Is @theJagmeetSingh ready for prime time?

He’s stylish, has all the political tools and is the first person of colour to lead a federal party in Canada, so why is Jagmeet Singh’s win ­threatening to split the NDP?

“There are moments where I’m hit by the immensity of the position. I forget about it, then I realize I’m walking around Ottawa because I’m the leader of a national party.”

It’s been a dream-like ride since Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh walked away with the leadership of the federal NDP October 1. In the days since, there has been a barrage of media interviews and his first meeting as party leader with the NDP caucus in Ottawa. That’s when it hit him, what he calls, “the moment that spoke to me about how much has been achieved. 

“Everything for me feels like it happened a long time ago,” says Singh during a disarming 30-minute interview with NOW over the phone from the nation’s capital.

The whirlwind continued this week with a trip to Quebec. A speech at the CUPE national convention in Toronto was squeezed in between, the party’s handlers in Ottawa eager to parlay as much good PR as possible from their dashing young leader. Finally, after a year in political limbo under leader-in-name-only Tom Mulcair, the NDP has something to be excited about.

Singh got off on the right foot, appointing leadership rival and Quebec MP Guy Caron as his parliamentary leader. It was a no-brainer, really, given renewed doubts about the NDP’s diminishing fortunes in Quebec. But it also creates a dilemma for Singh about what roles his two main rivals for the leadership, Charlie Angus and Niki Ashton, both of whom finished well ahead of Caron in the balloting, will play under his leadership.

Singh may be the rising star of Canadian politics right now, but the next federal election is still two years away, and there are big issues to cross off his to-do list and tough questions to be answered in the meantime. 

Like how long is Singh going to wait before he decides to run for a seat in Parliament?

The recent passing of Liberal MP Arnold Chan has opened up a seat in Scarborough-Agincourt. It would seem a natural fit for Singh, who was born in Scarborough. It would also be a logical place to begin rebuilding Toronto’s NDP base – eight Toronto councillors endorsed Singh – after 2015’s disappointment. 

But Singh remains non-committal. While saying he’s “very open” to advice on the subject, there’s no timeline on a decision. He has said he wants to tour the country before turning his attention to taking up his rightful place in the House. Provincial Liberal cabinet minister Brad Duguid, Mr. Scarborough himself, is also rumoured to have his eye on Scarborough-Agincourt, which adds up to a tricky proposition for Singh. And the last thing he can afford to do right now is make a mistake.

The outsider takes over a party divided

For the longest time it looked like Singh was positioning himself for a run at the leadership of the provincial NDP – ever since 2014, in fact, after Andrea Horwath, like Mulcair, embraced pocketbook issues and saw her party’s support go sideways in Ontario. But Horwath made her penance with the membership shortly after 2014 – and she made it clear she would be taking another kick at the can in 2018.

For Singh, waiting around seemed like a no-win situation with the provincial NDP hovering around 20 per cent in the polls and likely headed for another third place finish after 2018. And running for the federal leadership posed little political risk: lose and at the very least he would have built a national profile to run at a federal seat in 2019 – or take over from Horwath anyway, if the polls are right. 

Singh kept his provincial seat while he took his shot at the federal leadership, raising questions from his rivals about his commitment to the federal wing of the party. Let’s just say his reputation preceded him.

Andrea Horwath.jpg

Cheol Joon Baek

Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath at federal NDP leadership first ballot announcement Sunday, October 1.

The knock against Singh when he entered the race was that he’s too scripted. And that the minutiae of policy was not his forte. All flash and no vision, in other words. Maybe even a little bit too in love with himself. That’s what long-time NDP stalwart Murray Dobbin wrote in a column for endorsing Ashton in May.

Sure, he was the party’s deputy in Ontario but he never had to do the heavy lifting, and nothing, the theory goes, could prepare him for the federal ranks.

For the hardcore in the party he didn’t come through traditional NDP ranks. And his resumé was a little thin by the NDP’s social justice standards. He took part in anti-war and anti-poverty protests while attending law school at York University, but more, admittedly, because “it was a good way to meet people,” as he put it. Singh is like that sometimes, making jokes at awkward moments.

As a first-term MPP from 905 Brampton his political reputation was also made on a decidedly un-NDP issue: auto insurance.

