Does Jagmeet Singh Have the NDP Race in the Bag or What?


by Drew Brown
Sep 25 2017, 6:46pm

Photo via Jagmeet Singh's Facebook

Well, here we are at the tail end of the New Democratic Party's leadership race. It's been a long road since the party unceremoniously dumped Tom Mulcair in Edmonton back in April 2016, but on October 1, we might find out who will be the standard bearer of Canada's social democrats going into the 2019 election. (If there is no winner on that first ballot, the lowest-scoring candidate is dropped and another week-long round of voting begins again.)

The identity of the future NDP leader is obviously still up in the air, although the consensus among most media types seems to be that Jagmeet Singh is the man to beat. Of course, this has seemed like the consensus since he entered the race—before there was much evidence for the argument, and even when there was some against it. (I was guilty of the same assumption the last time I wrote about the NDP leadership race, as many of you were happy to point out; mea culpa.)

So: does Singh actually have the race sewn up, or can Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton, or Guy Caron still surprise us? It depends on a number of factors.

The most important of these is the membership drive that wrapped up in August. As of last March, the NDP only had about 41,000 active members, down substantially from the nearly 128,000 members involved in the 2012 leadership that put Mulcair at the party's helm. An August poll of party donors—existing members who had given the party more than $200—found Charlie Angus as the favourite of more than 40 percent, followed by Niki Ashton and Guy Caron. Singh was dead last.

It's not surprising that Angus would be favoured by the Dipper die-hard set. Longtime party strategist Robin Sears has suggested in the Toronto Star that the federal NDP has been historically risk-averse in choosing their leaders. This could play into Angus' favour as a folksy, Northern, rural working-class stalwart—especially when compared to Singh, a trendy suburban upstart in a turban.

It's also worth noting how Singh's status as a visible racial and religious minority has repeatedly cropped up as a talking point over the course of the campaign. The high point was his on-camera shut down of a racist heckler at a campaign rally, which generated universal (if sometimes problematic) international acclaim.

The low point is definitely the intense (and ongoing) discussions about whether or not his leadership would jeopardize the Quebec wing of the party. Newly-minted Bloc Québécois Leader Martine Ouellet has even outright argued that putting the "visibly religious" Singh at the head of the party would alienate staunchly secular French Canada, although there are lots of reasons to believe that this is just posturing on her part. Fellow NDP leadership hopeful Guy Caron has also fired back saying that Ouellet's comments show that she has completely misunderstood the relationship between secularism and Québécois identity, which is a pretty withering charge to bring against a sovereigntist.

At any rate, as far as the leadership vote itself goes, the Quebec wing of the federal NDP only registered over 5,000 members, so it will have a marginal impact on the outcome of this race. Resolving the party's problems in Quebec will have to be a top priority whether or not Singh is the winner, but it would be fairly intellectually lazy to assume that the man is "too Sikh"—or that Quebec voters are too xenophobic—for that project to be dead on arrival.

Since we're back to talking about numbers: the party's membership rolls have swelled back up to 120,000 as of the August cutoff date, which is just shy of where it was in 2012 when the NDP was choosing Canada's new opposition leader. It's unclear how many of those members have been signed up by each federal leadership campaign. There have also been provincial leadership races this year in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, which definitely brought in new memberships.

Singh's team have claimed more than 47,000 new memberships, primarily in Ontario and BC. The party has not yet verified those numbers, but as the kids say: huge if true. As John Ivison has observed in The Globe and Mail, winning BC's lower mainland and suburban Ontario can hand you a federal election victory. If Singh has everything locked up in those two locales, it may already be game over.

But beyond the numbers, the ideological temperament of the party will also be a factor. Niki Ashton is running as the only unapologetically socialist candidate in the race, while Singh appears more like who Justin Trudeau might be if he had genuine progressive convictions instead of his (increasingly trademark) cynical window dressing on bargain-bin neoliberalism. It's tough to say where the party's head is at these days, but if the overall gestalt of the NDP is as risk-averse as they say, it's hard to see the membership stampede as far left as Ashton is positioning herself.

"Socialism" (so-called) may be in vogue among labour parties elsewhere in the English-speaking world at the moment, but Canada's NDP have been shying away from the concept long before they struck it from their constitution in 2013. Social democracy via parliamentary election is the name of the party's game; erstwhile revolutionaries need no longer apply. Unless we get a DSA North, the Communist Party of Canada is probably what you're looking for, and to be honest they seem to have a lot more fun.

Ultimately, if it does all come down to a pure numbers game, and Singh's campaign is right in its estimates, then it's possible the race could be called after the first ballot. But the NDP has been full of surprises (both good and bad) for well over a decade now, so there's no telling what might actually play out when they announce the results this Sunday.

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Niki Ashton
Jagmeet Singh
Charlie Angus
guy caron