Jagmeet Singh is now the official leader of Canada’s federal New Democratic Party. In a leadership election designed to last several rounds, Singh became only the third person in party history to be elected in the first vote. The first member to earn this distinction was Tommy Douglas, a giant of the NDP who fought for a single-payer, universal healthcare system, and who served in the House of Commons and as Premier of Saskatchewan. The second member was Jack Layton, who led the New Democrats into the 2011 election, the year of the “Orange Crush,” in which the left-of-center NDP achieved its best electoral results of all time and became the Official Opposition in Parliament. Only months later, Layton died tragically of cancer. In the next two years leading up to the 2019 Canadian election, Singh will reveal whether he is worthy of this distinction, reserved only for the giants of the NDP.
Singh, the son of Indian immigrants, earned a law degree from Osgoode Law School in Toronto. Now 38, he owns his own law firm that does extensive pro bono and community work and offers free legal seminars across Ontario. Much of his work centers around defending the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Singh translated his legal expertise into a political career when he joined the Ontario Provincial Parliament and later became the Deputy Party Leader of the Ontario NDP. His dazzling resume is matched only by his personal charisma. In a viral GQ article that praises his keen fashion sense and brightly-colored turbans, Singh explains that he dresses well in order to disarm harmful stereotypes about turbans. His dress is symbolic of the youthful, defiant energy that he brought to the NDP leadership debates.
While the excitement he brings to the party will certainly help garner support, Jagmeet Singh will still need to develop a pragmatic and tough strategy in order to achieve electoral success. There are serious issues in need of consideration – issues that will not be solved by bright clothes and energetic rallies.
The primary challenge to the NDP lies in revising its overarching strategy, which was unsuccessful in the last election. At the time of the 2015 election that brought Trudeau to power, Tom Mulcair was the NDP leader. He campaigned on a fifteen dollar an hour minimum wage for federal employees, affordable child care, and a balanced federal budget, which was seen as a move to the center by the NDP’s leftmost followers. This shift to the center is now seen as the decision that killed the party’s chances in the election. Trudeau’s Liberals were able to capture key left-leaning voters that felt abandoned by Mulcair’s swerve right. In the wake of 2015, New Democratic Members of Parliament have been left on the sidelines as Conservative Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer spars with the Prime Minister over tax policy. Now is the time for the party to chart a new course, as observers are left wondering whether the New Democrats will shift back to the left or towards a refined center space.
Singh appears to be opting for the former. He has discussed increasing corporate taxes, setting the minimum wage at 15 dollars per hour (for all workers, not just federal employees), and completely decriminalizing all personal drug possession in response to Canada’s opioid epidemic. Singh has also mentioned reexamining several policy failures of the Trudeau government.
The first failure on which Singh will capitalize is Trudeau’s environmental policy. Trudeau’s Liberals had campaigned on ending federal oil subsidies in order to invest in clean energy production, but last year, Trudeau invested more than three billion dollars in the fossil fuel industry. Singh has proposed to pick up where the Liberals fell short and end the subsidies once and for all. Singh’s second opportunity lies in electoral reform. Trudeau’s pledge to reform Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system died abruptly last year when the government announced that it would no longer be pursuing reform. Singh has strategically promised to return these issues to the table. These will certainly be two of the most effective policy areas that Singh can bring up to contrast himself against Trudeau.
However, these policies present a challenge because they need to be incorporated into Singh’s agenda without drowning out the practical, common-sense economic message necessary to attract wide support. Singh needs to enlist a base of supporters who range from the young, liberal activist generation to the older, traditional moderates. This means considering both clean energy and a balanced budget, criminal justice and retirement contributions. Trudeau successfully used this strategy in 2015 by garnering the support of a broad coalition of diverse groups, each one believing that the leader has their interests in mind. If the Liberal coalition of voters start to crack before the next election, the New Democrats will be there waiting with open arms. If it doesn’t, New Democrats need to be there with a chisel.
Pundits are wrong to place bets on who will support Singh – the left or the center-left – because Singh needs both groups to become the next Prime Minister. Instead of pandering to one side or the other, he needs to bridge the divide. That process is commencing now as Singh travels across the country speaking with Canadians and forming plans for the future. It is still early, and the party has some time to get its affairs in order. In fact, Singh isn’t even a Member of Parliament yet, because he was elected as party leader without already having a federal seat. In less than two years, though, Jagmeet Singh very well could be the next Prime Minister of Canada.
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