Hello and welcome to the first article of Slanted, a series about politics, current and historical. In this inaugural edition of Slanted, we’ll be discussing the recent election of Jagmeet Singh to the leadership of our federal New Democratic Party.
First, some history. The New Democratic Party, hereafter referred to as the NDP, grew out of Tommy Douglas’ Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. He and his party introduced the now ubiquitous idea of socialized healthcare to the country, but after that, enjoyed few victories, and reformed into the NDP in 1961. The NDP languished in opposition as ‘Canada’s Conscience’, recognized as principled idealists of the Left, but not seen as a real party of government.
That all changed in 2011. Jack Layton, the NDP’s then-leader, was bolstered by the collapse of the Bloc Québécois and the decline of the Liberals, leading to a so-called ‘Orange Crush’ of NDP triumph. Their success was concentrated in Québec, where they gained a remarkable 58 seats.
Layton then tragically passed away from cancer. The NDP elected Thomas Mulcair as his successor. He led his party into the 2015 election, which one could charitably call a disappointment. The party lost more than half of its seats, including many in Québec, and Mulcair was soon forced to resign.
The NDP’s collapse was due to a multitude of factors, but chief among these in Québec was Mulcair’s refusal to condemn the wearing of the hijab during the oath of citizenship. Québécois, noted for their steadfast defence of secularism (although I would call this somewhere between state atheism and islamophobia), were angered, and switched to the Liberals en masse.
So here we are. The NDP are once more the third party in Parliament, once more ‘Canada’s Conscience’. With Mulcair’s forced resignation, the party needed a new leader, a new voice. And it got one.
Jagmeet Singh was born in 1979 in Scarborough, Ontario, to Sikh immigrants. He worked as a lawyer before becoming involved in progressive politics in 2011. He became an MPP in Ontario’s provincial legislature in that year. He entered the leadership race as a virtual unknown, but ended up winning on the first ballot of the race in a landslide. His rise may be compared with that of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK’s Labour Party; both were relative unknowns who ran chiefly as afterthoughts, but ended up winning handily. In any case, Singh is secure atop the NDP. But what does he bring to the table?
Singh’s election signals a shift to the left for the NDP; Mulcair was widely seen as a centrist compromiser within and without the party. Singh, by contrast, is full-blooded in both policy and rhetoric. However, a leftwards shift may not be the correct tack for the NDP at the moment. With the conservative outcry over the Omar Khadr case and, more recently, the closing of tax loopholes for businesses, the Overton Window seems to be shifting rightwards once more. While a Liberal government will still likely return at the next election, it is unlikely that the NDP will make any major gains. But then again, no one expected the Orange Crush either. The NDP should never be discounted.
Singh is also, remarkably, the first leader of colour of a major Canadian political party. This, unfortunately, represents a double edged sword for his party. In Toronto and Vancouver, his immigrant experience will doubtless garner more votes, gaining some seats in these critical metropolises. But in Québec, Singh’s extremely public display of religiosity will draw condemnation from ‘secular’ Québécois who are hypersensitive to the reemergence of religion in public life. The vagaries of our electoral system, however, will mean that though Singh will likely have a net gain in vote share, he’ll likely lose seats overall. This is because the NDP are far more likely to lose rural Québec seats to other parties than to gain in the Toronto suburbs where the Liberals form an essential one-party state.
Singh, for all his youthful style and swagger, is not likely to lead the NDP into their first ever government. His more important legacy will be his breaking of our political colour barrier. He may open the door only a smidgen, but one hopes that this will be enough for further progress in this country’s long grapple with issues of race and identity. In short, what Jagmeet Singh represents, is more important than who Jagmeet Singh is.
By: Kevin Downey