The New Face of the New Democrats
The NDP made history on October 1, 2017, when they named Jagmeet Singh as Thomas Mulcair’s successor and leader of the party. With this election victory, he became the first person of a visible minority group to be named leader of a Canadian federal political party on a permanent basis.
So who is Jagmeet Singh? When he isn’t gracing magazine covers for his sartorial elegance, riding his fixie around, or fighting YouTube personalities, he is the Member of Provincial Parliament for Bramalea—Gore—Malton in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, and former Deputy Leader of the Ontario NDP (he has announced he will resign as an MPP, but has not set a date). Prior to his election, he worked as a criminal lawyer, and ran an unsuccessful campaign for the overlapping federal riding in 2011. During his time in the Legislative Assembly, he was frequently tipped as a rising star for the New Democrats.
That said, there is considerable work to be done for Mr. Singh, who remains a newcomer to federal politics. Following his victory, a segment for CBC’s Power and Politics conducted by Terry Milewski began on a note of tension as the interviewer had just tweeted that the new leader requested the questions in advance.
The conclusion was just as rocky as the conversation was steered toward the 1985 Air India bombings. While there is no doubt that Milewski would not have engaged in that line of interrogation had he been sitting across from a successful NDP leadership candidate not named Jagmeet Singh, thought should be given to Team Singh’s media relations strategy, and how he ended up stating that he did not know who was behind the events when pressed to denounce posters honouring the bombings’ architect, Talwinder Singh Parmar.
This awkward moment also prompts further questions as to why he wasn’t prepared for a question in that vein, if not from media, then from opposition. It is no secret that Mr. Singh has been critical of the Indian government’s treatment of Sikhs, and it could be assumed that his comments on the matter could be repurposed for an attack ad in the future. It must have been assumed that he would inevitably be occupying the spotlight if victorious in his leadership bid, and it is a wonder that he could come across as unprepared when addressing this issue.
And yet, while he struggled with Milewski’s question, a previous incident provided a platform to demonstrate grace and composure in the lead up to NDP membership casting their ballots. When a heckler showed up at a Jagmeet and Greet in Brampton to ask: “When is your Sharia going to end?” he responded to the interruption by utilizing the opportunity to reinforce the brand his campaign team had developed: “With Love And Courage.” The video went viral, and weeks later he won the party leadership on the first ballot, with over fifty per cent of the vote.
Looking to 2019, the focus shifts to whether he will be able to build trust with voters and inspire a surge in support for the NDP, similar to Jack Layton’s 2011 Orange Crush in Quebec. Many are already speculating that he is an appealing option for young voters who backed Prime Minister Trudeau in the 2015 election; his presence on Snapchat since 2013 evidence of a social media strategy that certainly targets that demographic.
Despite his appeal to young voters, however, replicating the NDP’s 2011 success in Quebec seems unlikely at the moment, as even during the leadership race, the province’s values and compatibility with Singh’s religious beliefs were in question. That said, his popularity in Toronto and the surrounding area, where the South Asian community comprises the largest visible minority group, may lead to a significant boost in support for his party that is likely to cause many Liberal MPs seeking re-election to lose sleep.