On the campaign trail he has recounted being racial profiled by cops. And having to support his family by working three retail jobs when his father became ill. But his is not quite the typical school-of-hard-knocks immigrant story. Singh attended private high school in Michigan

Singh, however, didn’t just win the NDP leadership because of his GQ-cover-worthy looks and the fact that he can pull off a floral-patterned shirt like nobody’s business. His was a decisive victory.

He took 53 per cent of the vote on the first ballot – 35,266 votes compared to 12,705 for Angus, 11,374 to Ashton and 6,164 for Caron.

Former NDP MP Andrew Cash, who supported Angus, says it’s the kind of “definitive” win a new leader wants. “It puts him in a good place with the caucus and the leadership. There’s no argument about it.”

Only there is. The joyous scene that followed on stage at the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel conference room felt oddly anti-climactic.

None of the familiar party stalwarts and former leaders who would normally be there to mark such an historic occasion – the first person of colour to be elected leader by a federal party in Canada – was in attendance. There would be no ceremonial passing of the torch. Mulcair, the man Singh replaced – and thanked in his acceptance speech for building the party’s presence in Quebec – was travelling on parliamentary business. 

Little more than half of the party’s 124,000 eligible voters, some 65,782 people, cast a ballot, a surprise following the soul searching that took place after 2015’s devastating loss. Why did so many stay away? For many in the party who saw Singh as the establishment choice, his win was a foregone conclusion.

It’s no secret that Singh won on the strength of his signing a reported 47,000 new members to the party, and most of those from ridings in tightly knit Sikh communities in his 905 Brampton backyard and in parts of British Columbia.

Among existing NDP members, the card-carrying faithful who keep the party going with their annual donations, Singh was the outsider, the third choice behind Angus and Ashton, according to a number of polls. It didn’t seem to matter to the hardcore that his leadership campaign had inspired a whole new generation of young people of colour, including the support of the Idle No More and Black Lives Matter movements, to join the party.

In some respects, Singh’s win looked a lot like Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown’s over Christine Elliot in 2015, coming out of nowhere to out hustle his opponents and win. 

For Brown, who failed to quickly heal the divisions his win caused, there has been no end to the internal sniping. For Singh, too, the next few months will be crucial.


Cheol Joon Baek

Jagmeet Singh’s campaign aspired to Obama-esque heights – winning now was a popular theme. But the federal NDP has the same strategic problem its provincial cousins do in Ontario.

Flash versus vision

While on the surface the leadership contest was (mostly) cordial and respectful, party insiders complain that the format of the debates didn’t really allow policy differences between the candidates on meat-and-potato issues like Middle East peace to shine through.

Among others, there was the feeling the fix was in for Singh, that party brass has never quite forgiven labour unions and rank and file for the leadership review that unceremoniously toppled Mulcair. And Singh was the ordained fresh face to attract middle-class voters that the party couldn’t attract under Mulcair in 2015.

To what extent the so-called centrists among party brass – some of the same folks behind Mulcair in 2015 – will be calling the policy shots in Ottawa is one question being asked by detractors in the party. 

“We’re toast if that happens,” says former Ontario Federation of Labour boss Sid Ryan, who backed Ashton. 

And then there’s the Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline, the proverbial line in the sand for the party’s base, on which Singh’s position has evolved. He originally danced around questions about Trans Mountain when asked about it by Ashton during the leadership debate in St. John’s,  saying he needed time to confer with party members in British Columbia and Alberta. He eventually declared his opposition to the project, with his campaign issuing a set of criteria for pipeline approval, which includes the prior and informed consent of First Nations. It wouldn’t be the only time Singh would borrow from his opponents’ platforms. 

But what will he do when it comes to his NDP colleague in Alberta, Premier Rachel Notley, someone he helped get elected – and who has expended a good deal of her political capital in support of tar sands development – comes calling for the NDP leader’s support?

Singh’s perceived lack of electability in Quebec emerged as another hot-button issue after NDP MP Pierre Nantel told Radio-Canada that Singh’s religious symbols conflicted with the province’s values.

But the truth is that the NDP has bigger problems in Quebec than the fact Singh happens to wear religious symbols.

