They have a charismatic leader with good favourability ratings, an on-trend TikTok account and no history of ethical snafus. Their headline policies have mainstream support at a time when runaway government spending barely moves the needle. During a pandemic, they have pushed a scandal-ridden minority government to expand popular social programs with a direct impact on voters.
Now is, in theory, a perfect time for Canada’s federal New Democrats to shine. The labour movement is on the rise. Environmental issues are widely recognized as urgent. Socialism is attracting star power, at least south of the border. Yet at this critical juncture, when it should be surging, the NDP’s polling numbers have barely budged, sputtering at around 17 per cent over the course of 2020. The failure to capitalize on this moment ultimately falls at the feet of Jagmeet Singh. As strategists try to pull him in wildly different directions, what is his plan to turn things around? Can he?
No matter how you slice it, the biggest, most obvious challenge is that today’s Liberals, like their predecessors, are wizards at campaigning on progressive ideas, even if they only take baby steps towards implementing them.
Then there is the persistent narrative of a downward spiral. Just nine years ago, Jack Layton formed an NDP official opposition for the first time, with more than 100 MPs. Today, the NDP is relegated to fourth-party status. In the national imagination, the more likely government-in-waiting is a Conservative party whose leader has barely made a first impression.
Three years into his own leadership, Singh still has his work cut out for him in clearly articulating what he stands for and why the NDP should be trusted to govern. It is no easy task, but as he tells Maclean’s: “If I expected this to be easy, I would have become a Liberal.”
Though staffers on Parliament Hill are convinced of party unity—and Singh of a “massive unity”—that challenge extends to his own base, and his ability to galvanize the left in general, especially as a new Green party leader stakes a claim on progressive turf.
Every good soldier will say that internal debate is healthy, but some worry that divisions over the best way forward will cause people to turn away at a time when the NDP has every reason to think it can make gains. No road map, whether a hard push to the left, a play to the centre or a doubling down on the shaky status quo, can possibly please everyone.
But the time for Jagmeet Singh to draw his battle lines is now. There are three broad camps vying for his attention. So which competing version of the NDP will he bring into the next election?
Be the Bernie Sanders you want to see in the world
The vision: Imagine the NDP as a populist incubator of Canadian versions of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Its leader is unafraid to rail at establishment elites, reclaim the word “socialism,” build deeper roots with activist movements and run elections on her party’s boldest ideas. This version of the party does not concern itself with polling or punditry. Its goal is to be principled above all else.
The case: Activists describe a belief that central powers in the NDP are sacrificing principle for aspirations of power. They report a thirst for a Canadian politician to take on the language and conviction of characters like Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. Someone to be a “confident warrior” for the working class, as British Columbia writer Vyas Saran puts it.
The desire for an edgier brand of politician has led to wandering eyes—some party members say they were part of an entryism operation in the Green party’s leadership race to support “eco-socialist” candidates like runner-up Dimitri Lascaris.
“These eco-socialists are interesting as a Canadian who’s worried about the left alternative to another 150 years of Liberal-Conservative hegemony,” says Chris Markevich, a former NDP staffer and host of podcast Left Behind: Socialism in the Age of Right-Wing Populism. “Right now, other than the fact I’m a member, I don’t feel like I have a home politically.”
Singh’s 2019 pitch was already “the most left-wing platform we’ve seen from a federal party in politics, at least in my lifetime,” notes Christo Aivalis, a political and labour historian at the University of Toronto. But many of Singh’s critics on the left argue he didn’t go far enough.
They note that recent polling has consistently shown majority support for many of the NDP’s policies: universal pharmacare, a wealth tax, national child care, free post-secondary tuition. So why not run on all of those ideas? Why not go a step further and take Canadians at their word on more audacious climate change policies? Why not, at the very least, be clearer about where the party stands on pipelines and Indigenous sovereignty, even if it means criticizing provincial counterparts?
Members voted in favour of adding free tuition to the policy book in 2018, but that didn’t make it into last year’s election platform. That’s just one example of why many in the party grassroots feel disconnected from leadership, says Sam Hersh, who has served on the NDP’s federal council. “Members are also, to a certain extent, angry because the only times they are reached out to are during election campaigns or when the NDP needs money,” Hersh says. “There are people who are going to tear up their membership.”
