No doubt that the federal Liberals followed the results of the New Democratic Party’s leadership contest with great trepidation.
Jagmeet Singh’s election is a monumental breakthrough for Canada’s community of visible minorities. But Singh represents a formidable new presence on Canada’s political stage for even more reasons.
Singh has that certain “je ne sais quoi” that political operatives search for. He’s emotive and evocative. He’s a comfortable and accomplished communicator, one of the few politicians who can explain ideas in ways that generate interest and support.
Plus, he’s just a downright interesting person, one who sometimes rode his bike to work at Queen’s Park and who practices martial arts during his off hours.
Perhaps even more importantly, Singh has a natural political intuition that has allowed him to navigate several daunting political hurdles in his young career.
Singh has many of the same attributes that vaulted Justin Trudeau from leader of the third party into the country’s most important political position in just one election.
It’s easy to underestimate the threat. Trudeau’s qualities were also initially derided. Being emotive was mocked as being weak. Evocative was portrayed as shallow. Opponents were condescending in criticizing Trudeau’s comfort with communicating with Canadians.
The critics were wrong — at least about what Canadians were looking for in October 2015.
The same criticisms that were levelled at Trudeau have been levelled at Singh. While it hasn’t begun at a high volume, the groundwork is being laid. Media reports have already contained rumblings about Singh’s lack of experience, lack of familiarity with federal files, and lack of interest in learning more.
Meanwhile, less noticed in the two years since the Liberals formed the government has been the stability of the Conservative Party. Its fundraising has remained remarkably strong. Polling consistently shows the party with support of 30 to 33 per cent of Canadians, essentially the same level of support it garnered on election day in 2015.
This means that a third of Canadian voters have not budged from the Conservative Party even during its nadir, suggesting there is little room for the Liberals to grow on the right.
By contrast, support for the New Democrats has stagnated since their loss on election day. The party has since struggled to gain attention and to remain united.
The Liberals are keenly aware of the limits of growth on their right wing, and equally aware of the opportunities on the left. That opportunity has driven a decision to take a bold, activist stance on a variety of issues, including Indigenous rights and the environment.
Without a leader, and with Trudeau’s government encroaching on its territory, the NDP has been pushed to the margins of the debate.
Trudeau has a remarkable effect on the national press gallery. It’s hard to imagine reporters would have written stories about Stephen Harper’s socks or Paul Martin’s affinity for Star Wars.
The Prime Minister has an amazing ability to drive media coverage and control the narrative, and the NDP has suffered for it.
It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Without political relevance, the party drifted downward in the polls. Without support in the polls, the party became less politically relevant. The Liberals gobbled up left-leaning supporters.
Enter Jagmeet Singh.
Singh has a similar effect on the media as Trudeau. His is an engaging speaker and can control the narrative. He is the game-changer the NDP needed.
The media coverage of Singh during the leadership contest dwarfed that of his competitors, and the coverage following his election was some of the most positive the NDP has received since Thomas Mulcair’s surge early in the last election campaign.
Singh’s ability to garner the kind of attention that has been paid mainly to the Liberal party constitutes a real threat to prospects for another Liberal majority government.
But New Democrats should also be wary.
Ottawa is not Queen’s Park, and many a politician has stumbled in their transition from politics in a provincial capital to the House of Commons.
That said, Singh has a legitimate shot at taking back for the New Democrats the supporters who drifted toward Trudeau.
Liberal political strategists trying to stake the party in the centre face a scary prospect: a party with dedicated supporters on the right and a resurgent party on the left.
The next two years may be more interesting than political observers had bet on.