National Column: Singh’s momentum has evaporated

by Chantal Hebert

Jagmeet Singh enters his first national convention as NDP leader this weekend having yet to put a discernible stamp on the party’s parliamentary work or to make a lasting impression on most of the country’s voters.

Four months have elapsed since Singh’s first-ballot victory last fall and whatever momentum attended the leadership vote has fast evaporated. Based on the lacklustre NDP showing in the polls on national voting intentions and its mediocre results in a handful of fall by-elections, the party may be looking at a long, dry electoral season.

For many Canadians, the most memorable post-leadership Singh sighting to date has been his public engagement last month to fashion designer Gurkiran Kaur.

(A number of media organizations were on hand, at the leader’s invitation.)

It has never been easy – notwithstanding the Justin Trudeau exception – for a third-party leader to establish a strong presence on Parliament Hill or in the national media. On that score, Singh faces the extra challenge of not having a seat in the House of Commons.

The fact that the rookie leader’s inner circle is made up of outsiders with uneven federal experience compounds that challenge. In both cases, Singh is making a virtue of necessity. There are no obvious vacant seats he could take a potentially winning run for. And with the party in power in the two westernmost provinces and an election set for the spring in Ontario, many of the veteran strategists the federal party would normally rely on are otherwise occupied.

But it also does not help that Singh has been fudging the party’s position on top-of-mind issues, such as the balance to be achieved, if any, between pipelines and a carbon-pricing climate change strategy.

The NDP spent the last federal campaign making the case that it was ready to govern the country. But faced with feuding New Democrat governments in Alberta and British Columbia, he has decided the best part of valour is obfuscation.

In a lengthy Maclean’s interview broadcast in the lead-up to this weekend’s gathering, Singh sketched out a plan for an ambitious rethreading of Canada’s social safety net – with the broad goal of addressing some increasingly structural social inequalities.

That should stand him in good stead with the party’s grassroots this weekend. The many New
Democrats who felt that Thomas Mulcair’s 2015 platform lacked ambition will see this as a positive signal.

But absent a credible fiscal framework to support it, Singh’s intended signature policy risks coming across as a back-to-the-future move, heralding a return to the days when a resigned-to-third-place NDP
felt free to promote pie-in-the-sky proposals.

The clock to the 2019 campaign is ticking. This weekend will be the last gathering of the party faithful before Canada next goes to the polls.

By now, most of Singh’s MPs have come to the conclusion that they should not hope to ride his coattails to re-election. They are too short for comfort.

That is particularly true of the 15 Quebec MPs who will be left after Mulcair bows out later this year.

In a province that was swept by the NDP less than a decade ago, the party is struggling to continue to be part of the political conversation. With a competitive Quebec election scheduled for the fall, that task is about to become harder.

The New Democrats would be foolhardy to bank on riding a wave of discontent with the Liberals in Quebec in 2019. Trudeau’s home province is the region of the country where the Liberals have so far been most successful at building on their election success.

To a man and a woman, Singh’s Quebec caucus is bracing for the byelection that will be held later this year in Mulcair’s Outremont seat. By all indications, the riding is the Liberals’ to lose.

The last time the New Democrats gathered for a convention, the event ended in division with a small majority of delegates opting to show Mulcair the door.

No political bloodletting of the sort is expected as a result of Saturday’s confidence vote.

But Singh will be facing a more skeptical audience than his decisive leadership victory results would suggest.

Back in October he beat runner-up Charlie Angus by a margin of almost three to one. But he achieved that victory by mobilizing tens of thousands of new members.

Within the ranks of the party’s base the jury is still out on his leadership.

Chantal HÈbert is a national affairs writer.
Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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