What Does the Future Hold for Jagmeet Singh and the NDP in British Columbia?

September 3, 2019

It wasn’t that long ago that the BC NDP were looking enviously towards the 2011 success of their federal cousins who had won 103 seats across the country and became the official opposition under the leadership of Jack Layton. At that time, the provincial NDP were mired in bitter internal battles, revolving leaders and consecutive election losses but in 2019, they are a very different story. Less than 10 years after their successful 2011 election, the federal NDP and Jagmeet Singh are in such a sorry state, that they are entering this election with one goal - maintain official party status and protect long-held seats. At the same time, the BC NDP are also in a very different situation. In 2017, after almost 17 years outside of the halls of power, the BC NDP formed a minority government and today, they maintain 40 per cent of the popular support among voters while boasting an impressive roster of talent both on the benches and within the party. The federal NDP are in protection mode as they look to hold onto its base and find its path back to relevance with Canadian voters. British Columbia (B.C.) is ground zero for the NDP and their election strategy includes placing much of their limited resources there, in the hope that they will be able to hold onto their seats. Some pundits are suggesting that even with the gains the BC NDP have made, this won’t help Singh in his quest to maintain the 14 seats the NDP won there in the 2015 Federal election or even gain more seats in B.C.

Many were surprised when Jagmeet Singh decided to run in a by-election in Burnaby South, a riding he had no connections to until then and one where he had to pour extensive efforts into meeting constituents. The history of the riding, voting NDP in the past federal and provincial elections, seemed to help Singh. The NDP leader pulled off a decisive victory in the riding, in February 2019. The win in B.C. provided him a chance to build profile as a leader before the upcoming federal election, since he had remained outside the House of Commons from his win as NDP leader in the fall of 2017 until he won his seat.

However, Singh as a leader, often appears unsure and unable to speak to high-level national and regional issues and incapable of advocating on the important socio-economic issues and crises facing many British Columbians. Singh has been silent on key issues such as NAFTA, rising cost of living and jobs, specifically the recent layoffs of 3,800 forestry workers in British Columbia - an issue which former NDP leaders, provincial and federal would have seized on. His public appearances have lacked not only energy and confidence but a demonstrative show of competency for policy traditionally associated with his predecessors. The core problem with the NDP in British Columbia seems to be the same wherever the NDP goes, which is a lack of concise and clear policy and effective leadership.

With pre-election campaigning under way, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh spent part of this past week in B.C. He spent one day on a pre-campaign trail with MP Wayne Stetski (Kootenay-Columbia) in Nelson and another day with MP Richard Cannings (West Kootenay) in Penticton. Earlier this month he held an “open house” at his Kingsway constituency office. While the NDP made it clear that the “open house” was not a campaign event, as it was initially classified since that is not allowed, it was still viewed by many as a chance for Singh to be seen in B.C.

It’s not surprising that the BC NDP have generally stayed away from the Singh campaign. The balance of power the BC NDP hold in BC’s legislature is reliant on their working agreement with the BC Greens and even though they continue to hold popular support amongst British Columbians, their hold on government is tentative. With the next provincial election in B.C. scheduled for October 2021, the Horgan government must avoid the liabilities their federal cousins carry and leverage their ‘wins’ by staying the course, both politically and policy wise.  

While Jagmeet Singh and John Horgan may both agree on their opposition to the TransMountain Pipeline (TMX), their leadership styles couldn’t be more different. Horgan has deep roots in the NDP and within both the resource communities and the unions. John Horgan not only carries an expertise around high-level government policy specifically within energy, forestry and infrastructure but carries a well-earned reputation for being a fierce negotiator, policy driven and firebrand when he needs to be. Horgan has demonstrated his effectiveness as a communicator and carries the same command of his party and caucus as former leaders like Stephen Harper and Gordon Campbell were known for.

As for Jagmeet Singh, he is best known for being the first turbaned Sikh MPP in Ontario and his “bespoke suits” which earned him a shout out in the February 2017 edition of GQ, who called him an "incredibly well-dressed rising star in Canadian politics". But as Justin Trudeau has learned, policy and experience matter. Singh’s political roots are based in Ontario where he served as an NDP MPP from 2011 until he won the federal NDP leadership in October 2017 which makes this election much tougher as he gets to know his newly won riding in Metro Vancouver and the complexity of B.C. politics.

The NDP’s trouble in the polls in British Columbia is two-fold. In Victoria and Southern Vancouver Island, the Greens are a formidable opponent for the NDP. Voters seem disenchanted by Singh’s leadership style and by the NDP’s lackluster performance on social and environmental issues, so those voters are placing their bets with the Green Party. The polls show the Greens continue to lead in long-held NDP ridings; it is very likely that the Greens will take 4 NDP seats on the Island. This means that coveted NDP ridings like Victoria are likely to flip to Green. In the traditional labour and resource communities of the North Coast and Northeastern B.C., polls show the NDP are often tied for second place with the Liberals, with the Conservatives in first place and several points ahead. In ridings like Skeena-Bulkley Valley, which was former MP Nathan Cullen’s riding and where the NDP won narrowly in 2015, it will be tough for the NDP to hold on. MP Nathan Cullen and other high-profile MPs not running again had been instrumental, as one of the best public faces for the party on policy while working to bridge the gaps of Singh’s leadership with both NDP members and the media.

Singh has yet to demonstrate the same appetite for policy, British Columbia and his party’s historical relationship with the Canadian electorate that his predecessors and John Horgan share. Adding to the concerns around his leadership, he has been caught in a series of missteps and misquotes around his party’s policies and national policy that have shown a lack of readiness for the job he’s interviewing for. It seems Jagmeet Singh’s lack of experience working at the national level in federal politics and the federal NDP has become more of an issue than his leadership strategists had accounted for.