Jagmeet Singh: The essence of a very good politician but attached to a party that can’t win

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But with his power in Parliament, the NDP leader has been asserting his party’s ethos through high points and low

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People like Jagmeet Singh. That’s it. That’s the tweet. He thrives on social media for younger people, notably TikTok, where relatability is king. But Canadians of all ages tend to warm to him — not in the once-in-a-generation way they warmed to Jack Layton when he roused the Orange Wave a decade ago — but in a persistent shared intuition that this guy makes a good politician.

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A recent Angus Reid Institute poll showed Singh was the federal party leader with the highest favourable rating overall. Nearly half the voting population, 46 per cent, said they held a favourable view of the New Democrat leader, and 34 per cent said he would make a good or excellent prime minister. Translating that kind of support directly to votes would make him an actual prime minister. On both of those scores, he significantly leads his rivals, Erin O’Toole and Justin Trudeau.

And yet, he is not likely to win. Rather, he stands to lose quite a bit. Singh himself does not even want this election. He currently props up the government, and wields broad parliamentary influence over its agenda. He has repeatedly called this pandemic summer the wrong time to vote, and has even vainly asked the new Governor General Mary Simon to block it.

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The main reason he gives is not only that there is a pandemic on, but also that this election will interrupt progressive legislation his party supports, such as on gay conversion therapy, online hate and mandatory minimum sentences.

Singh was a criminal defence lawyer in Toronto before politics. As a child, he lived  in Toronto’s suburb of Scarborough, and in Grand Falls-Windsor and St. John’s in Newfoundland, and in Windsor, Ont.

He ran federally for the NDP in Ontario and narrowly lost in the 2011 election, then won the provincial riding of Bramalea-Gore-Malton barely five months later.

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As leader of the federal NDP since 2017, and MP for Burnaby South in B.C. since 2019, he has led the party through a period in which it lost seats but gained influence in the current minority parliament, as the key support for votes including the budget and the Throne Speech.

He has cultivated younger audiences through TikTok, such that the name of the platform is sometimes used as an insult against him, signalling callow political silliness. But he has exploited the platform to reach younger voters facing down a socio-economic future that can seem stacked against them, the kind of young people who start voting.

He has called for a tax against pandemic profiteering, and has dismissed the idea of a one-time wealth tax because “the ultra wealthy should always be paying their fair share. And we know that there are a lot of loopholes that mean that the ultra rich don’t pay their fair share at all.”

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He has pushed to delay reductions to the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, and has opposed the government’s proposed end date next month for the Canada Recovery Benefit.

There has to be a commitment that (any new) infrastructure is made with Canadian products, Canadian steel, Canadian aluminum

Jagmeet Singh

He has promised Buy Canadian measures, without actually saying those two words, which evoke Buy American rules in the U.S. that have led to cross-border trade conflict.

In July, campaigning in Windsor, he said: “Any time we talk about big infrastructure, there has to be a commitment that the infrastructure is made with Canadian products, Canadian steel, Canadian aluminum…. The Liberals have talked about a high-speed train (in Ontario). They’ve never mentioned once that they’re going to use Canadian products in a high-speed train.”

When unmarked graves were found at a Kamloops, B.C., residential school earlier this year, Singh brought forward a non-binding motion calling on the Liberal government to back out of a federal court appeal over a decision by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to compensate First Nations children separated from their families in a discriminatory child welfare system.

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“What Indigenous people and people across Canada find hypocritical is that on the one hand we have a prime minister who could stand in this House and at a press conference and say that he is sorry or express condolences about this horrific discovery, but in the very same breath be ordering lawyers to fight Indigenous kids in court,” Singh said. “Stop fighting Indigenous kids in court. Truly walk the path of reconciliation.”

This was risking the appearance of playing politics at a grossly insensitive time. National Post political columnist John Ivison described it as manipulative and simplistic. But the 271-0 vote left little room for ambiguity about the view of Parliament, even though Trudeau’s cabinet minsters abstained.

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Singh did not appear in public with Trudeau. He took a phone call instead. He kept his profile high by keeping it low

Singh has a knack for adroit response to racist outrage. He and Trudeau have been in situations like this before.

One of Singh’s finest moments in the last election was his hasty video response to Trudeau’s blackface scandal, when Singh spoke of standing up for himself in the schoolyard, answering racist taunts with punches, but also of rejecting violence now as grown man, and instead standing up for others with words.

Poorly lit, hurried, unscripted, brutally honest, tough and sensitive, it was the sort of natural political performance that wins people’s trust.

It was risky, too. He had to hold fast against Trudeau’s instincts toward self-aggrandizing performative apology. Everyone could see that was coming. There was a danger that Singh, the only brown candidate, would play the foil to Trudeau’s white protagonist, finding his way through perilous moral territory, learning as he goes.

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So Singh did not appear in public with Trudeau. He took a phone call instead. He kept his profile high by keeping it low.

This time he has an inverse problem. As the third party, Singh’s NDP benefits from a divided electorate. The Liberals may be vulnerable from the left, and the Green Party looks like a shambles to all but the most devoted potential voter. But if left-leaning voters start seeing Conservative fortunes rise and the Liberals weaken, that works against the NDP.

The video was the sort of natural political performance that wins people’s trust

So there was a hint of strategic calculation in Singh’s public statement that he thinks Governor General Mary Simon should refuse the prime minister’s formal request to dissolve Parliament in advance of an election.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic still upon us, and with these important measures still before Parliament, New Democrats have urged the prime minister not to call a snap election,” he wrote in an open letter to Simon. “Should he attempt to request dissolution of Parliament, we think it is important to reiterate that, as you are aware, one does not need to be granted in the absence of a loss of confidence in the House.”

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This landed with a thud. Constitutional law discourse is supposed to come at the end of an election campaign, when people start spitballing about coalitions. Before a pandemic election is even called, no one wants to ponder the proper vice-regal function of the GG, and the perils of what might happen if that mostly ceremonial office were ever held by someone impulsive and hot-headed. It brings up bad memories.

“When Conservatives in the House used every procedural tactic to try and delay, to block, to slow things down, the NDP stood aside and watched,” Trudeau said in response. “They could have stood with us to move forward faster on these important progressive pieces of legislation. They didn’t.”

In that moment, it was Trudeau versus Singh, not Trudeau versus O’Toole. The NDP’s challenge is to maintain that dynamic. For voters who think this is a bad time for an election, this might end up as a point to Singh. Is it playing politics with the GG? Perhaps. Is that anything new? Not really. Does it work? Sometimes.

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