Categorized | Canadian Politics

Jagmeet Singh, the social media star who wants to take over the NDP

Posted on 28 May 2017 by admin

The 38-year-old MPP has finally embarked on his quest to replace Tom Mulcair as NDP leader. Can he do it?

OTTAWA—Jagmeet Singh speaks to his phone, which captures video of his smiling face in front of the Gothic facade of Canada’s Parliament.

“Sup everybody?!” he asks, addressing his audience of 47,000 on Instagram.

“I can never get over how cool that looks right there in the background — Look at that! So nice!”

It was the Ontario politician’s debut on the Hill, the day after he declared his candidacy for the federal NDP leadership at a rally in Brampton, where he has held a seat at the provincial level since 2011. Through the day, Singh expounded the broad strokes of his vision in a series of interviews and periodically updated his online audience in the upbeat cadence that has become his trademark.

This is campaigning Singh-style: a mixture of millennial colloquialism and social media posturing with earnest appeals for justice and a more inclusive Canada.

Whether it can win him the mantle of NDP leader, or subsequently help him wrench power from Justin Trudeau, is an open question.

What’s clearer at this point is that his style, both sartorial and as a politician, has earned him some hype. Good luck finding an article about him that doesn’t mention his fancy menswear — his proclivity for tailored suits once landed him in the pages of GQ — or social media prowess.

“His team has been able to build a pre-campaign buzz,” said Karl Bélanger, a longtime activist who has worked for Jack Layton and current leader Thomas Mulcair, commenting on the months of speculation about Singh’s candidacy.

 “Every campaign was taking him seriously and waiting for him to make his move,” Bélanger said.

“(The race) is shifting into a third gear.”

With five months to go before New Democrats vote, Singh welcomes the early attention he’s received. The task now is to transform his lustre in some political circles into support from party members and later, if all goes according to plan, the Canadian electorate.

He sat down with the Star for a wide-ranging interview at the National Press Building in Ottawa. He wore one of his signature, bespoke suits and a pink turban, which he unwrapped and replaced with an orange one partway through the interview. Conveniently enough, Singh explained, orange is both the Sikh colour of celebration and the shade of choice for the party he wants to lead.

“If people see that I’m dynamic and exciting and approachable, that’s a good thing,” Singh said.

“But I want to get beyond that, to getting to the point where we don’t only talk about and campaign on progressive ideas, we actually implement them. … Not just that feel-good appearance, but we have that feel-good policy and substance that’s going to back it up.”

Singh, who is now 38, was born in Scarborough as the eldest of three children, but grew up in Windsor after a brief stint living in Newfoundland.

He entered public life in 2011, when he ran federally for Jack Layton’s NDP. But he wasn’t carried to Ottawa with the Orange Wave. Instead, Singh landed at Queen’s Park that year as part of an NDP caucus that held the balance of power in Dalton McGuinty’s minority Liberal government. He was the first MPP in Ontario to wear a turban and also the first NDP politician to win a seat in Peel Region.

Coupled with his re-election in 2014, when he grew his share of the vote even as several NDP seats in the Greater Toronto Area flipped to the Liberals under Premier Kathleen Wynne, Singh positions his breakthrough in Peel Region as a harbinger for what he believes he can do as federal NDP leader — win.

Singh also had thoughts on the 2015 campaign under Mulcair, in which the NDP appeared poised to jump from Official Opposition to government, only to crash back into third place. Singh said the frequently heard analysis that Trudeau outflanked the NDP and stole left-leaning voters highlights how his party’s progressive policies — national child care and pharmacare, for instance — weren’t properly communicated.

Mulcair simply didn’t “connect” with Canadians, he said.

“At the end of the day, there wasn’t an emotional connection.”

Singh said he’s demonstrated that his style of campaigning can fix that.

“We’ve used social media in a unique and interesting way. We’ve put forward content that’s interesting, that’s fun, but that’s also packed with substance and ideas and values,” he said.

“We’ll use the strategies we’ve already used, but use them on a larger scale.”

Singh’s pitch to the party membership is that he’s the sole candidate that can bring back voters who ditched the NDP for Trudeau’s Liberals in the last election and also broaden the party’s appeal to people who’ve never supported it before. He argued he can speak to everyone from urban cyclists and artists to new Canadians from diverse cultures and indigenous peoples.

Brad Lavigne, a longtime NDP strategist who was campaign manager for the Orange Wave election in 2011, told the Star that this is why he’s volunteering for Singh’s leadership.

“He’s got the ability to connect with a cross-section of Canadians,” he said.

Two potential obstacles for Singh include his status as an outsider in the parliamentary precinct, as well as what Bélanger said was his lack of notoriety in Quebec, a key province in any federal election that provided the bulk of Layton’s breakthrough in 2011.

Singh also said he hasn’t decided when or where he’ll run federally if he wins the leadership, and whether he’ll still try to come to Ottawa as an NDP MP if he loses.

On the caucus front, Singh said he will win support by showing he can draw in people who’ve never voted NDP before. Essentially: build it and they will come. Plus, as Lavigne pointed out, Layton didn’t have significant caucus support when he won the leadership in 2003.

Asked how he would win votes in Quebec, Singh expanded on a story he told at his campaign launch rally. In Grade 7 or 8, he realized there were parallels between the experiences of French Quebecers and his Punjabi-speaking parents in India, before they emigrated to Canada.

“They faced a scenario where their language wasn’t respected,” he said. “Understanding my parents helped me understand Quebec, and understanding Quebec helped me understand my parents.

“You can’t help but be compelled by that.”

Singh acknowledged that his narrative might not be enough, and said he will roll out the specifics of his policy platform in the coming months. For now, he would only highlight broad areas of focus: electoral reform; climate change; reconciliation with indigenous peoples; and inequality.

He accused the Liberals of unjustifiably accepting precarious work as the new status quo, breaking their vows to change the electoral system and treat indigenous peoples with respect and of showing a lack of leadership by maintaining the previous government’s greenhouse gas reduction targets.

“They sold something that looked good and sounded good, and at the end of the day it wasn’t actually what (voters) were told it would be,” he said.

“That’s the sense of dissatisfaction that people have, and I think it’s going to grow.”

In other words, the path to power for Singh’s NDP will be to convince enough people who voted Liberal in 2015 that Trudeau has betrayed them.

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