'Wildcards': Jagmeet Singh's New Democrats say they're running to win an election they didn't want

With polls showing the NDP leader with high favourability ratings and performing well among young Canadians, New Democrats say they're confident they can be more than a spoiler for Liberal candidates this time.

'We want to be the government. Jagmeet wants to be the prime minister,' says the NDP’s campaign director

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and his wife Gurkiran Kaur Sidhu at his election night headquarters in Burnaby, B.C., on Tuesday, October 22, 2019. (The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette)

It's shaping up to be a much different campaign for Jagmeet Singh this time around.

Though the NDP leader has condemned the decision to hold a federal election during the pandemic — and even asked Gov. Gen. Mary Simon to consider refusing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's request to dissolve Parliament — Singh now gets a chance to show how much things can change in two years.

In 2019, the NDP leader — who had been elected to the House of Commons just eight months earlier — began the federal election campaign by butting heads with the Greens over a mass defection of former NDP candidates in New Brunswick to the rival party. His party was being handicapped by financial troubles and had to move quickly after many incumbents opted not to run again.

Still, Singh — the first member of a visible minority to lead a major federal party — was judged by many to have performed well in debates and on the campaign trail, particularly with his emotional response to past images of the prime minister in racist makeup.

The NDP won 24 seats that October — 20 fewer than in 2015 and a far cry from the "Orange Wave" days, but not the disaster some had predicted. The party fell to one seat in Quebec and fourth place in the House. Singh danced on election night all the same.

Now, with polls showing Singh with high personal ratings and performing very well among young Canadians, New Democrats say they're confident they can be more than just a spoiler for Liberal candidates this time.

"We want to be the government. Jagmeet wants to be the prime minister," NDP campaign director Jennifer Howard told CBC News. "That's what we're aiming for every election."

Howard said the party has its campaign debts paid and is in a much stronger financial position than it was two years ago. The work NDP MPs did in pushing for more generous COVID-19 aid programs, she said, will matter when it's time for Canadians to mark their ballots.

Howard said Singh worked constructively in a minority Parliament, citing the deal he made with the Trudeau government to pass the government's throne speech last September in exchange for an enhanced pandemic recovery benefit.

New Democrats have kept Parliament functioning during the crisis, she said, by passing confidence measures and moving along key legislation, such as the government's climate bill.

"I think the prime minister has been trying to sell this line that Parliament is dysfunctional, that they can't get things done. It's blatantly false," Howard said. "It's blatantly, demonstrably false."

NDP says Parliament is working

Singh said as much in a letter to Trudeau Monday, arguing that Parliament is working as Canadians expect it to. He urged Trudeau to recall the House instead of calling an election.

"If Parliament is dysfunctional, then you yourself have played a leading role in that dysfunction. Telling Canadians that a minority government can't work is misleading and breeds cynicism in our democracy," Singh wrote.

NDP strategist Brad Lavigne said Singh is shining a light on "the absolute cynical crassness that Justin Trudeau is showing by going to the polls now" without having first lost a confidence vote. In May, Liberals supported a Bloc motion that said it would be "irresponsible" to hold an election during a pandemic.

"Canadians will know this is Trudeau's idea and not Jagmeet Singh's idea. That's not a bad premise to have established before the campaign starts," he said.

The COVID crisis exposed cracks in the social safety net and highlighted inequality issues that have long been NDP priorities, Lavigne said, arguing Singh can speak to those issues with "authenticity." The NDP is pushing for universal pharmacare and dental care and an annual tax of one per cent on families with wealth over $10 million.

"Nobody is clamouring for tax cuts. Nobody is clamouring for strict adherence to balanced budgets at this time," Lavigne said. "Now is the time for activist government."

Lavigne, a partner at Counsel Public Affairs, was the NDP's campaign director in 2011 when the party vaulted to Official Opposition status. He said that after a "steep learning curve" in Singh's first campaign in 2019, he's now more popular than his party. It was the same with Jack Layton's last campaigns, he pointed out.

