Jagmeet Singh Becomes Federal NDP Leader

Yesterday, Jagmeet Singh decisively won the leadership of the Federal New Democratic Party (NDP) on the first round of balloting. With 53.8 percent of the vote, he easily bested his nearest opponent, the Member of Parliament for Timmins-James Bay, Charlie Angus, by nearly 34 percentage points. Singh’s decisive victory shocked observers who expected a much tighter race along with several rounds of voting. Sunday’s outcome completes a generational change in major party leadership and sets up a new dynamic for the upcoming 43rd Canadian federal election set to take place in October of 2019.

Who is Jagmeet Singh?

A 38-year-old lawyer, Jagmeet Singh has been an NDP member of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario since 2011, serving as Deputy Leader of that party since 2015. Singh grew up in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Windsor, Ontario before moving to Toronto to attend law school and practice law. He is the first visible minority candidate to be elected leader of a major federal political party.

What does he stand for?

Most of the media coverage of Mr. Singh’s campaign focussed on his strong organization and charismatic leadership style rather than that of a policy-intensive program. With that said, Mr. Singh did publish a detailed policy platform during the campaign. The platform contains commitments to a wide range of traditional NDP positions, including things like heath care and workers’ rights. In his campaign speeches and his victory speech, however, Singh highlighted the following issues that are likely to become centerpieces of his efforts to define himself and his party over the coming months:

  1. Climate change: More aggressive GHG reduction targets and rejection of both the Trans Mountain and Energy East pipelines to contrast with a Liberal government that has maintained the targets set by former Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.
  2. Tax Changes: Increasing taxes on both corporations and wealthy Canadians.
  3. Indigenous Reconciliation: Singh has committed to an ambitious and detailed program. This is an area where the new NDP leader feels the Liberals made big promises but didn’t deliver.
  4. Social justice: Ending what the former defence lawyer and now NDP leader perceives is the mistreatment of visible minorities at the hands of the police and within the justice system.
  5. Electoral reform: By promising to reform the electoral system, the NDP leader is hoping to cater to a base of support that may have felt betrayed by the federal Liberals who promised but never followed through on reform, once in office.

What does this mean for Canadian politics?

The election of a young, progressive, charismatic NDP leader poses a serious challenge to Liberal leader and current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In 2015, it was Trudeau who was the young, progressive, charismatic leader. He won by tacking left and attracting voters from the NDP, while at the same time managing to maintain support from more traditional, centrist Liberal voters. Over the last two years, however, many of those on the left who voted Liberal have become disillusioned. There are many who feel that Trudeau broke promises on electoral reform, Indigenous reconciliation, and environmental protection.

Trudeau’s retreat from his more left wing campaign promises has opened up ground for a strong NDP leader, and Singh appears to be the perfect candidate to seize this ground. If Singh can position himself as the true progressive, in contrast to a Liberal leader who says what progressives want to hear at election time but doesn’t follow through once in government, it may signal trouble for Trudeau’s coalition of voters that propelled him to victory in 2015.

Trudeau’s style and charisma, so appealing to many of his supporters, may no longer be the advantage that they once were against leaders like Harper and Mulcair. If Singh can go toe to toe with Trudeau on charisma and style, while simultaneously being a far more authentic voice on issues like racial and Indigenous justice, the NDP might be much more competitive in 2019.

Meanwhile, on his right flank, Trudeau faces a Conservative leader who, while nowhere as charismatic, can portray himself as the sole option for voters looking for fiscal responsibility and a steady hand in control of the government.

That doesn’t mean that Singh doesn’t face challenges. He has indicated that he will not immediately pursue a seat in the House of Commons, preferring to wait until the 2019 election. He will therefore have to rally his party and win over Canadians without the advantage of taking part in the daily Question Period in the House of Commons. He also faces challenges in Quebec, where two NDP MPs have promised to resign from caucus should Mr. Singh win and where the Party’s numbers have been on the decline since the 2015 Federal Election.

With the next election 24 months away, things just got a lot more interesting in Ottawa.