Organizationally, the party is at a huge tactical disadvantage. There’s no provincial NDP wing in Quebec. And no full-time organizers on the ground. The optimistic view is that the party held its own in 2015, retaining 16 seats on 25 per cent of the vote, and losing many of the remaining 45 by small margins in four-way vote splits

But that view also neglects the fact the party has less than 5,000 active members in Quebec, a third of the number of Quebec members that voted in the 2012 leadership race that elected Mulcair. With those kind of numbers, it’s hard not to look at Layton’s 2011 breakthrough as an anomaly, built largely on the “bon Jack” appeal with Francophone voters, and maybe the fact that he was born in Montreal.

But as Singh has noted, the NDP’s biggest problem may not even be Quebec but Atlantic Canada, where it has no MPs and membership numbers in New Brunswick, PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador are even lower than Quebec.

There was also clearly an undertow of tension between Singh and Ashton in particular, the latter calling Singh out on his endorsement of Wab Kinew for party leader in Manitoba amid assault allegations made against Kinew by his former partner.

Singh says he sees an “incredibly important” role for Ashton in caucus, but hasn’t formally “talked details. She’s very passionate and thoughtful and has been courageously and boldly unapologetic,” says Singh. 

For her part, Ashton tells NOW that she’s “not up to discussing publicly” what role she sees for herself in the party now that the leadership is over. But she offers that “doing a better job of listening to the grassroots and advocates in social movements is key in order for the NDP to move forward.” 

Niki Ashton:NDP leadership.jpg

Cheol Joon Baek.

Niki Ashton, a strong critic of Jagmeet Singh during the NDP leadership, says she’s “not up to discussing publicly” what role she sees for herself in the party now that the race is over.

It’s a position shared by Angus. 

As he pointed out during the last leadership debate in Vancouver, many feel the party doesn’t have their back in Ottawa, more concerned with fundraising than advocating on the issues that matter to the base.

The wounds from 2015’s loss, of being out-lefted by the Liberals, continue to run deep in a party that  has long fancied itself as one of substance over style. And that has taken no quarter when it comes to criticism of the current Prime Minister’s designer socks, nice hair and supposed lack of intellectual powers. Lefty This Magazine referred to Trudeau as a Ken doll in a recent review of his two years in office.

Which makes Singh’s win all the more conflicting. “Liberal lite” is a term that’s been associated with his politics.

All the right stuff?

Singh’s campaign aspired to Obama-esque heights. Winning now was a popular theme. 

He’s pointed to the fact that about half of the new members he signed for his leadership run were from Liberal-held ridings in the GTHA. “Look what we’ve done in just a few short months. Imagine what we can do in two years,” was a fave line of Singh’s.

His leadership numbers don’t lie – his win puts 10 seats in play in the 905 in Mississauga and Brampton currently held by the Liberals and a few more in Vancouver, where there are prominent Sikh communities.

But the numbers also don’t tell the whole story. The federal NDP has the same strategic problem its provincial cousins do in Ontario, where the Libs have already expropriated some of the NDP’s lefty policies. See minimum wage.

The NDP currently holds 44 seats in Parliament, the Conservatives 97 and Liberals much farther up the road, with 181 seats. The idea the NDP can take the party to victory seems out-there. 

Singh’s handlers have played up the Jack Layton-like “sparkle,” as Toronto councillor Paula Fletcher described it when she introduced Singh at a JagMeet and Greet at Zav Coffee shop on the Danforth last month. A crowd of about 100 party faithful showed up for a closer look at the candidate. But mostly they came to bask in Singh’s glow. 

During a Q&A that followed a 40-minute address that was more storytelling than speech, Singh handled a few softball queries on everything from his plans for a national public transit strategy to Canada’s peacekeeping role and nuclear disarmament to homelessness and cycling.

But there was one zinger lobbed from the back of the room by a woman who said she had voted Liberal and Conservative in the past but never NDP. She asked Singh what makes him so sure he’s not like other politicians and would follow through on his promises. Other politicians might have waxed on. Singh’s was not a stock reply. “I’m not sure how I can answer that question,” he said. 

Ready or not, here he comes.

Jagmeet Singh 1.jpg

Choel Joon Baek | @enzodimatteo

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