Singh’s staff deny that they’ve heard any complaints along those lines, saying he participates in frequent calls and video chats with members. But those engagements don’t always seem fruitful to people on the other end. “They should be asking us the questions, but that’s not how the meetings go,” says Sarah Jama, a community organizer in Hamilton who served as the party’s executive representative from its Persons Living with DisAbility Committee.
Last year, Jama helped elect Matthew Green in Hamilton, where he’d served as its first Black city councillor. She and others who say they want to see a bolder party are heartened by Green’s more activist approach to politics, as well as that of Leah Gazan, another rookie MP in Winnipeg Centre.
In an interview, Gazan describes herself as a “proud socialist.” She goes out of her way to explain that a recent motion on universal basic income and a recent bill on climate policy were both developed with myriad community groups. “It’s about people and the movement,” she says. “That is a people’s bill and I see my role as uplifting, in my platform, the people’s voice.”
The LEAP manifesto, which energized the left in 2016, was endorsed in principle by a majority of NDP members at the same convention that turfed Thomas Mulcair as leader. But many of its ideas were considered untenable by party leadership.
The NDP, too concerned with placating attacks from the right, is “still a little bit too scared of their own shadow,” argues Martin Lukacs, one of manifesto’s co-authors. “It’s preventing them from unleashing the kind of left-wing populist energy that this moment and the period we’re living in calls for.”
Lukacs sees parallels between LEAP and the Green New Deal promoted by Ocasio-Cortez in the U.S. He points to Gazan, a long-time community activist, as emblematic of what a Canadian version of AOC could look like, but fears she is held back by an ethos of timidity in party leadership.
“People ask, ‘Where is Canada’s AOC?’ But I think AOC, as she has acknowledged herself, was only possible because she came out of a cauldron of social movement energy,” Lukacs says. “I think that racialized, working-class, fierce candidates of the AOC mould will emerge when we have a more insurgent challenge that comes from within the NDP.”
The caveat: Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn built large movements, but they didn’t win. The American and British contexts are different, sure, and many of the young activists Maclean’s spoke to actually seem content with the idea of not winning. They’d rather be principled than focused on power. But at the end of the day, how will you get anything done if you can’t get elected?
Play to centre stage
The vision: Consider an NDP that is open to compromise and incremental change. It doesn’t need everyone to agree on everything. By appealing to swing voters, it seeks to supplant the perpetual two-party system. It is willing to inch toward the middle and supplant the Liberals in order to become the clear alternative to conservatism. Its goal is to govern.
The case: Although she is by no means advocating for a push toward the centre, take it from Jennifer Howard, Singh’s chief of staff and a former minister of finance of Manitoba: the goal of the NDP is to use political power to achieve its ideals. Period. And that means talking to ordinary people about what their priorities are, not ramming the entire policy book down their throats as soon as they open the door.
“I’ve had the privilege of serving in an NDP government where those policy dreams and the reality of getting stuff done for people meet,” she says. “And I think the way you deal with that as a New Democrat is you always have to have your eye on the big vision and the big goal and then you have to plod out the path to get there. And the path is one step at a time.”
For a brief time in 2015 it looked as though Thomas Mulcair, whose roots were in the Quebec Liberal Party, could win an election by taking a moderate approach and looking like the grown-up in the room. But along came a sparkling Justin Trudeau who cared not about balancing the budget. Christo Aivalis, the labour historian, argues that Mulcair lost the election on a perception, rather than a reality, that he was the less progressive option. “You can’t just say Mulcair ran to the centre and got walloped and that’s the answer,” Aivalis says. “Jack Layton didn’t run a very left-wing campaign in 2011.”
Many partisans saw those couple of elections, under leaders trying to appeal to a broader public, as the height of the party’s potential. “There was a moment for the NDP, and for many reasons the party was not able to capitalize on that opportunity and transform itself as a real party of power in this country, a party able to govern,” says Karl Bélanger, a long-time staffer for Layton and Mulcair, a brief interim national director of the NDP and the current president of the Douglas-Coldwell Foundation. “The party may soon not be considered a contender for power if they don’t up their performances. And that’s too bad.”
