Stewart Prest: Singh wants to do to Trudeau what Liberals did to Mulcair
The NDP is in much better shape this time than last, and has a positive message and popular leader promising more sunny ways.
By: Stewart Prest
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a polarizing prime minister, disliked by half the country, heads into an election looking for a new majority. The campaign is rudderless, though, with voters unsure just why they’re being asked to support the party once again. His opponent, a decent man by all accounts, struggles to keep his party united in his first campaign as leader, and to connect with voters. Caught between the need to appeal to moderates and stay true to the party’s roots, the campaign pleases no one, and ultimately fizzles as well.
To just about everyone’s surprise, it is the party that began the campaign in third place that ultimately prevails. Led by a charismatic leader, the party rides to power on a campaign built around an enthusiastic message of change and optimism that resonates with a country desperate for change, and looking for reasons to feel good about itself again.
That was the story of 2015, of course. A youthful Justin Trudeau leapfrogged a struggling Tom Mulcair and the NDP before vanquishing the Stephen Harper-led Conservatives. Along the way, Trudeau talked a lot about change, positivity, and a return to “sunny ways.” For a country desperate to feel good about itself, that message resonated.
If you squint a bit, though, you can see some parts of that story in place in 2021 as well. Now, of course, Trudeau is the incumbent, while Jagmeet Singh and the NDP are surprisingly well-placed to play the role of spoiler this election.
Obviously, as the third-place party in what conventional wisdom has pronounced a two-horse race, a lot of things will have to go right for the NDP to really make some noise.
Less than a week into the election, however, a lot of things already are going right.
The Liberal government still leads in the polls, but that lead is already a little less comfortable than just prior to the election. A new poll from Abacus, for instance, has the Liberals back in minority territory, and it’s the NDP picking up the slack.
Singh is riding a prolonged wave of personal support. He outpolls both Trudeau and Conservative leader Erin O’Toole in terms of personal popularity by a considerable margin. Canadians like him. Canadians under the age of 35 are positively smitten.
Look a little deeper, and you can see why. Singh lacks any of the considerable baggage that Trudeau has acquired over the last six years. His social media presence is effective, particularly on platforms that skew young, such as TikTok.
Moreover, he has a party that by all accounts is united squarely behind him. Questions about party unity that dogged Singh prior to the 2019 campaign are now a distant memory.
The campaign itself looks to be polished. The NDP opening on Sunday was arguably the most effective of the major parties, with Singh making his pitch to voters in front of a busy urban cityscape — worlds away from the low-energy studio from which O’Toole launched the Conservative campaign.
Singh seems comfortable in his own skin as well. He is a consistently friendly, upbeat presence on the campaign trail. He describes himself as a “hopeless optimist” and it doesn’t seem a stretch. Singh appears at ease whatever the setting. His presence of mind and empathy in the face of unpleasant heckling has long been one of his most apparent personal qualities.
Moreover, the NDP platform includes a number ofextremely popular policies. The vast majority ofCanadians, including 64% Conservative voters, supports the idea of a wealth tax. The 99% really would like to see the 1% pay a greater share. Universal pharmacare is also overwhelmingly popular, with one poll last year finding 86% of Canadians support the idea.
Commitments to expand employment insurance and offer paid sick leave speak to Canadians’ affordability concerns, particularly those in more marginalized and unstable working situations — not a small group as the pandemic continues to disrupt Canadians’ lives. Child care is popular as well. Recent Liberal announcements on the child care front mean the NDP will have to find ways to distinguish themselves on the issue, but neither can the Liberals easily campaign against them on the issue.
For Trudeau, sunny ways are now far in the rearview mirror. The party and leader are playing the classic card of the incumbent, offering a steady hand to see the country through its present trials.
As plans go, the Liberals’ election gambit was a decent one: schedule it for late summer, timed to land just as the country was cautiously, optimistically creeping out of its defensive COVID-19 stance. It had worked for other incumbent governments during the pandemic, and the Liberals earlier this summer had a comfortable lead in the polls. Why not strike, and try to recapture a majority?
That was then, though. Now, Canada is officially in the fourth wave of the pandemic. Inflation is on the rise. With fall just around the corner, many are feeling more anxious about the direction of the country.
The Liberal campaign has already lost some of the pre-campaign momentum. The party’s best attempt to create a wedge issue against Conservatives, by announcing a muscular new response to COVID that includes mandatory vaccines for federal workers and travellers, has bogged down amid questions as to just how mandatory those vaccines would be.
In the absence of a clear issue, Canadians continue to ask just why we’re having this election. For those grown tired of the Liberal brand and its leader, an election without purpose beyond securing a new Liberal majority might prove to be a bridge too far.
If that’s the case, those voters will be looking for an alternative. Given how polarized the country is, many progressives will be uncomfortable throwing in with the Conservatives, and their uncertain campaign so far seems unlikely to change many minds.
The Greens, for their part, look to be sitting this election out. The party executive seems far more interested in unseating its own leader than in winning seats, and leader Annamie Paul has resolved to spend virtually all her time and energy on her own riding of Toronto Centre.
That leaves the NDP with its upbeat and baggage-free leader, thus far error-free campaign, and a platform of popular promises.
Again, it’s all early days. A lot has to go right for the NDP to go anywhere. Scrutiny and attacks will only increase if the party does start to gain ground. There will be questions about how the country can afford the party’s expensive promises amid concerns of rising debt and mounting inflation.
That’s a problem the party would love to have, however. And if the Liberals and Conservatives continue to flounder in the next few weeks, don’t be surprised if more voters start asking themselves a question: why not the NDP?
Stewart Prest is a lecturer in political science at Simon Fraser University. He teaches and research a variety of areas, including Canadian politics and institutions, comparative politics, civil conflict and contentious politics, and foreign policy. He has a PhD in political science from the University of British Columbia. He is on Twitter @stewartprest.
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