The 'biggest wildcards'

David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data, said Singh and the NDP are "the biggest wildcards" in the election.

"There's no doubt he's the most popular leader in the country," Coletto said of Singh.

With Liberals close to their ceiling in support and the Green Party wracked by ugly internal struggles, the NDP is probably coming into the campaign with "the most upside" and the most room to grow of the main parties, Coletto said.

He said he expects the party to be focused on competitive seats in British Columbia (where Singh represents Burnaby South and a provincial NDP holds a majority) and to be competitive in Ontario. A key priority for the party, Coletto said, should be to break back into the City of Toronto, where Liberals won all 25 seats in 2019.

But in another key battleground — Quebec — the NDP continues to struggle mightily, languishing behind the Liberals, Bloc and Conservatives in polling. 

"I think the Bloc has reasserted itself as … the alternative to Liberals in Quebec," Coletto said. "And I don't think Jagmeet Singh has done much to be able to displace that."

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Matthew Dubé was part of the crop of 59 Quebec New Democrats swept into Parliament during the "Orange Wave" of 2011. He was unseated in 2019 by Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet in the riding of Beloeil—Chambly. 

Dubé concedes Quebec will remain challenging for the NDP because the Liberals and the Bloc occupy an "enormous amount of space" in the media and minds of voters. But he said he doesn't think it's impossible for Singh's message to break through.

"There's a lot of issues … where the NDP is the natural fit for the Quebec electorate, speaking to the environment and climate change, support for our most vulnerable," he said.

Singh would do well to put forward Quebec-specific ideas, he said, as Layton did when he touted the Sherbrooke declaration, which states the party would recognize a bare majority vote in a referendum to negotiate Quebec's secession.

The former MP said Singh, who took over from Tom Mulcair in 2017, struggled early in his leadership but has "rebounded impressively.'' With more experience, he said, Singh should be able to translate the high opinion many Canadians hold of him into more votes.

Ex-MP urges 'happy warrior' strategy

Peggy Nash, a former Toronto NDP MP who is now a visiting professor at Ryerson University, said Singh should take a "happy warrior approach" to the campaign by challenging the other parties while remaining hopeful and optimistic. Some voters sense Trudeau's promised "sunny ways" have been "more veneer than solid reality," she said.

To win seats in Toronto, Nash suggests the NDP should tap into anxiety about housing affordability and job prospects for young people. 

She also noted there are a "lot of orange shirts" on porches in her neighbourhood that have nothing to do with her party. The shirts represent solidarity with the victims of residential schools — an issue which became far more prominent in recent months following the reported discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves near residential schools, including 751 graves reported by the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan.

Singh, she said, can poke holes in the Liberals' record on Indigenous reconciliation by pointing to the long-term boil water advisories that still have not been lifted and the government's legal battle over the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) ruling on compensating First Nations kids in foster care.

Singh toured Indigenous communities last month. He has said an NDP government would name a special prosecutor on residential schools and end the government's legal fight against the CHRT rulings.

Watch: Singh welcomes $8B First Nations drinking water settlement, but says still more work to do

NDP leader welcomes $8B First Nations drinking water settlement, but says still more work to do

1 year ago
Duration 2:23
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh joins Power & Politics to discuss an $8 billion settlement between the government and First Nations on drinking water advisories.

While much has been made of Singh's social media prowess and how his creative TikTok videos could attract young supporters, Lavigne said he thinks the campaign will be different this time because Singh can now point to accomplishments in the minority Parliament.

"They have a record to run on, which is quite rare for an opposition party to go into an election campaign," Lavigne said.

Howard said she feels the party is in a good position to win new seats in northern and southern Ontario, and even in some Prairie districts such as Saskatoon and Edmonton.

"Ordinary folks out there, they believe we're running to win and we believe we're running to win," she said. "They can see Jagmeet as a future prime minister. It is not a stretch for them."


Ryan Maloney

Senior Writer

Ryan Maloney is a senior writer with CBC News. He previously worked at HuffPost Canada, where he was the senior politics editor.

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