The outsiders behind Jagmeet Singh and the new NDP - Macleans.ca

The outsiders behind Jagmeet Singh and the new NDP

Singh’s inner circle brings uneven federal experience to Ottawa, and new tactics. Can they survive their leader’s early stumbles?

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Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Chief of Staff, Willy Blomme chat prior to having their portrait taken before the Broadbent Institute’s Progress Gala in Toronto on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)

After working as a constituency assistant to late NDP leader Jack Layton and another Toronto-area party MP, Melissa Bruno was seeking advancement, but did not want to move to Ottawa. So in 2012, she took a job with Jagmeet Singh, a rookie New Democrat in the provincial legislature. “It was the first time since Jack had passed away that I was super-inspired by another person,” she says.

Five years on, Bruno has recently relocated to the capital as a key member of Singh’s staff as he takes over the federal NDP.

Singh’s successful bid to lead the party was orchestrated by a notably young group of organizers and advisors—the then-38-year-old candidate was the oldest person on the team, as he likes to point out. Many of those now moving into top jobs in the NDP worked on his provincial staff and campaigns.

Singh wants to be prime minister, and the task of making that happen falls to a group with uneven federal experience. Their mix of tactics, messaging, tone and culture won out in provincial and party elections, but can Singh’s staff replicate their success at the federal level?

READ MORE: Jagmeet Singh on his path to the prime minister’s office

Bruno, who was an advisor on the leadership campaign and led the transition, is the NDP’s new interim national director. Willy Blomme, Singh’s chief of staff, has worked in Ottawa before, as speechwriter to Layton and a Quebec organizer for the party.

Other leadership campaign team members making the move to Ottawa include digital director Nader Mohamed, a longtime Singh staffer, and James Wardlaw, who previously worked for the activist group Acorn Canada. Singh’s brother Gurratan, who has been beside him through his political career, is “maintaining relationships” with new donors and members. Communications director Jared A. Walker, whose volunteering on political campaigns included Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run, is Singh’s English speechwriter.

“At the top of the food chain, you can sense a generational change,” says Karl Bélanger, who worked for four NDP leaders, including as principal secretary to Thomas Mulcair. He says that in Blomme and Bruno, Singh has “brought in two young women with experience, and they’re both very capable and energetic.”

Significant turnover in personnel under a new boss is not unusual. Many of the top people under Layton and Mulcair were gone before Singh was selected. Some left in previous reshuffles and others to work for the NDP governments in British Columbia and Alberta. While Singh had the backing of longtime staffer Brad Lavigne during the leadership race, no notable veterans have been announced in prominent positions thus far.

Bruno says she maintains relationships with party veterans, even if they don’t have formal roles, and seeks their advice. She also coordinates with senior leaders at the provincial level. “The NDP world is not actually that large,” she notes.

Early stumbles have lately soured the positive narrative Singh carried out of his leadership win. Speaking to reporters in late November, he suggested an Indigenous nominee for the Supreme Court of Canada might not have to meet the French-English bilingualism standard required of other candidates.  At least two NDP MPs pointed out that was not the party’s position, and Singh had to walk back the comments. His response to a question about overtime at a meeting with NDP Parliament Hill staff was also reportedly a temporary point of contention.

These instances, and a few others where the party has disputed or had to correct media reports, will have served as a warning to Singh and his staff of how unforgiving and challenging federal politics can be. And in the Liberals and Conservatives, they are facing opponents with plenty of organizational and messaging skills of their own.

Over the course of multiple campaigns, the Singh team has developed its own way of organizing. A young volunteer base—many high-school age—has necessitated more training. Just handing canvassers a script, showing them how to look for signs of support, and sending them to knock on doors, isn’t enough. Their hour-long training module walks through, among other things, the differences between the three levels of government and the three major parties.

It may seem odd for someone to volunteer without such basic knowledge. But Bruno says volunteers without partisan backgrounds are drawn by the culture of Singh’s type of campaign. “This is more of a fundamental distinction between the Liberals and us, frankly,” she says. “We kind of sound the same, we say very similar things, but our approach and our practice is very different.”

