Conservatives might be cheering hardest for Jagmeet Singh

The latest high-profile contender for NDP leadership could split the progressive vote with Trudeau’s Liberals—a gift to the federal Tories

After Jagmeet Singh entered the NDP leadership race, the only people happier than progressives were conservatives. After all, a viable NDP leader splits the vote on the left, propelling Conservatives into power—and Singh has viability written all over him.

The 39-year-old criminal lawyer and former deputy leader of the Ontario NDP is a bottle rocket of idealistic charisma. Singh uses social media like a form of mixed martial arts—a sport, by the way, in which he is highly trained—capturing moments on his Instagram and Facebook feeds as if he’s pounding an opponent in the octagon. “Phone of Fury” might well be his campaign slogan as he goes after the young , urban, Millennial vote, although the film reference would likely be lost on them, or, maybe, just too damned corny to connect. In any case, while Singh’s penchant for high fashion suits and colourful turbans have attracted the attention of GQ magazine, the fact that he speaks French is significantly more important to the NDP, which has to protect its base in la belle provence. Singh has given the lifeless NDP race something it desperately needed: a defibrillator.

“A Singh win could be a problem for Prime Minister Trudeau, as they will be fighting for the same urban, cosmopolitan voter, where there are more seats,” says Jenni Byrne, the former Conservative campaign manager under Stephen Harper. That’s exactly what Conservatives want. They don’t have much to fear from the NDP, even in rural areas of the country where they compete. “There are rare circumstances where the NDP and Conservatives are fighting for the same electors, such as rural, working class and Quebec,” admits Byrne, but overall, a strong NDP leader helps the Conservatives.

READ MORE: The first NDP leadership debate starts defining the contenders

“Conservatives need a strongish NDP, but not too strong,” cautions Karl Bélanger, the former principal secretary to Tom Mulcair and one of the architects of Jack Layton’s Orange Wave. “When the NDP was leading in the polls in 2015 and the Conservatives feared they were going to lose to Tom Mulcair, they did not hesitate to go all in with an identity politics agenda, which essentially torpedoed the NDP campaign in Quebec. That, in turn, led to a drop in support nationally,” said Bélanger. “Once the NDP wasn’t seen as a possible winner, the table was set for Justin Trudeau.”

Liberals are well aware of this dynamic, in which they try to suppress the NDP vote by tacking left on social policy and playing the fear factor card. “Historically, the Liberals lose when the NDP is strong,” Bélanger argues. “Every federal campaign of the past 25 years has seen a fear component from the Liberals, targeting New Democrat leaners and switchers.” The formula is simple: If you don’t vote Liberal you will get … well, on May 27, after the Conservative leadership race, we’ll find out which Conservative will become the straw man in the next Liberal campaign.
It’s worth noting that this scenario played out in 2015 only because the NDP had already done the job that neither Conservatives nor Liberals could do for seven federal elections and 18 years: wipe out the Bloc Quebecois in Quebec. That dramatic accomplishment eventually opened up the lane for the Liberals, sweeping them to power with a surprise majority. The NDP doesn’t want to see this happen again, so the party is desperate for a leader to take on Trudeau in Quebec and across the country.

At this early stage, Singh is offering the NDP a Layton-like hope. That’s not to diminish the other official candidates in the race, but it is fair to say that at least three of the four have zero blockbuster status (yet). Manitoba MP Niki Ashton, Quebec MP Guy Caron and B.C. MP Peter Julian are all smart, capable people who merit genuine respect, but their campaign launches have generated neither buzz nor money. When Elections Canada released the first quarter fundraising numbers, the results were anemic, even if this is still only the early stages of a long campaign. The biggest shocker, though, was the Peter Julian fizzle. Here is a guy who was the first to declare his candidacy, speaks perfect French with a base in B.C., and yet, between January and March of this year, he raised little more than $19,000. That’s not enough to run a lemonade stand in pricey Vancouver, let alone a national campaign.

Only northern Ontario MP Charlie Angus, who leads the fundraising race with $110,765, has demonstrated any pre-Singh swagger. With a genuine punk rock spirit of agitation that perfectly aligns with the party’s progressive roots, Angus has earned real street cred from his longstanding and admirable fight for the rights of Indigenous people. He’s also a natural scrapper in the House, a guy who genuinely likes to “shit disturb”—a phrase he also uses. What he needs to do, however, is learn how to shit disturb in French if he is to be the next leader. Angus is feverishly practicing his second language, but in Quebec, a candidate has to be ready to survive the crucible of a program like Tout le Monde en Parle in order win the heart of the province. Angus, a former musician, may be ready to play the smaller campaign venues, but is he ready for the Carnegie Hall of Quebec politics?

The truth is, Singh might not be ready either. The guy has revealed all the political tools of a leader with one exception: ideas. His leadership launch sizzled with all sorts of media coverage, but was based on a series of cliched bromides: “Nobody should be made to feel like they don’t matter,” Singh tweeted on after his launch. “We can build an inclusive Canada where everyone can realize their dreams.” The hopey-changey thing never gets old in politics, but surly he would not launch a national campaign without a position on litmus test issues like pipelines. Where does he stand on the twinning of the Kinder Morgan pipeline? He won’t say. On retaliatory measures against the U.S. in the wake of tariffs on softwood lumber? Nothing there. He promises to roll out policy on these issues as the campaign evolves, which is typical strategy—he needs to keep putting ideas in the window—but there was a hollowness to the launch, an emphasis of style over substance that, quite frankly, has some progressives getting impatient.

“New Democrats are eager to see the contrasts between the candidates, the different visions they have for their party,” says Bélanger. “Until now, candidates were holding most of their powder dry, as they waited for Jagmeet Singh to make his decision. So hopefully the campaign will shift into third gear.”

READ MORE: The NDP’s great pipeline divide

A political launch doesn’t have to reveal a candidate’s position on every issue, but it should give a sense of a candidate’s judgment, how they think, how they will make decisions. It is a moment to set the values framework, not to do a cheap tease of ideas to come. That sounds like a dodge. The danger for the NDP is that in order to define itself, the party will have to tack hard to the left and leap off the progressive cliff into political irrelevance. For Singh to win, he can’t do that, nor can he simply work over the same ground as Trudeau, who has made young people and inclusiveness a big part of his brand. It is way too early for a change wave to swell against Trudeau. Singh and his party have to maintain the hard-won ground at the centre that Layton took and make the argument that Trudeau is a phoney progressive, a lefty in disguise, a guy who talks about the environment but uses Stephen Harper’s emissions reduction targets. That won’t be easy. The Liberal agenda is progressive by any definition, but Singh and the others will have to contrast a new idealism against the pragmatic compromises the Liberal government has had to settle for while in power.

There will be other challenges for Singh. Does his overt religious garb become a factor in Quebec, where the religious accommodation debate has played such a big political role? Bélanger says it certainly could hurt him. But maybe it doesn’t, proving once again that past is not prologue when comes to politics.

By the end of this month, Conservatives will have a new leader, but even as they are caught up in their own drama, they’re looking over their shoulder and praying the NDP picks a candidate who can inspire progressives to leave Justin Trudeau. Don’t be surprised if those on the right are rooting hardest for Jagmeet Singh.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.