Jagmeet Singh or not, nothing is ever easy for the NDP

The choice confronting New Democrats might not be a perfectly easy one. That much befits a party that is not in an easy spot.

The leadership choice confronting New Democrats might not be perfectly simple

Left to right, Ontario MP Charlie Angus, Ontario Legislature member Jagmeet Singh, Quebec MP Guy Caron are Manitoba MP Niki Ashton are seeking the leadership of the federal New Democratic Party. (CBC)

In the final debate of the campaign to finally replace Tom Mulcair as leader of the NDP there were, perhaps predictably, attempts to quibble with the presumed front-runner.

Niki Ashton suggested the 47,000 party members that Jagmeet Singh claims to have signed up — a figure that would account for more than a third of the party's current membership — were from a "handful" of ridings.

Charlie Angus ventured that the money Singh has raised — $356,784 in the second quarter of this year, more than all other candidates combined — was mostly from Brampton, the Toronto suburb that Singh calls home.

The suggestion might have been that Singh's support is deep, but not wide.

Angus, who is second in fundraising, also took every opportunity to note that he would be ready to stand up in the House of Commons this fall, a barely disguised challenge to the seat-less Singh, who is a member of the Ontario legislature.

The mere presence of Guy Caron on stage might have served as a reminder of another challenge: How would Singh approach Quebec, hallowed home to 16 of the NDP's 44 MPs and a distinct society with a particular history of secularism?

Finally getting to a new leader

Of course, if Singh's candidacy can be quibbled with, questions can also surely be asked of the candidates who have raised less money, attracted fewer supporters or received fewer endorsements from NDP MPs. (Singh, a newcomer to the federal party, leads on the last metric too with eight, followed by Caron with seven, Ashton with five and Angus with two.)

So the choice confronting New Democrats might not be perfectly easy. That much befits a party that is not in an easy spot. 

This is not a party that has made it easy on itself.

NDP leadership coverage

CBC News will have special coverage of the NDP leadership showcase on Sunday, including livestreaming video and a live blog on cbc.ca/politics, and on Facebook, YouTube and CBC News Network. Rosemary Barton hosts coverage of the candidates' speeches starting at 2 p.m. ET. 

After the crushing collapse of 2015, New Democrats took six months to decide they were done with Mulcair. It has taken them another year and a half to choose his successor. In the meantime, there has not even been a new interim leader to make things vaguely interesting.

With voting to commence after a final showcase of the candidates on Sunday, the NDP could be a mere two weeks away from choosing the eighth leader in the party's history. In the event of multiple ballots, it will be another three or four weeks.

Singh is likely to be leading after the first ballot. But if he falls short of a first-round knockout, things could get tense.

What the leader will face

Regardless of who it is and when he or she gets here, the NDP's situation will be roughly the same.

While New Democrats will quibble with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's right to call himself a progressive, the next NDP leader will find himself or herself contending with the most left-leaning government since Pierre Trudeau's, or perhaps even Lester B. Pearson's.

Their room to manoeuvre will, to some degree, depend on what gaps and openings the Liberals leave unaddressed.

Regardless, there will be the small matter of Quebec — the province that swept the NDP to 103 seats in 2011 and then seemed to precipitate the party's fall in 2015.

Quebec's distinctiveness

In August, Caron stepped forward with a plan to win the province again. Included was an attempt to finesse the issue of Bill 62, legislation proposed by Quebec's Liberal government that would, among other things, ban the wearing of the niqab by those delivering government services.

Caron's position is that, while he personally believes the state has no business dictating attire, New Democrats should respect the National Assembly's right to make its own decisions, deferring to Quebec's national character and its history of secularism.

Guy Caron, left, and Jagmeet Singh stand together on stage after the final federal NDP leadership debate in Vancouver, B.C. last Sunday. Online voting for the leadership begins Monday. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Singh has been less nuanced in his opposition to Bill 62. And one MP, Pierre Nantel, is already suggesting he might depart the caucus if the next NDP leader does not respect Quebec's distinctiveness.

What's more, polling released earlier this year suggested Quebecers were less inclined to support a politician wearing a religious head covering.

In the event of a Singh victory, Quebec would thus be an obvious point of intrigue. In the event of anyone else's victory, it would probably still remain a potential point of friction.

The intriguing Singh

Singh, of course, has been this campaign's most obvious point of interest.

With all due respect to the new suit Angus boasted of buying for the campaign, Singh is the best dressed. He is also the most viral (video of his response to an anti-Muslim heckler making him an Internet star earlier this month). And, in calling for the decriminalization of all drugs, he has shown a willingness to move boldly.

But it has also been interesting of late to watch prominent New Democrats align themselves.

Wab Kinew, the 36-year-old Indigenous journalist and activist seeking the leadership of the Manitoba NDP, has gone to Singh. But former MP Libby Davies, a party stalwart, moved to Angus, the former punk-rock bassist who represents a riding in northern Ontario and has distinguished himself as an advocate for Indigenous communities.

Brian Topp, a former adviser to Jack Layton and Rachel Notley, has sided with Caron, the soft-spoken economist from Quebec. Joe Comartin, another former MP, has endorsed Ashton, the strident millennial from Manitoba who proudly campaigned for U.S. Democrat Bernie Sanders.

Whoever wins might be charged with trying to stitch together all of those candidates' constituencies.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.


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