OTTAWA—The task ahead is undeniably formidable. A rookie on the federal scene, who does not hold a seat in Parliament and is untested with the reins of partisan leadership, has embarked on a quest to bring New Democrats to power in Ottawa for the first time in Canadian history.
Not only that — he’s up against a self-avowed progressive prime minister who preaches taxes on the rich and the urgent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, who may not have changed the voting system but is legalizing marijuana.
Can Jagmeet Singh, the NDP’s fresh new leader, fight Justin Trudeau for the left half of the political spectrum — and win?
For David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data, Singh, who’s 38, represents a solid threat to Trudeau and his Liberal majority. Singh’s youthful mode of speech, adherence to left-wing orthodoxy on most issues, and his proven ability to generate buzz could make him a contender for a wide demographic of voters who flocked to the Liberals under Trudeau in 2015, Coletto said.
“When you think of the voters that both of these parties really need to do well, and that’s younger voters, I think Jagmeet Singh has the opportunity to really compete,” Coletto said.
His leadership campaign also claimed to have signed up 47,000 new members during the race. That means more than a third of the total NDP membership was brought in by Singh after he entered the leadership contest in May.
“Look at what we’ve been able to accomplish in a few short months,” Singh said Sunday during his victory speech. “Now imagine what we can build together, all of us together, in two years.”
Many observers have pointed out that the social democratic party is in debt and well-behind the Liberals and Conservatives in fundraising this year (the NDP raised less than $1.8 million in the first half of 2017, while the Liberals raked in almost $6 million and the Tories received more than $8 million, according to Elections Canada).
Brad Lavigne, a long-time NDP insider who spearheaded the 2011 “Orange Wave” campaign under Jack Layton, said the new leader has proven he can pull in donors and supporters. He said he’s confident the party will unite behind Singh as they pivot toward the next election.
“Looking at Jagmeet’s organizational capacity in this leadership alone, I know that we’re going to be ready to go for 2019,” said Lavigne, who supported Singh during the leadership race.
Money aside, the biggest battleground for that coming challenge will be fighting for votes with the Liberals, Coletto said.
Singh laid the groundwork for his assault on this front Sunday, when he accused the Trudeau government of essentially lying to Canadians about their intention to run a progressive regime in Ottawa.
Singh told the Star that it will be “easy” to paint this picture for Canadians, pointing to perceived government failures on Indigenous reconciliation, electoral reform, climate change, housing policy and more.
Coletto’s firm, Abacus Data, released a study in August that asked 2,000 Canadians a series of questions about how they perceive the major political parties. It found that most Canadians associate the Liberals and the NDP with similar values, including “cares about the environment,” “treat men and women equally” and “proud of Canada.”
The overlap in perception means differentiating his party from the Liberals will be a top job for Singh — the first leader of a major federal party who is not white — as he takes over the NDP, Coletto said.
And on this score, Singh is already pointing to his desire for more aggressive cuts to greenhouse gas emissions (he wants to hit the Liberals’ target five years quicker, by 2025). The former defence lawyer is also talking about “fundamental” changes to the justice system. This includes his proposed federal ban on racial profiling — ostensibly aimed at the RCMP to prevent racial discrimination by police — and his call to decriminalize all drugs.
“If you look at people who are criminalized for personal possession . . . these are people who are often faced with mental health issues, addictions and are poor,” he told the Star on Sunday.
“Our current strategy is not working. It’s not reducing harm. It’s not actually helping people out,” he continued, adding that he would like a system similar to Portugal’s, where resources are devoted to rehabilitation and treatment rather than law enforcement for possession convictions.
He slammed the Liberals for not decriminalizing marijuana as they prepare to legalize the drug next summer, hinting that this is another policy where he’ll be different — and more left-leaning — than Trudeau in the next election.
It’s impossible to say how that will play out. In Coletto’s mind, at the very least, Singh presents an undeniable shift in style and leadership for New Democrats.
“I’m not going to make normative statements about whether he is cooler (than the other leadership candidates) or not, but I think you can easily say that Jagmeet Singh is cooler than Tom Mulcair, on most objective measures,” he said.
Now it’s time to see how he matches up with Trudeau.