possibly wait until the next general election, unless some tempting riding became vacant in the interim.

It was thought that this strategy would allow him to be out on the campaign trail months in advance of any other leader who had parliamentary duties.

This stance irked traditional political observers, but it is an approach taken by numerous leaders in the past who entered leadership roles from outside the House of Commons.

However, backroom voices prevailed in selling the narrative that he should not wait. He therefore flirted with various areas in Ontario where he had personal roots: Windsor, Scarborough, Brampton. No ridings opened there, and he would face stiff competition from Liberals in the general election.

Additionally, Singh saw that Mulcair’s old Outremont seat was fraught with challenges, and a personal loss for him in Québec would be a poison pill for his party’s 2019 chances.

But an upcoming BC by-election has proven irresistible for Singh.

Kennedy Stewart — NDP MP for Burnaby South — joined a protest in March against the Kinder Morgan Pipeline and was arrested, along with Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. For their activist bases, this was political gold and showed them staying true to their roots.

Stewart then saw an opportunity to wedge himself into the Vancouver Mayor’s seat after incumbent Mayor Gregor Robertson announced he would not run again.

Jagmeet Singh heard murmurs that the seat could work for him. He spoke to his BC Caucus members and they obviously expressed their support, while acknowledging some challenges.

Earlier this week, he made the formal announcement that he would seek the nomination and seat in the by-election upcoming.

His chances are seen as decent, but it will require a lot of luck for him to win the trust of a riding he has never lived in before now.

While some Liberal strategists see an opportunity to embarrass Singh and defeat him in this race — there is an option being floated that is both statesmanly and politically advantageous.

Don’t run anyone against him. Let him win the riding uncontested by the Liberals because A) major party leaders (including Harper in 2002) are usually allowed to take a seat in the House of Commons in a by-election without serious opposition b) Singh is faltering in the polls and if he loses the by-election — the NDP might turf him in favour of a better leader. Enter Nathan Cullen?

This suggestion would mean Singh is guaranteed to lead the NDP into the next campaign, which could put all of his Quebec seats and some in the West at risk of being taken.

Conservatives are also seeing opportunity, considering that they only were a few points behind the NDP and Liberals in Burnaby South in 2015’s general election, which means a tight three-way vote split could come out in their favour.

This is something to be given serious consideration, although other strategists may see that the NDP brand may still be limping out of this by-election regardless of the result.

Jagmeet Singh will face a political battle – unless uncontested – in Burnaby South to convince them that he’s dedicated and not just going to namedrop, former NDP Leader and two-time Burnaby MP in the 60’s, Tommy Douglas the whole time. But the rewards could be great if it means boosting his profile by entering the Commons before the next election.

History will tell Singh’s story, but maybe the NDP shouldn’t have been so quick to ditch the devil they knew, and who had a safe seat in Parliament.

Shane Mackenzie is an Associate Consultant with Ensight. He is a seasoned campaigner at all levels, previously worked on Parliament Hill for Liberal Members of Parliament, and at the Liberal Party of Canada headquarters.