National Column: Singh’s leadership has set the NDP back

by Chantal Hebert

Were the federal New Democrats to conduct a leadership review this fall, Jagmeet Singh would likely be handed his walking papers.

Over his first year as leader, he has presided over a steep decline in the party’s byelection fortunes. The New Democrat family is more divided today than it was on the day he won Thomas Mulcair’s succession.

The last Quebec byelection to take place under Singh’s watch in June in Chicoutimi-Le Fjord saw the New Democrats collect less than 10 per cent of the vote in a riding the party had held from 2011 to 2015.

Since then a number of popular MPs have announced they will not seek re-election. They leave behind ridings the NDP cannot presume it will hold next year.

Singh himself will be testing the waters in the Vancouver area in a byelection to be held later this year or early in 2019. But if he does hold the NDP-friendly Burnaby South seat, his victory will do little more than blunt the hit of the apprehended loss of Outremont.

Many New Democrats would inevitably see the loss of the Montreal riding that was the cornerstone of their 2011 Quebec victory as an omen of what is to come in next year’s general election.

When Singh won a first-ballot victory last October, the New Democrats knew he would have a hard time hanging on to the party’s fragile Quebec beachhead. But that was also true of the other leadership aspirants.

Given that, many New Democrats clung to the assumption that Singh – as the first main federal leader to be issued from the ranks of Canadaís visible minorities – would be best placed to make up for potential Quebec losses with gains in the diverse communities of suburban Canada.

On the eve of the first anniversary of the leadership vote, that hope comes across as little more than wishful thinking. The New Democrat polling numbers are dismal across the board – as are the party’s fundraising returns.

Singh is estranged from the Alberta wing of his party over irreconcilable differences as to the merits of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

He has also become persona non grata in party circles in Saskatchewan, the provincial cradle of the NDP.

Last spring, Singh referred allegations of harassment against Saskatchewan MP Erin Weir to an independent investigator. The latter found some of the allegations to have merit, albeit in the case of those relating to sexual harassment, “on the less serious end of the spectrum.”

Singh subsequently expelled Weir from the caucus for allegedly failing to show sufficient remorse. Over the summer 67 past Saskatchewan MPs and MLAs called for his reinstatement. Instead Singh announced that Weir would not be allowed to run for re-election as a New Democrat next year.

Not all the ailments that plague the federal NDP are of Singh’s own making.

The fracture between the party’s Alberta and federal wings over pipelines predates his arrival at the helm. And it has contributed to the NDP’s money woes.

Alberta premier Rachel Notley used to be a major NDP fundraising attraction. After the party voted to explore the Leap Manifesto – a document that calls on Canada to leave its fossil fuels in the ground – at its 2016 Edmonton convention, Notley left the federal fundraising circuit.

Once a close ally of the NDP, the labour movement has never had more federal clout, including seats on the prime minister’s advisory NAFTA council, as it does under Trudeau. And many trade unions happen to be on the pro-pipeline side of the debate.

Singh has surrounded himself with a palace guard that is often accused of being as clueless as to the ways of Parliament Hill as he is. But while the New Democrats do not lack for battle-tested strategists, many of the party’s top ones currently toil in the corridors of power of Edmonton and Victoria.

Still, the main reason so many New Democrats on and off Parliament Hill are not willing to cut Singh as much slack as that granted his predecessors hits closer to home.

If there is a common theme to the discontent that is seeping out of the party’s caucus room, it is that Singh who only served at the provincial level prior to taking on the federal leadership is in over his head.

He would not be the first provincial star to fail to thrive on Parliament Hill. Until recently though it would have been considered politically suicidal to think of ousting a leader in the immediate lead-up to his or her first election campaign.

But that was before the Ontario Tories ditched Patrick Brown mere months before landing a majority government at Queen’s Park.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics.
Follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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