NDP leader Jagmeet Singh celebrates his Burnaby South byelection win on Feb. 25, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Byelection win offers Singh an opportunity to reset his leadership

With his win in the federal byelection in Burnaby South, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has an opportunity to put to rest some of his doubters both outside the NDP and, more importantly, within. Now that he has a seat in the House of Commons, Singh can reset his leadership and move on from a challenging beginning.

This byelection win also comes at a fortuitous time as the SNC-Lavalin controversy continues to undermine Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s credibility with progressive voters, while Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s increasingly populist and anti-immigrant rhetoric potentially alienates members of Canada’s diaspora communities.

As any scholar of the Canadian left or long-suffering New Democrat can tell you, whenever the NDP shows weakness, pundits and Liberal commentators come out of the woodwork to herald the NDP’s inevitable demise and Canada’s return to two-party politics.

NDP has faced oblivion before

The federal NDP came closest to political oblivion in 1993, when its caucus was reduced to nine members in the face of Jean Chrétien’s Liberal wave. Even then, the NDP persevered and came back to fight another day. And even if Singh had lost the byelection, the NDP would have survived, but its time in the wilderness would likely have been extended and Singh’s leadership would have been threatened.

When Singh was decisively elected leader of the NDP in October 2017, New Democrats and progressive Canadians were right to be optimistic. Over the course of the leadership campaign, he galvanized supporters around a hopeful message reminiscent of Jack Layton’s leadership. His campaign also held out the promise that he could effect inroads into Canada’s diverse and vote-rich suburban communities.

Almost immediately after his election however, things seemed to turn sour for the new leader. Not only did Singh have to contend with multiple controversies within his caucus, NDP fundraising —already anemic in the aftermath of the disappointing results of the 2015 federal election —continued to decline. This was of particular concern because of the extra costs the party had to bear paying Singh’s salary and travel, costs that would have been covered by the House of Commons had he already held a seat.

A polarized electorate

Singh has also had to deal with the potential polarization of the election question as a choice between Trudeau’s progressive Canada and the increasingly divisive and nativist Canada envisioned by the Conservatives.

One of the challenges for Jagmeet Singh will be to make sure the Liberals don’t squeeze out the NDP with progressive voters. Here, Singh and his wife Gurkiran pose with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the Parliamentary Press Gallery Dinner in 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

There is still every possibility that the coming federal election could again see the Liberals wrap themselves in a progressive banner and squeeze the NDP out of a two-party race, but now that Singh has a seat in Parliament, he will be better able to insert himself into that debate.

The importance of this byelection win is that it allows Singh to draw a hard line under the first 17 months of his leadership. Even before the byelection was called, Singh had already started to make changes in personnel and direction that bode well for his future.

In November, the NDP announced that Jennifer Howard would be taking over as Singh’s new chief of staff. Howard has held multiple cabinet appointments in the Manitoba governments of Gary Doer and Greg Selinger, at one point serving as finance minister, but, more importantly, has held staff and leadership positions at all levels of the NDP. She represents the experience and wealth of political knowledge that was seen as lacking.

It is also important to remember that Singh is still relatively new to the job and has time to recover. In this regard, the recent history of the NDP can provide some context.

Layton needed eight years

When he was elected leader of the NDP in January 2003, Jack Layton was a more experienced politician, having served as a Toronto City and Metro councillor for over 20 years. Yet it still took him eight years to create the conditions that allowed the NDP to make its breakthrough in the 2011 federal election.

Former NDP leader Jack Layton needed eight years before the party had a breakout in the 2011 federal election. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Layton avoided some of Singh’s early mistakes, selecting leadership rival and veteran MP Bill Blaikie (whom I worked for at the time) as his parliamentary leader, for example, but he started with a much smaller caucus without a presence in Québec and with only a minimal presence in Ontario.

There’s no question that Singh’s first year did not go as planned. The momentum and excitement that surrounded his election as leader could have boosted fundraising, mobilized members and helped establish his presence on the national stage. And Singh’s slow start could ultimately end up affecting his ability to succeed in the future.

But this byelection win presents him with a chance to change the narrative and become a contender in the coming federal election.