In the last two weeks perceptions of Singh as a leader have improved. This change could be due to the way Singh handled the brownface crisis, his star candidate announcements, or the way he is addressing the small things, such as policy announcements. Alternatively, it could be that he looks good in comparison to Trudeau and May who are both dipping in the polls. Most likely it is a combination of these factors that has improved the perception of Singh as the leader of the NDP.
First, Singh excelled in the midst of the brownface crisis. Singh, a practicing Sikh and the first visible minority federal leader in Canada, responded to the release of the Trudeau blackface pictures by focusing on the impact these photos have on people who have experienced racism, and what it means that these photos came from a Prime Minister who was thought of as an ally. His response was well-crafted, full of emotion and resonated with people of all backgrounds. He told Carol Off of CBC that “any attempt to minimize or to maximize [Trudeau’s] behaviour doesn’t actually do justice to people who are suffering. It has to be about them.”
Singh also repeatedly said he would only take an apology phone call from Trudeau if it were private because he did not want the call to be used as a tool to exonerate Trudeau. Singh made his views clear by saying, “I’m not a proxy for the people of Canada.” He did not sensationalize the revelations or use the events to attack Trudeau. He took the high road and made it about the individuals who have experienced racism. His message was uplifting, “I want you to know that you have value, you have worth, you are loved. And I don’t want you to give up on Canada and please don’t give up on yourselves.” A different leader could have responded differently to these events and the political opportunity they afforded. Instead, Singh responded to the situation with calm, unifying language that won him praise on both sides of the aisle.
The NDP field of candidates has also done well over the first few weeks of the campaign, which signals sound leadership at the top. Earlier this week, Singh was in Bathurst to announce Daniel Theriault, completing the NDP roster of candidates for New Brunswick. Theriault, considered a star candidate by the NDP, said his candidacy announcement was delayed for impact purposes. Theriault was a former director of Nova Scotia’s Acadian cultural federation, who fought to protect French language and promote Acadian culture.
The NDP were able to recruit another star, Éric Ferland, for the riding of Longueuil-Saint Hubert to challenge Pierre Nantel, who left the NDP in August to join Elizabeth May’s Green party. Ferland was the former leader of the Green Party of Quebec, a founder of his own green technology company, and an unsuccessful federal Green Party candidate. Ferland gives the NDP a strong candidate who may be able to retain NDP votes that may otherwise follow Nantel to the Greens.
Singh and his campaign may be hoping that the popularity of star candidates like Theriault and Ferland spread beyond the borders of their own ridings, and potentially offer a halo effect for Singh in neighbouring ridings for voters who may not have otherwise voted for their NDP candidate. Singh’s ability to recruit and surround himself with star candidates may therefore help to bolster his appearance as a leader.
An alternative theory for Singh’s strong start to the campaign is that his failures in the pre-election period may have caused expectations to drop. It is possible that his success at the small things, like policy announcements and townhalls, now is raising our view of him because our perception of his abilities was so low. Seeking a diverse roster of candidates, the NDP took longer than other campaigns to fill their roster but finally have a candidate in all 338 ridings in the country. The results are notable: the NDP roster is 49% women, 24% racialized and includes candidates that identify as LGBTQ2, Indigenous, youth and living with disabilities. In fact, while many doubted their ability to do this given their slow nomination process, they did it with a couple of days to spare and ahead of the incumbent Liberals. Also, during Singh’s first visit to New Brunswick since he became leader of the NDP, Singh apologized for not visiting sooner. He did not make excuses for his absence and instead sought forgiveness, a refreshing approach. His way of handling these things are reminiscent of the leader that the NDP thought they were nominating and was largely absent in the lead-up to the campaign.
While perception of Singh may be improving, his recent appearances have not been without criticism. Singh faced some backlash for his climate change announcement with props where he attempted to poke holes in the Liberal and Conservative records on climate change. The props were two large briefcases, one blue with the sign “big oil & gas” and one red with a sign reading “$4.5 billion pipeline,” and both briefcases were filled with fake money with his competitors’ faces on it. Instead of creating a strong visual, these props instead came off as childlike, and drew attention away from the message and the importance of the issue.
It is unclear if his improving popularity as leader is a short-term bump in the polls or a longer-term improvement for the NDP leader, his regained popularity is impacting voters: progressive voters are now more likely to cast a ballot for the NDP, and the NDP overall are polling stronger in ridings where they were previously considered an unviable option. Singh’s popularity bump has also increased the press coverage his campaign events are receiving, thereby giving the NDP more opportunities to promote their platforms and candidates. While, there is no doubt that the NDP under Singh’s leadership will not become our next governing party, Singh may have a new title for this election: kingmaker for a minority government.