As the nation’s policy landscape shifts to the left during a pandemic, and the NDP’s offerings under Jagmeet Singh bring it well to the left of where Layton and Mulcair were campaigning from, another strange dynamic could begin to be at play. Though unions have typically been crucial backers of the NDP and it has always thought of itself as the natural home for blue-collar workers, some of those workers are feeling left behind. And it’s the Conservative party, as it reinvents its own brand, that is making a play for their support.
Its new leader Erin O’Toole’s first speech in the House of Commons this fall contained an explicit appeal to unions. “Organized labour helps build strong communities” where “workers know that someone has their back,” O’Toole said. That’s by no means a traditional conservative pitch. Did he sense an opening?
Cameron Holmstrom, a decade-long federal staffer, worries that the NDP is moving away from the rural communities and prairie workers that traditionally formed its base. Holmstrom, a consultant at Bluesky Strategy Group since 2018, points to a United Steelworkers local in Regina that turned away from the NDP last year after backing them in 2015, citing, in part, Singh’s opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline.
“The Steelworkers are the most pro-NDP union you can come across. They used to represent our staff on Parliament Hill,” Holmstrom says. “People who naturally should be allies of the NDP are now moving away because the NDP’s universe is shifting more toward urban environmentalists.”
Markevich, the podcast host, thinks the NDP has failed to articulate how it would bring workers into the conversation about climate change policy and ending a reliance on fossil fuels. “That’s where the left is finding itself confused and disoriented. They cannot unify workers and environmentalists under one single message.”
To Holmstrom’s mind, although climate policy is important, the solution is to speak more to workers than to environmentalists. Otherwise, the base will bleed.
His worry is that an increasingly “acute” push to bring the party even further to the left—partly from the party’s leftmost wing and partly from outside agitators—is at odds with the priority to form government. “If you’re not trying to form a government, then what the heck are you doing?” he says. “You’re going to have to go a little bit closer to the centre to do it. You’re not going to get that chance by going hard the other way.”
The caveat: The party’s most recent attempt at leaning toward the centre didn’t go all that well. And the more the NDP overlaps with the Liberal party, even just rhetorically, the harder it will be to differentiate themselves. “It’s almost like two franchises competing with the same menu offerings,” says Liberal strategist Greg MacEachern. The joke goes: New Democrats are just Liberals in a hurry.
Have a little patience
The vision: The party today and its key influencers in Ottawa believe it’s possible to strike a delicate balance between a gradual leftward tilt under Jagmeet Singh and an attempt at broad enough appeal to make him prime minister. Give him time. He is still learning. His popularity will grow—and peak at a time when Canadians will be ready to take a chance on something new.
The case: The question may not be whether the NDP needs to be more moderate to win or more leftist to be principled. Perhaps that debate is a red herring, and the question is: how do they sell people on what they’re already doing?
Even Singh’s critics are cautiously optimistic based on the last few months. His negotiations in a minority Parliament led to a significant expansion of this year’s Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), the creation of a similar emergency benefit for students and the broadened availability of paid sick leave.
But it’s awfully hard to tell if Canadians even know about those victories. “It’s a tough message to get out,” says the party’s executive director, Anne McGrath, who was party president under Layton, national director under Mulcair and chief of staff to Alberta premier Rachel Notley. “People’s primary preoccupation is very immediate. They’re not necessarily tied up in the minutia of who’s doing what to get these things to happen.”
If people can’t point to specific policies, “that’s okay,” says Singh. “It’s not about credit. It’s about making sure it gets done. I think people will know that we fought for them.”
More recently, in a game of chicken over a confidence vote, the Liberals forced the NDP into giving the impression that it would be willing to stand down on its policy demands if that meant preventing an election. Singh attempted to frame his voting with the Liberals as a bid to save Canadians from going to the polls when they’d rather not, but it was a challenging exercise. “I think they were trying to be the adults in the room, but it is a tough pitch to make when everybody says that you’re doing it only because you’re low in the polls, you’re weak and therefore you’re seen as folding,” says Bélanger, the party’s former interim national director.
