If NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh loses the byelection in Burnaby South, more members of his caucus will likely opt not to run in 2019. But a win could trigger a national surge for the party.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on September 3, 2018.
OTTAWA—The New Democratic Party exodus continued last week, with two more veterans announcing they would not seek re-election.
Linda Duncan and Irene Mathyssen joined five others from three different provinces who have already announced they will not re-offer. One has already stepped down to run for mayor of Vancouver, which gives Jagmeet Singh a chance to finally get a seat in the House of Commons.
But what happens if Singh does not win the byelection? Could he be the first NDP leader to step down before he has even run in a single election?
The party is probably wondering why they dumped Thomas Mulcair after a single electoral loss. Mulcair would have made a much better foil for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in Parliament and on the hustings.
Singh has more than a year to go until the next election but the number of NDP members voting with their feet is growing exponentially. Sixteen per cent of the current caucus has announced retirement plans, with the number bound to swell in the next few months.
Singh’s star has not been shining very brightly. Most members base future political decisions on a combination of their personal ambition and their party’s potential for growth. Heading into the last election, Thomas Mulcair was running first. Polls were predicting he would be the next prime minister. But some major mid-campaign missteps put an end to that dream, and Mulcair ended up in third place.
Nonetheless, his party posted one of their strongest performances, and managed to solidify re-election in a number of Quebec seats based on his popularity and organizational skills. Had Mulcair stayed on, he would have been able to build on the natural erosion of second-term Liberal support to continue his party’s growth.
If the Conservatives do manage to bifurcate, with a new party launched under libertarian Maxime Bernier, the NDP could well benefit from an eroding base on the right. But with Mulcair gone, and his bench strength diminishing, it does not seem very likely that Singh is going to be able to achieve the kind of success that eluded his talented predecessor.
Singh’s caucus is shrinking and he currently boasts only one colleague with cabinet experience in any previous federal or provincial government. Party fundraising has been lagging behind the other two parties. The financial situation is so grim that Singh has generously refused to take a paycheque until the numbers improve. Working for nothing will not solve his party’s deep-seated problems.
Singh himself was elected in a party vote system that predetermined a leadership without support from more than a single province. The one-person, one-vote system adopted for the last NDP leadership race meant that signing up 50,000 people in a few Toronto-area ridings was more politically lucrative than building a national team. That works for a leadership. But in the end, Singh needs broad-based national support to be in the running for the prime minister’s job.
If Singh’s future is as cloudy as it currently appears, the party exodus is likely far from over. The loss of senior members like Hamilton’s David Christopherson and Montreal’s Hélène Laverdière creates problems for the party in its effort to build new strength from the party’s base.
Generally a Parliamentarian can improve their local electoral numbers by five to 10 per cent over the national average. In a tight election, successful incumbents are the ones who make the difference between government and opposition.
In the case of the NDP, the situation could be much more challenging. If Singh loses the seat he is currently contesting in British Columbia, the outcome will trigger a new retirement stampede for incumbent New Democrats.
It will also make the job of recruiting new candidates much more difficult, as potential candidates will be frightened off by the possibility of election defeat. However, if he wins, the bump will likely play out across the country. With these stakes, don’t expect the other parties to follow Elizabeth May’s lead and decline to put a candidate against Singh. No doubt, the New Democrats have taken all these byelection issues into consideration.
But politics is also a game where the only certainty is uncertainty. Singh may surprise everyone and capture the imagination of West Coast voters. That would set the stage for a national surge.
His loss would most help the federal Liberals. Trudeau needs left-wing support and erstwhile New Democrats to achieve a second majority. Bad news for Singh would definitely be good for the Grits.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.