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Federal Politics

Jagmeet Singh’s Next Hurdle: Define His Party in an Era of Extremes

‘Keep this fight going,’ leader tells supporters.

By Geoff Dembicki 26 Feb 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Geoff Dembicki reports for The Tyee. His work also appears in Vice, Foreign Policy and the New York Times.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh easily won the Burnaby South byelection Monday night, pushing aside, at least for now, doubts about his ability to lead the party into the fall federal election.

But analysts told The Tyee the true test of Singh’s leadership would be whether he can define the party’s identity in an era of political extremes.

“Friends, you made history today,” Singh told friends, family and supporters in a ballroom in Burnaby’s Hilton Hotel. “When I was growing up, I could have never imagined someone like me running to be prime minister. Guess what, we just told a lot of kids out there that ‘yes you can.’”

In the crowd Singh’s parents beamed with pride while two young teenagers wiped tears from their eyes. Singh won with 39 per cent of the vote. Liberal Richard Lee captured 26 per cent, Conservative Jay Shin 22.5 per cent and People’s Party of Canada candidate Laura-Lynn Thompson 10.6 per cent. Voter turnout was about 30 per cent.

During a long, passionate and at times improvised victory speech, Singh shifted back and forth between his identity as the first Indo-Canadian leader of a major political party and an unabashedly left-wing critique of what’s wrong with the country.

“Conservatives and Liberals have rigged the system that works for the powerful, the wealthy and the well-connected — not for everyday Canadians,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be this way, we can fix it and we will fix it.”

Singh led the polls all evening, to the delight of his enthusiastic supporters. When NDP MP Don Davies came on stage to announce initial election results he remarked, “there is tremendous energy and excitement in this room tonight.”

Such enthusiasm was not always easy to find during the lead-up to election night. Singh was criticized for his lacklustre performance during a national TV interview with CTV’s Evan Solomon. Some senior NDP members anonymously told CBC that if Singh lost, he’d likely have to resign as leader.

Davies said in an interview Monday night that the byelection victory is a turning point.

“It’s really the flipside of all that chatter about the doomsday scenarios,” Davies said. “I think he’s going to be a decisive winner tonight. I think it’ll put an end to doubts about his leadership and I think every metric will improve, from our polling numbers to our fundraising.”

That might be a tall order, as the NDP is polling below 15 per cent, trailing the Liberals and Conservatives who each have about 35-per-cent support, according to the non-partisan site CalculatedPolitics.

Yet University of Ottawa political theorist and commentator David Moscrop said these low poll numbers may not be as dire as they might seem.

“The NDP is hovering about where’d you’d expect them historically to hover in the polls,” he told The Tyee. “We have this expectation that they ought to be doing better, but that’s a historical anomaly. That’s in part a reflection of the fact that the NDP has done unusually well in recent years. Now they’ve come back down to Earth.”

To return the NDP to the more than 30-per-cent support it enjoyed in mid-2015, he’ll need to define a clear, unapologetic identity for the party, Moscrop said.

For inspiration, Singh could draw from the democratic socialist movements gaining popularity in the U.S. and U.K., he said.

“There’s a bit of a struggle internally, a philosophical struggle as well perhaps a political struggle, over whether [the NDP] ought to make that sharper left turn,” Moscrop said. “They need to decide whether they want to be Liberal-lite, which probably won’t serve them well, or whether they want to run a Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, Corbyn-style campaign.”

This tension isn’t new for the NDP, nor easily resolved.

“This is a perennial debate, this is just the most recent iteration of it,” Stewart Prest, a political scientist at Simon Fraser University, told The Tyee. “Is it a party of principle, which gives a voice to the strongest expression of values that its members can think of, or is it a party that seeks power and tries to make strategic compromises along the way?”

The byelection results offered a preview of another challenge Singh will face heading into the Oct. 21 election. The People’s Party of Canada, which has made open hostility to refugees a core part of its far-right populist platform, won almost about 11 per cent of the vote in Burnaby South.

During one campaign event I attended, Singh said he was “disgusted by some of the values being espoused” by the People’s Party of Canada’s Thompson, who had said more thorough screening of refugees was needed and pointed to the killing of Marrisa Shen as an example of the risks, failing to mention that many Syrian-Canadians have condemned the crime and pleaded for it not to be the basis for a wider refugee backlash.

Prest said Singh, as a highly visible face of Canada’s diversity, is in a good position to fight against politicians who attempt to gain power by stoking racial resentment.

But in doing so Singh could be forced to defend his own cultural background rather than the progressive economic and social policies he stands for — as he has been obliged to do ever since running for the NDP leadership.

“It seems like there may be both an advantage, but also a potential disadvantage for Singh having to play that role,” Prest said.

On Monday night, Singh was obviously enjoying his victory, dancing on stage, grinning and high-fiving supporters, while also reminding them about the long road ahead.

“I’m asking you all to keep this fight going for the next eight months, I need you to be a part of this,” he said as his speech came to a close. “The people at the top and the wealthiest corporations have it way too good for way too long.”  [Tyee]

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