There’s Good Reason to Be Optimistic About Jagmeet Singh

With Singh’s victory, Justin Trudeau is now the old guy on Parliament Hill.

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Oct 2 2017, 3:34pm

Image via Chris Young/The Canadian Press

As it turns out, all the hype around Jagmeet Singh was real after all—or, at least, a self-fulfilling prophecy. On October 1, Singh took 53.8 percent of the vote on the first ballot in the NDP leadership race, immediately winning the election. This is a historic vote in at least two senses: first and foremost, Singh is the first person of colour ever to head one of the major federal parties in Canada. Second, Singh is the third person to become leader of the NDP after the first ballot—he is preceded only by Tommy Douglas and Jack Layton. It's an auspicious start to career in federal politics.

Singh's confidence going into the home stretch appears to have been more than justified. His team raised the most money (counting only what was raised since he entered in May), they signed up the most members, and those members came out to vote for him in droves. That he's got a thunderous mandate and a slick campaign machine bodes well for the man going forward. He will need both, because now the hard work begins. Securing the leadership was the easy part.

For one, Singh has no experience in the federal political arena beyond the NDP circuit. He doesn't hold a seat in the House of Commons and may or may not seek one before the 2019 election. This keeps him off the Hill for two years and gives the other parties freedom to dunk on him in absentia during Question Period. Then again, Jack Layton never held a seat when he first won the leadership either, and he used that freedom fairly effectively to build up the party from the outside. If Singh is playing a long game, taking time to shore things up outside Ottawa for these first two critical years might pay big dividends down the road.

And there is quite a bit of shoring up to do. The NDP has been hovering at around 15 percent in the polls since it lost the 2015 election and then decapitated itself in Edmonton a few months later. Fundraising has been accordingly moribund, and the party is carrying more than $5 million in debt. Before he can really do much else, Singh has to translate some of the excitement he generated within the party into actual cash donations.

A bigger challenge is Quebec. The party needs to recapture some of the gains it made there in 2011 (and lost in 2015). With only about 5,000 card-carrying Dippers in the province as of right now, that was going to be a challenge regardless of who won the race, but it will likely be tougher for Singh, a visibly-religious turbaned brown man. Some members of the NDP caucus even threatened to quit in the event Singh became leader, so he may have to quell a low-key caucus revolt right out of the gate.

That said, Jagmeet Singh is a living testament to the country and the world that Canadian multiculturalism can not only work but even flourish, which makes him the ideal person to champion it. It would be truly poetic if the figurative heir of Pierre Trudeau wound up unseating the literal one.

That's a big if, though. Despite a sparse and spotty track record as prime minister, Justin Trudeau remains firmly in command of the hearts and minds of many Canadians, and many of those dissatisfied with him would never vote for a Sikh social democrat. The fear (and hope) of some New Democrats is that Jagmeet is a more "progressive" Justin: more liberal than left, more style than substance, more adept at reading a room than the signs of settler-capitalism's sickness. One of the great takeaways from 2015 should be that no one can ever out-Liberal the Liberals, who are all things to all people and thus masters of flanking to the left or right as the situation dictates. Singh will have to be more than "Diversity Trudeau" to bring the party any real gains.

But there are reasons to believe Jagmeet Singh is more than just another stylish but empty suit with a GQ profile. His proposal to decriminalize all drugs, tackle racial profiling in police work, and put rehabilitation—instead of retribution—at the heart of criminal justice in Canada is pretty radical for a country of repressed (and repressive) squares. He took some very justified flak for waffling on pipelines, but he eventually corrected course, and now that the leadership race is over it's likely we'll see the other candidates' greatest hits show up in a future platform. It will be up to the NDP's left wing to turn up the Bern if they want to keep Singh and the party executive on track, but Niki Ashton's distant third on the first ballot suggests that the party has little appetite for socialism.

If nothing else, it will be fascinating to watch Justin Trudeau campaign without the veneer of being the fresh, youthful face in federal politics. The prime minister is eight years older than both Singh and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer.

Speaking of Scheer: the CPC's fortunes hinge on Singh just as much as the NDP's do. A serious fight between the NDP and the Liberals over the progressive vote opens up room for the Conservatives to squeeze up through the cracks. This is (partly) how we got a decade of Stephen Harper, and fear of a return to Conservative Canada is a powerful tool in the hands of an incumbent Trudeau government.

This is assuming that Scheer is on Harper's level, which remains to be seen; that he eked out a win by barely one percent on the 13th ballot of his own leadership contest puts him on shakier ground within his own party than either of his opponents. But he's also an experienced parliamentarian with two years to find his footing, and a Conservative base finding themselves caught between the devil and the deep red sea will be pretty motivated to fight like hell to win government.

But for now, before any of this, and regardless of where you stand on seizing the means of production, Singh's win should be savoured. For the first time in Canadian history, the leader of a major federal party is a person of colour and a religious minority. This is a cultural breakthrough, all the more remarkable during a historical moment where a toxic discourse around race and identity is reaching a fevered and violent pitch. That Jagmeet Singh could not only win the leadership but win so decisively on a swell of enthusiasm is a genuinely beautiful thing. We should allow ourselves a little bit of optimism about the Canadian project; because nowhere else in the Western world could a Sikh man rise to this level of political prominence.

There's a lot of promise in a New Democratic Party led by Jagmeet Singh. Let's hope they don't fuck it up.

Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.

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