October 20, 2019 | By Hannah Thibedeau
by: Hannah Thibedeau*
Heading into the 2019 election campaign, it seemed like the New Democrats couldn’t catch a break. The party was struggling to raise funds and recruit candidates and was polling badly. Some speculated that the NDP might lose official party status.
Now, only days before the October 21 vote, the NDP is drawing larger crowds, its poll numbers are climbing — and leader Jagmeet Singh finally seems to have silenced the muttering about his leadership.
“There’s a reason why the old cliche that ‘campaigns matter’ is used and bandied about as often as it is,” said Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute polling firm.
“Campaigns do matter. Singh’s success may be in staving off the collapse or the disintegration of the NDP vote that looked like [it] might come to fruition at the beginning of this campaign.”
Kurl said Singh’s personal polling numbers, which have surged over the past two weeks, started ticking up after his well-received performances in the leaders’ debates.
‘The most authentic’
“He was the most easy leader to connect with on a personal level, [he] felt somewhat the most authentic,” she said.
Kurl also said Singh’s approach to issues of race and culture during the campaign has resonated with many Canadians, citing his response to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s blackface scandal and a highly-publicized encounter between the campaigning NDP leader and a man in Quebec who urged him to get rid of his turban.
“I think all of those have spoken to … how he comes across to people as sort of a real person in the moment, as opposed to a politician,” she said.
Prominent New Democrats tell CBC News Singh’s enthusiasm for the meet-and-greet element of elections is helping him connect with voters.
“He likes campaigning and it shows,” said Karl Bélanger, former national director of the NDP and former principal secretary to ex-leader Tom Mulcair.
“He’s being himself and he’s connecting with people in a way that that observers were not expecting him to.”
It’s worth remembering that a lot of people — including some prominent New Democrats — were bracing for the worst not very long ago.
Only months back, several senior caucus members and party insiders told CBC News, on the condition of anonymity, that Singh would be done as party leader if he failed to win his seat the Burnaby byelection. At the time, the NDP was working on several contingency plans to respond to a byelection loss — including holding an immediate leadership contest or appointing an interim leader.
Singh ended up winning his riding and has out-performed the pessimists’ predictions during the current campaign. Now, those same party insiders tell CBC News that Singh has shown he has what it takes to survive and succeed in federal politics.
‘People have been impressed’
“Well, certainly there’s been no talk about his leadership during this entire campaign because people have been impressed by how he handled himself,” Belanger said.
Former NDP MP Nathan Cullen said Singh has turned a corner in his political career, and some of the credit should go to his campaign team.
“I think they brought more people … on the party side of things that had been through a few campaigns … those that had been there with [the late Jack Layton] and that sense of being unapologetically progressive,” Cullen said.
“I think the party tacking to the centre in the last campaign obviously didn’t work out.”
While Singh’s polling has surged, there are still lingering questions about whether that will translate into seats in the Commons.
Belanger said he still worries about the party’s seat count. In the 2015 election, the NDP went from 95 seats to just 44. He said the NDP has never before lost seats in two consecutive elections.
“You cannot really set a threshold because you have to look at the way Canadians vote as a whole. What will the House of Commons look like? Will the NDP have the balance of power?” he said.
“You can have less seats and have more power and get more results. That’s something that will have to be computed by New Democrats as they move forward. It’s just not the number of seats that matter. It’s what you can do with them.”