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The ONW Salon: Jagmeet Singh is the new leader of the federal NDP.  Did the party make the right choice?

Susanna Kelley (Moderator): The NDP has chosen Ontario-based Jagmeet Singh as its new leader, the first person of colour to head up a federal party. His supporters call him charismatic. His critics? Not so sure.  Richard Mahoney, Will Stewart and Tom Parkin debate.


Richard Mahoney:

The federal NDP took a leap of faith on the weekend. In a surprising first ballot victory, they chose a guy that most of them don't know very well, who has, until this leadership race, played no role in national politics, other than being a candidate, has not sat in the House of Commons and likely will not do so for some time. As well, to be frank, he left only a tiny footprint in Ontario, where he has been a member of the Legislature since 2011. He occasionally chafed under the leadership of provincial NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and apparently had bigger ambitions.

To be honest, other than in this leadership campaign, it is hard to know whether he will be effective or not. We don't know, and the NDP doesn't know, whether he has the stuff to stand up to the profound pressures that leaders of national parties do.

That is something that we will all learn and observe together over the next couple of years. Is he politically savvy enough and sharp enough on his feet to dodge the many bullets that await an opposition leader? What will he stand for and what does this mean for what the NDP will stand for? Some of his doubters in the NDP fear that he is too much of a "Liberal". No greater insult can be hurled at a New Democrat by a fellow New Democrat than that!

That said, he was easily the most interesting choice for NDP members on the weekend. That party does not have a deep history in the Sikh or other cultural communities. It has struggled to elect members in suburban seats, where many Canadians live. He is good looking, dresses well, and is even telegenic. All that is positive for him, and for the NDP. But as to what kind of a leader he will be, how prone to mistakes he might be, how he will conduct himself, etc.––those are all "unknowns".

However, the party has made a break with its past. This is not your grandmother's NDP. The more tried and true progressive/activist/social democratic wing was better represented by other candidates, such as Charlie Angus. Singh is the bigger risk, but maybe represents the bigger upside, too. I think we have to give them that.


Will Stewart:

First, we should say congratulations to Jagmeet Singh on his victory. Not just a run of the mill victory, but a resounding, first ballot victory that was hinted at, but not really predicted, only a few short weeks ago. Congratulations also on becoming the first person of colour to assume the mantle of a national party in Canada. I think this is a testament to the NDP, and in some ways Canada as a whole. But we will have to reserve judgment on that last point until the ballots are counted in 2019.

I do think that it is surprising to many that Mr. Singh did as well as he did because of his relative outsider status at the beginning of this race as Richard identifies above. As a member of the provincial NDP he certainly had the party credentials, but he did not have the institutional knowledge of the organization or the power brokers.

I believe that this is a new New Democratic Party as a result. And other political parties best not fight the same fight they have always fought with the NDP.

This is a different leader, with a new energized base, that does not hold the same traditional power base in Ottawa. The fight will not be the same.

The NDP picked the right person, and the best evidence of that is how upset the Liberals are that they now have to battle another smart, photogenic, left leaning leader who, frankly, can make Trudeau the younger look, well, like Trudeau the older, as he is now the leader most advanced in age.

But all is not sunny ways for Mr. Singh. He faced difficult questions on his stance on the Air India bombing this week on the CBC. He demanded before he appeared that questions be given to him in advance. Thankfully the CBC stuck to their position with a firm no, and the interview went on regardless.

The Internet is alive with past tweets from Mr. Singh where he praises the leadership and accomplishments of Castro, totalitarian leader. I guess that is one place the Liberals and the new NDP agree. These growing pains will continue as he enters the very competitive national stage, without a seat, after his time on the Ontario benches.


Tom Parkin:

Yes, the NDP made the right choice. My personal preference was for Caron for two reasons: I liked his economic strength (he has an MA in economics and worked in the field prior to entering politics) and because of his position on federalism.

But I always knew Guy wouldn’t make it past the first ballot and had Jagmeet marked second—and as it turned out, I never even needed to use that ballot. Bam.

As for Caron, I fully expect he will continue to provide the economic strength—both in the House and in the next platform. And Monday, Singh showed exactly why he is so deft—he switched up his federalist position, moving much closed to Caron’s position, confessed he’d shifted in a media scrum and gave two question period slots to Pierre Nantel, the MP who raised concerns about Singh mid-campaign. Alexandre Boulerice, the Quebec Lieutenant, said Nantel’s “here and here to stay.”

So for me, I seem to be getting the best of both worlds—Jagmeet’s ability to pursue votes in the GTA and BC lower mainland while empowering the Quebec caucus to fight on their terms in Quebec. This three-battlefield approach is exactly what’s needed. There’s only one piece missing –the Atlantic strategy. So, more to come.

I have no concerns about Singh not holding a seat. People are interested in him and NDP members will come from everywhere to meet him and help him. They will open up their wallets for him.

But perhaps most important, the NDP membership will start to look like the constituency it seeks to represent. And for Canadians who aren’t white, there is finally a leader who shares their experience. Regardless of party, I think that’s great for Canada.

Finally, this was the high risk, high reward option. There were safer choices—good ones. But New Democrats decided they had the confidence to get back into the fight. And that confidence is tremendous.

So buckle up, the party leaders are in place, the election is in two year and the race starts now.


Richard Mahoney:

We are in some broad agreement here. His win was impressive, the choice of a person of colour—the first national leader of a major political party to be so—is good for the country, and quite possibly a turning point for the NDP, and that Singh's election was the highest risk, with potentially the highest reward. And I don't want to be too kind to Tom, for fear he will never return the favour, but I agree with him that the lack of a seat is not a big issue, at least not yet. If he runs for a seat and loses, that's a problem, but that’s for the future.

