OTTAWA—A few floors down from the office that Jagmeet Singh uses when he’s on the Hill, the daily thrust and parry of question period plays out. It’s Parliament’s last sitting day before Christmas, and the NDP leader is explaining why his party is better off if he’s on the road, meeting Canadians, instead of challenging the prime minister from the opposition benches.
“We know that people are less and less engaged in politics,” he says, justifying his strategy to put off trying to win a Commons seat so he can tour the country in a series of events he calls “Jagmeet and Greets.”
“More than ever, we need to go out to people where they hang out, where they spend time, so that I can speak to them.”
Moments later, he taps the breast of his three-piece suit, and adds: “As leader, I can say that I have an appeal. That’s pretty clear.”
Such braggadocio was near-impossible to deny as the 38-year-old Singh coasted to a first-ballot victory to claim the federal NDP leadership on Oct. 1. The former MPP from Brampton, who was second-in-command for the Ontario NDP at Queen’s Park, thoroughly dominated that contest. He raised more money during the campaign than all of his opponents combined and brought in 47,000 new members to a party that now has roughly 120,000.
Article Continued Below
But that momentum may carry him only so far. Just over two months into his stint as leader, the NDP has encountered headwinds. The party got trounced in six federal byelections held since October, having lost its share of the vote in each riding compared with the 2015 election result and posting meagre, single-digit returns in three of the contests.
That included the race in Scarborough-Agincourt, a constituency in the corner of the GTA where Singh was born. In the Dec. 11 byelection, the orange-team candidate there was relegated to barely 5 per cent — and this, in precisely the type of suburban enclave with diverse communities that Singh claims he can win for the NDP.
His travels haven’t been free of hiccups, either. In early December, he was criticized by an activist group for visiting a Windsor-area greenhouse that the group said is part of an industry that exploits migrant workers.
That followed an apparent gaffe in which Singh appeared to contradict his own MPs when he suggested Supreme Court judges who are Indigenous shouldn’t have to be bilingual — a sensitive subject in Quebec, a province seen as crucial to the NDP’s electoral chances.
Hours later, Singh walked back on the comment, releasing a statement that said he “strongly” supports bilingual Supreme Court judges, but is open to “hearing suggestions” about how to get an Indigenous jurist to the top court while preserving the ideal of bilingualism.
David Coletto, chief executive officer with Abacus Data, says national polls of voting intentions add to a grim picture for the NDP under Singh’s still-fresh leadership. Two years after the party lost the official Opposition status it gained for the first time under Jack Layton, the NDP appears ensconced in third place behind the Liberals and Conservatives.
“The NDP numbers are really struggling,” Coletto says. “They’re back in their traditional place, which must be so frustrating to them.
“I think we had higher expectations for (Singh) and that’s the challenge of politics, it’s an expectation game.”
From Singh’s seat in an armchair in his fifth-floor office on Parliament Hill, the expectations haven’t gone anywhere. Jovial as usual, he brushes aside concerns about his plan to tour the country instead of rushing to get a seat in the House of Commons. Staffing changes in the party structure have only recently been made, he says, including the installation of his new chief of staff, a longtime party activist from Montreal named Willy Blomme.
“I’ve always said that I don’t expect I can turn the ship around in two months,” Singh says. “I’m in this for the long run, so the work I’m going to do is going to be work that is going to take some time to take hold.”
Given his belief that Canadians are losing interest in the political manoeuvrings on display in Ottawa, Singh contends that the best way to make himself familiar to Canadians is to reach them directly in their own communities. This is how he’ll make his pitch to voters that Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government isn’t the progressive force it claims to be.
Look at the abandonment of Trudeau’s pledge to change the electoral system, which Singh says “betrayed that hope and that spirit that we can actually give power to the people.” He argues controversies that have dogged Finance Minister Bill Morneau, involving his family company and shares he did not place in a blind trust, have also “eroded” public faith in government, Singh says.
Then there’s the host of issues he wants to highlight as leader, each of which doubles as an argument that the Liberals are failing Canadians. He alleges the Liberals are falling short on reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and the push to combat climate change. He says an NDP government would introduce pay equity legislation, and go after tax havens and loopholes to fund the expansion of health services into pharmacare and dental care and create universal child care.
“We’re the only ones that have the courage to do that,” he says. “We’re committed to it, not just in words, but in action.”
For Coletto, the NDP can take voters away from the Liberals only if they are hungry for an alternative to Trudeau’s government. And so far, he’s not seeing that in the polling data and byelection results since Singh became leader.
“There doesn’t seem to be much buyer’s remorse,” Coletto says.
Singh remains upbeat about his prospects. He says he’s well-positioned to break into new electoral territory for the NDP. He won a provincial seat for the party in Brampton, after all, a region in the 905 where they had never been successful before. He also says he can connect with young people and members of minority communities in part because of his own experiences.
Some might dismiss that as unfounded confidence, given the solidity of Liberal support in most polls.
Then again, it wasn’t that long ago when Trudeau occupied the same third-place leader’s office where Singh sits on this day during question period. Conventional wisdom back then was that the Liberals were on the ropes.
And look at them now.