Five key takeaways from Jagmeet Singh’s NDP leadership speech

The new NDP leader hinted at his attack plan against Trudeau, and talked about his pitch to Quebecers, and getting by in these supposedly tough times

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Jagmeet Singh celebrates with supporters after winning the first ballot in the NDP leadership race to be elected the leader of the federal New Democrats in Toronto on Sunday, October 1, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Jagmeet Singh’s acceptance speech after he won the NDP leadership today was more about spectacle than specifics, performance than policy. Singh eschewed a podium, as usual, opting for a hand-held mic. The stage behind him thronged with his supporters. His three-piece suit didn’t disappoint those attuned to his celebrated fashion sense.

But there was substance of a sort there, too, for those who knew what to listen for. A few themes and messages stood out. Singh regards his own leadership campaign as the best cause New Democrats have for optimism about the party’s chances in the 2019 federal election. He accepts the NDP conventional wisdom on the big policy issues. And his strategy relies on Canadians feeling a little down.

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Here’s how he put those points across in Toronto today, after vanquishing three NDP MPs on the first ballot to take over the federal party from Tom Mulcair:

• In the late stages of the leadership race, Singh was highlighting two numbers. He recruited about 47,000 new members to the party, and 25,000 of them live in the Toronto area, where the party was wiped out in the 2015 election. That’s what he was reminding party members of today when he said, “Look at what we’ve been able to accomplish in a few short months. Now imagine what we can build together, all of us together, in two years.” He is promising, above all else, urban and suburban organizing acumen.

• As an Ontario NDP MPP with no established network in the federal party, Singh played it safe by remaining on the same page as MPs Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton and Guy Caron on what policies matter most. And he dutifully checked them all off today. “Inequality, especially income inequality, pay equity and housing affordability—we have to tackle these issues—climate change, reconciliation, and electoral reform.” That’s not even the sketch of a platform. It’s a list of headings for platform chapters.

• The most uncomfortable questions raised in the leadership race were about whether or not Quebec voters would warm to an observant Sikh as NDP leader. Singh’s appeal to Quebec draws from his life story. “My parents grew up in a country that did not respect the rights of minorities… I learned from them the link between language and culture. I discovered that francophones in Canada, and particularly Quebecers, have faced similar pressures with their language and with their identity.” It will be fascinating to see how that appeal to bitter shared experience ultimately goes over.

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• Anxiety over what’s often called “precarious employment”—part-time, contract, or gig-economy jobs—is seen by many NDP strategists as the key to reaching young voters. Singh spoke of his own family’s experience of insecure work, implying that Justin Trudeau, who grew up rich, doesn’t get it. “Maybe if you look at employment as a hobby, you can just get used to unstable work,” he said again today. “But if your work means the difference between putting food on the table or a roof over the head of your family, then job insecurity is unacceptable.”

• An assumption that was often mentioned by all the candidates in the NDP race was that Canadians are now suffering through hard times. By most indicators, though, the economy is on a roll. Still, Singh can’t allow that notion room to breathe. “At a time when people are feeling so despondent, when there’s a lack of hope, when it feels like things will only get worse before they get better, Canadians must stand united and champion a politics of courage to fight the politics of fear, a politics of love to fight the growing politics of division.”

It almost sounds like he’s getting ready to run against Donald Trump. Whatever Trudeau’s shortcomings, if Singh hopes to persuade centre-left Canadian voters that this Prime Minister is practicing the “politics of division,” he’s setting himself a daunting challenge.