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The Jagmeet Singh Effect: Principles and Pragmatism


By Oct 12, 2017

Image Credits: The Toronto Star

It is 2011, and the New Democratic Party has just been elected as the Official Opposition Party in the House of Commons. It is a major landmark in the federal party’s history as they push the Liberals out to become a major player in Parliament. Jack Layton, whose leadership led the party to this position, tragically passes away only a few months after their victory. The party is suddenly left with the task of electing a new leader, and it is in this tumultuous situation that Thomas Mulcair is elected on the final ballot in 2012.

Mulcair was a formidable Opposition House Leader; he relentlessly pursued Stephen Harper during Question Period in the years he served. However, as leader of the NDP he was heavily criticized for moving the party towards the center during the 2015 election; his platform was not radical enough to rally support from the left. Justin Trudeau’s push for deficit spending attracted many progressive voters—more than Mulcair’s balanced budget mantra. Mulcair was only shakily opposed to the establishment of new pipelines, especially since NDP Premier of Alberta Rachel Notley is a staunch supporter of the oil industry. This centrist shift, combined with inadequate climate change policy, led to a proposal of the notorious Leap Manifesto from leftist activists, many of whom are aligned with the NDP. It proposed a radical transition from fossil fuels, an appealing prospect for the environmentalists in Canada’s left-wing. This proposal brought to the attention that perhaps the party was losing touch with their voters and principles.

It may make voters wonder about his commitment to equality, that perhaps in the face of power versus principles, he may choose power.

The New Democratic Party was again at a crossroads with another leadership election. Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh won the race, while the other candidates Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton and Guy Caron finished in second, third and fourth respectively. The leadership race showed some agreement between the four about certain policy directives, namely increasing federal minimum wage to $15, increasing corporate taxes, electoral reform and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. While each candidate espouses varying degrees of party principles, Singh’s youthful and charismatic leadership will mean a renewed chance at the Prime Minister’s seat.

Singh is perhaps the most pragmatic candidate. He has stated that he believes that getting into power is more important than principles. Since he has been critiqued due to the possibility of alienating the secular province of Quebec, infamous for its proposed ban of religious symbols, this strategy may just be rhetoric to demonstrate his willingness to rally votes. The power and principles debate has been a point of contention in New Democratic history for a long time: how can a progressive party distinguish itself from the Liberals in an electoral system that demands parties to be centrist? A majoritarian system like the Parliamentary one in Canada requires that parties appeal to as many voters as possible to get any sort of representation in the House of Commons. Parties that stray too far to one side of the spectrum may not get the plurality of votes it needs to gain seats. Singh’s image as a fashionable young man has potential to reach new audiences for the NDP, especially after landing on the cover of GQ, rivaling Trudeau’s spreads with Vogue and Rolling Stone, but one still wonders if he can capture enough votes without straying too far from progressive principles.

Although they have rejected a return to its social democratic roots, this is a strong opportunity for the New Democratic Party to broaden their electorate and affect change in the House of Commons.

Singh’s pragmatic approach to taking power has already caused controversy. In exchange for mutual support, he continued to support newly elected leader Wab Kinew of the NDP in Manitoba despite allegations of domestic violence against former’s girlfriend. It may make voters wonder about his commitment to equality, that perhaps in the face of power versus principles, he may choose power.

While Singh does concede this need to remain in the center, it is not to say that he has not proposed some provocative policies. He supports the decriminalization of all petty drug possession. As a former criminal lawyer, his personal experience with these charges has led him to believe this is a good way to fight against institutionalized racial inequality in the justice system. He is also one of two candidates (along with Niki Ashton) to release policies in his platform specifically addressing LGBTQ issues, like expanding housing strategies to address especially vulnerable LGBTQ youth and ending the ban on blood donation for gay men. Although he was criticized during the race by Ashton for considering conservative complaints about educational reforms in 2015 on sex education in Ontario, these policies reinforce his belief in the principle of equality. He also added policies regarding climate change to his platform. It includes opposition to pipelines, citing not only concerns about emissions, but also Canada’s commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). He has furthermore committed to reducing emissions by 30 percent by 2025, which is five years ahead of the goal set by Trudeau’s government.

Only two candidates previously had ever been elected on the first ballot. In 1978, Tommy Douglas, the founder of the party, received 78% of the votes. In 2003, Jack Layton received 53% of the votes.

Singh catapults an image that rivals Trudeau’s and places broadening NDP membership and voters as his priority. Ashton prioritized eradicating inequalities, emphasizing those stemming from gender and race, to return the party to the left. Angus focused on Indigenous reconciliation, a much-needed effort in the face of Trudeau’s shortcomings on the issue. Caron’s focus on a progressive economy, while principled, was not in line with the social democratic roots of the NDP. The election of Singh places an emphasis on taking on Trudeau in the upcoming 2019 federal election.

NDP members elected Singh through a ranked ballot system, where voters rank the candidates in order of preference with the option of leaving some candidates off their list. The first choices are counted, and a winner is declared if a candidate receives more than half of the votes. Only two candidates previously had ever been elected on the first ballot. In 1978, Tommy Douglas, the founder of the party, received 78% of the votes. In 2003, Jack Layton received 53% of the votes.

Singh’s 53% victory makes him the third to win on a first ballot, and puts him on par with Layton, which demonstrates the party’s belief in his charismatic image. He won in spite of the worries of his unpopularity in Quebec and his lack of seat in the House of Commons. This could mean strong support in the next federal election, as Singh will be pitted against Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer (who only garnered 21% support on the first ballot) and current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose broken promises may cost him many progressive votes. Although they have rejected a return to its social democratic roots, this is a strong opportunity for the New Democratic Party to broaden their electorate and affect change in the House of Commons.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the McGill Left Review's editorial board.

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