What This Burnaby Race Says About the NDP’s Federal Election Strategy

It’s do or die for leader Jagmeet Singh. Here’s what he’s telling BC voters.

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Feb 8 2019, 2:24pm

Photo by Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

It’s early Friday evening, and Jagmeet Singh is standing under a blanket of BC rain, surrounded by a small team of activists and advisors, pitching for votes.

Twenty-four hours ago, CBC broke a nightmare story for the federal NDP leader: either he wins the upcoming by-election in Burnaby South—a diverse, suburban riding on the outskirts of East Vancouver—or his short tenure at the helm of Canada’s third largest party will be over.

That was the ultimatum presented to Singh by a handful of “senior” New Democratic MPs during a private meeting last summer.

But Singh doesn’t seem rattled by the report. In fact, less than three weeks out from election day, he looks like he’s enjoying himself.

“You know, I don't let the distractions take away from my focus,” he tells VICE. “My focus is, how do I make people’s lives better? How do I best represent Canadians? People deserve somebody who’s going to be fighting for them.”

The past few months have not been easy for the 40-year-old former Ontario defence lawyer.

He won control of the NDP in October 2017 on a wave of viral enthusiasm, taking 54 percent of the vote on the first leadership ballot and being hailed, in some quarters, as the left’s answer to Justin Trudeau.

“Both are confident, charismatic and savvy social media users who draw swarms of selfie-seekers wherever they go,” the Guardian remarked at the time.

But after a string of faltering media performances, a persistent inability to shift the NDP’s poll numbers passed the 15 percent mark, and a burgeoning party funding crisis, that enthusiasm has all but vanished.

Singh’s supporters are convinced he’s been unfairly “hazed” by the national media.

“Three months before the 2015 election, Trudeau was still being savaged by the press as a bumbling nitwit,” Rick Smith, who served as chief of staff to the late NDP leader Jack Layton and now runs the Broadbent Institute in Toronto, told VICE.

“And a similar thing happened to Stephen Harper, who was dragged through the mud for years for being too cold, too Albertan, to succeed at the national level.

“The NDP right now is smack in the middle of its historic polling average, so the worst you can say about Singh is that he hasn't dramatically increased the party’s support level.”

But it’s difficult to shake the feeling that Burnaby South is very much a do-or-die scenario for Singh.

This is a race the NDP leader should win, as well as one he must.

The party is pouring its resources into the seat, the wider Burnaby area is a traditional NDP stronghold, and Singh’s chief rival, the veteran BC Liberal Richard T. Lee, was airdropped in after the initial Liberal candidate, Karen Wang, imploded in a firestorm of social media controversy due to comments she made about Singh.

Singh believes the key to victory on February 25 lies with those progressive voters who feel particularly let down by the Trudeau government in Ottawa.

“What sums [Trudeau] up as a leader is that he gave Canadians a lot of hope with good words but didn't deliver on those good words with action,” Singh says. “He maybe sounds like he cares, but do his actions point that out? I think the answer is no.”

Jagmeet Singh in Burnaby
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh canvasses in Burnaby, BC. Photo by Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Singh’s campaign is based around two core themes: the sky-high cost of housing in Burnaby—you need to earn four times the average local salary ($65,000) in order to afford a property here—and opposition to the multibillion-dollar Trans Mountain pipeline development, which terminates in the adjoining riding of Burnaby North.

Singh hammers away at these issues when he’s talking to voters.

For the most part, he gets a good response.

A family of three enthusiastically invite him into their home; an American woman who has just secured Canadian citizenship looks delighted when he turns up at her door.

But every now and again, underlying anxieties start to slip out.

“I’m just not sure what the party stands for right now,” one longtime NDP supporter tells VICE. Another informs Singh—presumably, in light of the CBC story—that she’s worried about party unity.

One of the most frequent criticisms of Singh is that he’s evasive—that he avoids staking-out clear positions on controversial subjects.

Fossil fuel extraction is a case in point.

Singh might be staunchly opposed to the Trans Mountain development in southern BC—and, in particular, to the Liberals’ $4.5 billion bail-out of it—but he supports the equally fraught and environmentally problematic liquified-natural-gas project in the north of the province.

He has also struggled to impose a coherent party line on some aspects of foreign policy.

For instance, Singh has refused to follow Trudeau in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as the “legitimate” president of Venezuela, apparently contradicting his own foreign affairs critic, MP Helene Laverdiere, who said this week she was “comfortable” following Ottawa’s lead on the crisis.

To some observers, this lack of ideological consistency in a leftwing leader seems strangely out of place in the era of Jeremy Corbyn and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“The NDP often look like the Red side’s farm team,” author and Washington Post contributor David Moscrop says. “That makes it hard to distinguish them from the centre or centre-left. So there are folks who think the NDP would fare better by making a hard left turn. That's a risky bet, but it could pay off.”

Singh, of course, dismisses such criticism and insists that, as the Fall general election moves into view, the radical dividing lines that already exist between the NDP and the Liberals will become increasingly pronounced.

“If you vote for us, vote for the New Democrats, you will know that someone will stand up in the House of Commons and push for the change [you] need, push for Pharmacare or medication coverage that covers all Canadians, not just some Canadians,” he says.

“We’ll push for investments in the green energy economy instead of buying a pipeline for billions of dollars [and] we’ll invest public dollars into cooperative housing, non-market housing, and build half a million affordable units across this country.

“The Liberals aren’t on people’s side—I’m on people’s side.”

Speculation about Singh’s future has inevitably dominated media coverage of the Burnaby election, but his leadership isn’t the only thing at stake in the race: the NDP is essentially stress-testing its entire federal election strategy, in condensed form, on the BC Lower Mainland.

In 2015, the party took almost 20 percent of the vote and 44 seats in the House of Commons. Today, it’s polling five or so points below that and, crucially, risks losing most or all of its 15 federal representatives in Quebec.

The fastest way to offset those losses will be to make significant gains in Metro Vancouver—in seats like Burnaby South—and in the GTA.

Moreover, assuming he survives in Burnaby, come October, Singh will be competing with the Liberals for the same cohort of left-leaning millennials that played such a pivotal role in getting Trudeau elected four years ago.

“If Singh wins the by-election, he’ll have a few months to show that he can be effective in the House,” the BC-based pollster Mario Canseco told VICE.

Whether he succeeds or not from there “depends on how much he can connect with young voters who may feel disenchanted with Trudeau’s policies on the environment, pipelines, and electoral reform.”

To that extent, even against the current backdrop of internal party strife, Singh is already starting to refine his general election pitch—with the ambitious aim, this Fall, of dragging the NDP out of its prolonged post-2015 slump.

He’s just going to have to show that the pitch works on the rain-soaked streets of Burnaby first.

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