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What Does a 2019 Election Look Like for Jagmeet Singh?

The Liberals and the Tories probably already have their gameplans together for dealing with the new NDP leader.

Drew Brown

Drew Brown

Justin Trudeau, Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh | Asset sources: CP, Wikipedia Commons | Art by Noel Ransome

It's all Jagmeet all the time, baby. People can't get enough of that sweet Singh #content and I live to serve it up to you by the grace of my contractual obligations. The spectacle never sleeps and neither do I.

Anyways: the stage has now been set for Canada's 2019 federal election. We don't know yet what exactly the script will be—though expect taxes, immigration, reconciliation, and the environment to figure heavily—but we do know who will be reciting the lines. So now that we know Jagmeet Singh has one of the leading parts, what roles can we expect Justin Trudeau and Andrew Scheer to play?

It's been impossible since before the NDP race concluded to talk about Singh without comparing him to Trudeau, and vice versa. As political actors, the two men have a lot in common. They are both young, famously stylish dudes laying claim to the mantle of Canada's most handsome progressive. In 2015, it was no contest for Trudeau, but there is a strong argument that he has met his match here. Singh is younger, a snappier stylist, further left, and has much less privilege to check than the current prime minister. In many respects Singh is to Trudeau in 2019 as Trudeau was to Thomas Mulcair in the last electoral contest.

It was easy for Trudeau to play up his progressive credentials in 2015 given his opponents. (You will recall there was some concern that Tom Mulcair was a not-so-secret Thatcherite.) But given Trudeau's track record so far in power, which most recently includes spending over a hundred grand in legal fees to fight a First Nations girl in court over a $6,000 dental procedure, it will be difficult for the aristocratic heir of a former prime minister to out-prog a Sikh social justice activist. The bar for progressive posturing is a lot higher than it was after a decade of Stephen Harper, and Trudeau will need to bring more than just charisma next time.

But Singh is competing with Trudeau for left-leaning swing voters on more than just charm; they're going to be going after voters in largely the same geographical areas. Singh won the NDP leadership in large part thanks to the GTA suburbs and Lower Mainland BC, both of which are incidentally where the Liberals picked up a lot of critical seats in 2015. If the NDP is competitive in southern Ontario and southern BC, the Liberals may very well be in a real contest.

All of this is great news for Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives. Scheer is still an unknown quantity as far as his leadership goes, but we already know he's pretty good at playing the dark horse. Unfortunately for our Diefenbabyface from Saskatchewan, it's a pretty safe assessment that he's outgunned in any charm offensive against the other two party leaders.

But Scheer doesn't have to win Homecoming King to make major gains in the next election. The party's rural and western base is not going anywhere, and the likelihood is high that a well-oiled Conservative machine could pick up many of the suburban ridings where the NDP and Liberals split the centre-left vote. All Scheer really has to do is keep his head down and hold the deficit-hawk, anti-immigrant, low-tax line—and avoid falling into any social conservative rabbit holes—and the CPC could clean up nicely.

Singh may actually be a blessing in disguise for the Canadian right. Historically speaking, the biggest beneficiaries of a strong NDP in Parliament— medicare in 1968 notwithstanding—have usually been the Tories.

Casting Singh as an unwitting Conservative kingmaker in this way will probably end up figuring heavily into Trudeau's line of defense in 2019. 'Sunny Ways' are all well and good when your opponents are Tom Mulcair and Stephen Harper—two men who seemed to have genuine difficulty articulating feelings of joy. But if the Singh social democrats are staking out the terrain around "love and courage," Trudeau's best bet is to dial up the fear, similar to how Barack Obama changed tactics in 2012 vs. 2008.

Even the warm and fuzzy Liberal campaign of 2015 carried an implicit threat about the need for progressive unity in order to oust Harper. Expect that to be amped up on the hustings of the next election. The Liberals will underscore how precarious Canada's comeback actually is, and how important strategic voting is to keep Andrew Scheer and the other Harperites out of the PMO. And, because this government is nothing if not absolutely, breathtakingly shameless, they may even suggest outright that Jagmeet Singh is just not ready. To paraphrase a young(er) Mr. Burns, expect Trudeau to more fully embrace the Machiavellian dictum that "flower power is no match for glower power."

In all, fear will be the order of the day in 2019 for both government and opposition. This is par for the course in high-power politics, but it will be neat to see Justin Trudeau transform from the hip young drama teacher sitting backwards on a chair into the schoolmaster from The Wall. It's a tried and true formula for Liberal re-election, so you can anticipate it coming from two years out. What will be more interesting is whether or not the Singh NDP can come up with a new solution.

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