In the meantime, he has a lot of work to do. First, he has to unite his party. Secondly, he really has to build it up. If you look at the membership of the NDP and those who voted in this race, you’ll see it’s still pretty small, even after a vigorous leadership campaign. The membership is overly focused in Ontario and B.C., and relatively weak in the rest of the country. And even then, it is small. NDP activists were crowing about Singh's massive recruitment of new members for this race. Singh got 35,000 votes. Sounds like a lot, but to put that in perspective, that’s about enough to win one federal riding in a general election. For Singh and the NDP to match the membership bases of the Liberals after their last leadership race, a fair comparison, they would need to attract hundreds of thousands more.

Thirdly, he will need to start charting out the kind of alternative he wants the party to be. Is this party going to follow in Mulcair's footsteps, and, to an extent, Jack Layton's, and put itself forward as a credible, prudent alternative to the governing Liberals, focused on economic growth and reasonable spending promises? Or will they move to set out radical new ideas that could transform our society and our economy? There has never been a time in our recent history where the latter approach was as potentially appealing as it is now. Will Singh and his party go there? His reluctance to embrace ideas like the LEAP manifesto suggests a much more cautious approach.

So he is an interesting choice, probably the right choice in that Justin Trudeau has represented a big challenge to New Democrats, robbing them of what they thought was a sure win in the last election

But now the hard choices begin. Looking good, and sounding good will be a necessary but insufficient condition for the NDP to win in 2019.


Will Stewart:

I agree with Richard, which you won’t see me write very often. Singh as the new leader has quite a bit of work to do in three distinct areas.

First, he has to reach out to the rank and file NDP power base that did not support him in this election win. These are the old school NDPers who fought long and hard to make the NDP relevant. This large victory is a victory of membership sales, not hearts and minds of the traditional NDP.

To me, that is a very important point. It is the backroom women and men that cause the issues, especially after an election loss. While Tom will suggest that there will be no loss, the history of the NDP at the federal polls suggests differently.

Second, he needs to illustrate that he is ready for prime time. And to be honest, I think he is. He has a carefully curated image and seemingly an ability to stand his ground without getting angry. Who can forget the now famous video of Singh keeping his cool against the hate filled rant from the woman accusing him of wanting to implement Sharia law?

But, this week's interview on the CBC was rocky. There were some tense moments. He needs to get some good answers to difficult questions.

Third, despite what Tom writes about a three-pronged fight in the next election, Quebec has showed itself to be a pretty dismal place for the NDP. If the NDP are to fight in Quebec again like they did with Layton, they certainly need to illustrate they have more support than the 4,000 memberships they sold there as a party.

With virtually no Quebec memberships, this tells me that Tom’s three-front war is actually two. As Richard says, Ontario and B.C. seem to be the only places for them. Singh needs to make this into a national party in fact, rather than desire.

And while we are speaking about membership numbers, let’s look at what happened in the most recent Conservative leadership race, not the Liberal party "memberships" that Richard mentions above. (Remember, those numbers include supporters, a category that only the Liberals have at no cost, which is not a good comparison.)

The most recent Conservative leadership race saw 141,000 votes cast. The NDP only managed to attract 64,000. Less than half. So while Mr. Singh has achieved a great victory, and a historical one for Canada, the work ahead is far more challenging.


Tom Parkin:

Let me take on a few points raised by Richard and Will.

I found the CBC's Terry Milewski’s line of inquiry troubling. I don’t believe it is journalistically legitimate to corner a politician to denounce a terrorist just because he shares a religion with him. Milewski has done the same thing to Harjit Sajjan and Navdeep Bains. It’s not right. Go back to retirement, Terry.

On Cuba, I don’t think most Canadians share the hysteria. Progressive people are capable of rejecting that country as an economic or democratic model while recognizing their health and education improvements. We are sophisticated like that. And if it drives the Conservatives bonkers, that’s great.

Richard, you are wrong, there are far greater insults that can be hurled at a New Democrat than "he’s a Liberal." As you’ll recall, Mulcair was called a Thatcherite—now that’s mean!

On party unity, the biggest threat came from some members of the Quebec caucus. Hopefully that’s been addressed. There are no challengers to Jagmeet’s leadership because of the scale of his win. He has power and now he has to share and use it wisely. Judging from how his campaign was run and the opening day strategy with Nantel, I think he has that wisdom.

I think Wednesday we will find out who will be the leader in the Commons. Don’t expect Angus, Ashton or Caron. My money is on Cullen or Boulerice. Both were close by Jagmeet all of Monday. Both are strong house performers.

I don’t 100% agree with Will’s assessment that this win was all membership sales. Look at the MP and MLA endorsements—Singh led the pack. The parts of the party I know best, Toronto and Ottawa, had strong support for Jagmeet among long time members, organizers, donors, etc.

With respect to Quebec, I will agree with Will 100%. There is a lot of work to be done. But Jagmeet now has the right approach. Now he needs a Quebec Lieutenant who can be a real party builder—a big job. There is one other nuance problem—relationships between the Quebec Solidaire and the NDP-Quebec, which ran a candidate in Monday's Quebec City by-election (and was crushed).

There is a strong and mainstream left-wing current in Quebec, but it is divided by separatism. If, at a federal level, there can be some unity, they’ll be some traction.

Finally, I agree with Richard—all this is necessary but not sufficient for a win. But it’s a big step up from last week.


Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance.  He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. Will Stewart is Managing Principal at Navigator, served as Chief of Staff to several Ontario Ministers and often appears as a national affairs commentator.  Tom Parkin is a veteran NDP strategist, columnist and a frequent commentator on national issues. 







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