READ MORE: How Jagmeet Singh hopes to win over the next generation of NDP voters

The team has also been effective at using tech tools and social media to organize and build support. Mohamed, who was working as an usher at Queen’s Park when Singh was first elected provincially, took over his web presence in 2014. (He also co-founded a Dragons’ Den-featured fantasy sports app called StockJocks; he’s no longer involved).

Mohamed discovered that videos in which Singh spoke directly to the camera drove engagement. The team also strayed beyond conventional political language to capture Singh’s “authentic voice.” “When Jagmeet says, ‘Shoutouts to this person,’ these are terms that any other politician would never be able to use, because it would just come off so weird,” says Mohamed.

But it’s more than just smart Snapchat strategy. Mohamed says voters are growing less receptive to traditional mediums of communication—getting them to open an email or a door is harder than ever. During the leadership race, the campaign solicited ideas and coordinated volunteers using the messaging tool Slack. It also used Hustle, a one-to-one texting platform made famous by Bernie Sanders that helped bring out crowds for the candidate’s “JagMeet and Greet” events during the leadership race.

Singh’s staff plan to replicate some of these tactics in the federal party, though they’re allergic to any suggestion they’ll be imposed from the top. “There’s never a one-size-fits-all model,” says Bruno. She won’t diagnose what went wrong in the 2015 election. “What we’re really bringing in,” she says, “is a reframing of a mindset and creating a particular culture.”

READ MORE: Jagmeet Singh and the newest new NDP

Still, Singh’s tactics have worked when harnessed to his own singular knack for projecting energy and authenticity. Adapting them to work in 338 federal ridings for candidates of indeterminate emotional resonance and popularity is a bigger challenge.

Not everything transfers from the provincial to the federal level, or from a leadership campaign to a general election. “It’s different when you’re in the driver’s seat, and barreling towards something,” says Jesse Brady, a spokesperson under both Layton and Mulcair, and one of the campaign managers for Charlie Angus’s unsuccessful leadership bid this year.

Long before the 2019 election campaign, the leader’s attention will be needed on Parliament Hill (Singh is not yet an MP and has no immediate plans to seek a seat in a by-election). Mismanaging parliamentary basics drains energy away from campaign preparations.

READ MORE: Jagmeet Singh’s rookie blunders

The bilingualism issue, combined with poor poll numbers and Singh’s absence from the House, led to reports of grumbling in NDP ranks. The party lost vote share in four December by-elections, including in Scarborough where Singh was born and a member of his leadership campaign team was the candidate. Asked about the results, NDP MP Matthew Dubé noted that the “transition” was still underway and the new team’s strategy had yet to be implemented.

New deputy director of communications Dave Weatherall says a learning curve is normal for any new leader. He says Singh is a quick study, giving the example of the improvement in his French over the course of the leadership campaign.

“It took Jack seven years from the moment he was elected leader … for the Orange Wave to come to fruition,” notes Weatherall, who previously worked for the party under Layton and on the 2015 campaign. Of course, Layton did not announce a “run for prime minister” the day he won the leadership, as Singh did.

But Ian Davey, who was instrumental in Michael Ignatieff’s rise to the Liberal leadership and served as his chief of staff in opposition, predicts Singh’s recent travails will be swiftly forgotten. Davey says an opposition party facing a popular majority government gets antsy, and its MPs are prone to fretting that their party isn’t getting its message out. Davey says Singh’s team needs to discount bumps in the road and focus on the essentials they’ll need in the 2019 campaign. “You need money and you need memberships to fight an election.”

And in those critical categories, Singh led the field during the leadership contest. But his opponents in 2019 will be much better resourced: the Liberals and Conservatives have historically far out-raised the NDP. Mohamed acknowledges that campaigning costs money, but insists his boss is an “incredible fundraiser,” and that his ability to connect with people will attract volunteers and donors.

Ignatieff’s original team was ousted a year into Ignatieff’s run as opposition leader. Coverage painted the deposed group as novice Torontonians. Davey disputes those characterizations, but allows that “politics does get driven by perception.” There’s only so much a team can do to propel their boss forward, Davey says. “The staff ultimately doesn’t make the leader, the leader makes the staff.”

If he’s right, the reputation of Singh’s team will rest on his ability to deliver the NDP big gains in 2019, and not just on their strategy.

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