The NDP is just getting back on its feet after a difficult few years. The party faces major organizational challenges in Quebec. It’s down to one MP amid a resurgent Bloc Québécois and, according to Bélanger, “nobody believes the NDP is coming back any time soon.” It is still in debt from the 2019 federal election, although it expects to pay off its loans by the end of 2020.
But things are now “absolutely looking up,” says McGrath, who admits that “there’s no question that we went into that last election in probably the worst shape I’ve seen.”
Howard, Singh’s chief of staff, says: “We’re better financially. Our fundraising is better and stronger. I think the cohesiveness of the party, the unity of the party, is stronger.”
Like many inexperienced leaders, Singh made early mistakes, says a current staffer, who spoke on the condition their name not be used. He initially surrounded himself with “yes men,” prompting an exodus of staff in Ottawa before building a stronger team that included party veterans whose advice carried more heft. Rifts with caucus, even leading up to last year’s election, have been resolved. McGrath and Howard both draw comparisons to Jack Layton and his slow rise to popularity. It took four elections for Layton to grow the party from 13 seats to its best-ever result.
“For years, Jack was very promising, but not as well-known as we needed him to be. And by a certain point in his leadership it became impossible to walk a block without getting stopped about 20 times. And that is happening much earlier in Jagmeet’s leadership,” says McGrath.
Polls have always told a good story about Canadians’ support for New Democratic ideas, if not for the party itself. That’s why party brass generally pay more attention to leader favourability and party favourability than to “actual issues,” according to the current staffer. Voter intention is hovering around 18 per cent, which is about where Layton was before his meteoric rise in the 2011 election. Singh’s favourability sits at 43 per cent, according to a recent Angus Reid poll (though unfavourable views were almost as high, at 41 per cent).
Singh is recognizable. He appeals to youth. He cuts an inspiring figure, especially to racialized Canadians. And he can compete with Trudeau on matters of style. But he has taken heavy criticism for seeming vague on policy positions. In his interview with Maclean’s, Singh skirted around specifics even when asked broad questions about what has defined his leadership, and what differentiates his party most distinctly from the Liberals or the Greens.
Asked how he can strategically re-establish the NDP as a natural home for the left, he expressed his own deep belief for universal programs and said “we have to come together to fight” the pandemic. “I’m very confident that people can see in me, and in the work that we’ve done, and in our party, the belief in a real way of how we can build a better way.” Asked how he can convince voters that his party is ready to govern, he pivoted back to examples of pandemic victories. “People are seeing us, seeing me as a leader, us as a team, as folks that have been fighting for them, have been on their side,” Singh said. “If we were in government, we would be able to get a lot more done. Imagine what we could do if people elected more New Democrats.”
Sometimes the unwillingness to corner himself into a specific position makes sense, because of regional contradictions within the NDP. But other times the problem seems to be in a genuine indecision, or in his delivery, which perhaps betrays an instinct to value good vibes over controversy.
If Singh’s staff have one complaint, it’s that sometimes he is too “chill” when they’d like him to get fired up. His tone is unwaveringly chill—cheerful, even—and he won’t admit to being exhausted at the NDP’s Sisyphean uphill struggle. It’s a hopeful attitude that seems to have served him better on the campaign trail than in the push and pull of Parliament.
“There’s got to be a joyful struggle,” he says. “That’s my motto, having happiness and joy while doing difficult, hard work that’s so important. I have a joy tank, a happiness tank, that I always keep filled.”
The caveat: It’s tough to imagine the NDP giving their leader three more elections to prove himself, especially if he doesn’t make gains next time—and especially if the Liberals end up with the kind of majority support that other governments have seen during pandemic-era provincial elections. Even if party members do pin their hopes on Singh for the foreseeable future, relying on a cult of personality means being able to pin that personality down. No matter which adventure he chooses, Singh will need to define himself beyond being a nice dude, a good person and someone who will “fight for Canadians” in vague terms.
CORRECTION, Nov. 12, 2020: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a United Steelworkers local in Regina endorsed the Conservatives in the 2019 election. It has also been updated to reflect Christo Aivalis’s current employment.
This article appears in print in the December 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The battle for the left.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.