With the election looming and the party’s poll numbers and fundraising in the tank, the NDP leader’s first challenge is to prove that he can lead.
Jagmeet Singh won his seat in the House of Commons the old-fashioned way with shoe leather and a populist message that might have made Tommy Douglas proud.
The federal NDP leader knocked on thousands of doors with a message that spoke to the economic anxieties and fears of many in the Burnaby South riding worried about housing affordability and the dearth of well-paid jobs.
His win was decisive, with nearly 3,000 votes more than the second-place Liberal and nearly 3,700 more than the Conservatives who might have done better had the People’s Party of Canada not hived off 2,420 votes.
The celebration was exuberant, with Singh leading his supporters in the dancing and singing. It was a historic win.
On March 18, Singh will take his seat in the House of Commons as the first, non-white leader of a national party.
“Growing up, I could never have imagined that someone like me would be running to be prime minister,” he said after his win. “We’ve just told a lot of kids out there that ‘yes, you can.’ ”
As Singh acknowledged Monday night, the celebration was only a brief respite before much bigger challenges ahead in the eight months until the Oct. 25 federal election.
With race and ethnicity constant topics even in Burnaby South — one of the most diverse ridings in the country — he’s likely to face much more of it in places like vote-rich Quebec, where the NDP lost a seat in one of the other two byelections Monday.
In Quebec, for example, the turban-wearing leader is likely to butt up against concerns about both displays of religious symbols and about immigration weakening its unique culture and language.
With the election looming and the party’s poll numbers and fundraising in the tank, Singh’s first challenge is to prove that he can lead.
Having stumbled several times when he’s forced off his tightly scripted message, Singh needs to prove both in the House and in daily scrums that he has a firm command of the issues.
His first test will be March 19, his second day in the house. That’s the day the Liberals’ deliver their pre-election budget and Singh will have to respond both in the chamber and outside.
The second challenge is Singh’s environmental policy. He’s called for tougher carbon emissions’ targets, a swift transition to a green economy and he’s opposed expansion of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline that terminates in Burnaby. Yet, Singh supports the northern B.C. LNG project, which some opponents describe as a “carbon bomb” that blows up the province’s climate-change commitments.
Even if it is contradictory, it seems to have resonated with Burnaby voters, who didn’t have the choice of a Green candidate in the byelection.
But Singh has alienated New Democrats and others in Alberta and Saskatchewan, as well as union leaders and their members whose jobs are tightly tied to a carbon and have the most to lose — or at least, the most to fear — since no one can guarantee of a smooth transition to a “green economy.”
Singh has downplayed criticism of his leadership, calling it “disrespectful to the opportunity that I have to make a difference in people’s lives to worry about my own situation.”
As a brown person growing up in a white culture and facing obstacles because of that, Singh told me, “You either become very cynical or you become very optimistic. I’ve become very optimistic.
“I always believe there are ways to get through, to push forward. I’m a bit of a hopeless romantic, but I’m more so a hopeless optimist.”
It’s a sharp contrast to the negative messaging of some other politicians. So too is his commitment to social justice. He learned it from his mother, and then committed to it after being initiated into the Sikh faith as a teenager.
“There’s a meditation that Sikhs do that calls for the betterment of all, and it’s not all Sikhs, it’s all as in everything — all people, animals and the environment. The betterment of all,” he said.
“There’s a nobility to the idea of wanting to pursue justice for all … I thought it was worth taking up the challenge to fight for a better world,”
It’s that mix of optimism and candour that’s appealing to millennials and idealists.
It’s why Winnipeg city councillor Jason Schreyer and his wife, Sarah, spent the last week campaigning in Burnaby South.
The son of former Manitoba premier and governor general Ed Scheyer, Jason was one of several New Democrats who talked to me Monday night about how Singh’s message has reinvigorated them.
But Singh has a hard road ahead. In an Angus Reid poll released Tuesday, Singh had the lowest rating of the three leaders, with 66 per cent saying they had an unfavourable view of him.
Still, Singh isn’t the only leader with challenges.
Because of the SNC-Lavalin affair, Justin Trudeau’s popularity has fallen, with 60 per cent of Canadians saying they have an unfavourable impression of him. And while the Liberals now trail the Conservatives by seven percentage points, 54 per cent of Canadians hold unfavourable view of the their leader Andrew Scheer.
Whether Singh can translate the enthusiasm from the hothouse of a byelection campaign into a national one remains to be seen. But the byelection win has at least given him a chance to try.
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