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NDP united behind Jagmeet Singh, despite Quebec concerns, say MPs

The new NDP leader is expected to name a new parliamentary leader soon, and insiders say putting the other leadership candidates in key roles could help the party move forward. Watch for Guy Caron to take up a prominent job, suggests strategist Robin MacLachlan.

Jagmeet Singh, shown during an NDP leadership showcase in September, won in the first round with more than 53 per cent of the vote. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

PUBLISHED :Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017 12:00 AM

New Democrats have elected Jagmeet Singh on a mandate for change and after dominating the leadership vote, achieving caucus unity shouldn’t be a problem, say NDP MPs.

Caucus members and NDP insiders painted a positive picture after the marathon leadership race ended Sunday, with more than 53 per cent of the vote-casting membership selecting the Ontario MPP as leader. That worked out to almost triple the votes for Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay, Ont.), who earned 19.4 per cent of the vote, followed by Niki Ashton (Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, Man.) with 17.4 per cent and Guy Caron (Rimouski-Neigette-Témiscouata-Les Basques, Que.) with 9.4 per cent.

“[The first-round victory] is such a vote of confidence, it gives him such a strong mandate,” said Nathan Cullen (Skeena-Bulkley Valley, B.C.), who supported Mr. Singh, calling the leader’s mandate one “for change.”

That involves shaking things up in Ottawa and bringing in members of his team that raised an impressive $618,780, according to the latest Elections Canada reports. Mr. Cullen called the campaign’s fundraising and voter-contact systems “Obama-quality” and a welcome shift for a party that has struggled to draw in dollars.

  

“It’s something we’ve been trying to catch up on but have not given the resources [to], and the attention of having the leader who gets it in his bones will be incredibly helpful.”

It was clear Mr. Singh had signed up thousands of new members—the team claimed 47,000 of the 124,000 eligible to vote—but “it was quite striking to see that translate to that first ballot win,” said Erin Weir (Regina-Lewvan, Sask.), calling the mood in Toronto after the vote “exuberant.”

“That is an extraordinary testament to interest,” added Peter Julian (New Westminster-Burnaby, B.C.), a former candidate who endorsed Mr. Singh late in the race. “Sometimes leadership conventions can be divisive. When there’s a clear mandate given by membership, that’s something that everyone can buy into.”

Second-place finisher Mr. Angus said as much to the CBC after the race. Though he said his team is still crunching the numbers and thought the contest would have gone to a second ballot, Mr. Singh “came out with a strong mandate,” which leaves him “well equipped to take on the leadership,” said Mr. Angus.

  

It also helps that Mr. Singh had the most caucus support of all candidates, with 11 MPs, and that the long leadership race wasn’t acrimonious, observers said. About 30 members joined a caucus call Sunday night after his victory and Mr. Singh was in Ottawa Monday meeting with more ahead of Wednesday’s first caucus meeting.

Don’t expect to see the same type of frustrations Conservatives aired in the weeks after their 13-round finish, said Mr. Julian.

Quebec MP Pierre Nantel said in September religious symbols, like the turban worn by Jagmeet Singh are ‘incompatible with what Quebecers want to see in their public leaders.’ The Hill Times file photograph

This is despite the fact Mr. Singh has been dogged by questions about his ability to draw support in Quebec. During the party’s September caucus retreat, Quebec MP Pierre Nantel told Radio-Canada “ostentatious religious symbols” were incompatible with the province’s values.

Rather than reveal divisions, the comment “created an opportunity to have a discussion around some of the perceived challenges early on,” said national caucus chair Daniel Blaikie (Elmwood-Transcona, Man.).

  

Mr. Nantel (Longueuil-Saint-Hubert, Que.) was not available for an interview Monday or Tuesday, but congratulated the leader on Twitter, saying he looked forward to “discussing the extent of Mélanie Joly’s blunder about the Quebec cultural distinction,” referring to the heritage minister’s recently announced cultural policy.

During a scrum with reporters Monday, Mr. Singh said only that he and Mr. Nantel spoke for a few moments about the issue, but Mr. Cullen offered a bit of a window into the dynamic that has since played out.

“As difficult as that was initially, I think it actually brought the Quebec caucus more together,” said Mr. Cullen. “He’ll speak for himself but I think [Mr. Nantel] felt some regret over how that all happened.”

 

Watch Caron to take prominent role, says strategist MacLachlan

One of the first orders of business will be naming a parliamentary leader since Mr. Singh won’t likely be competing for a federal seat until 2019. That person has been selected but Mr. Singh said Monday the party still needed to work out some details and would announce soon.

Observers are watching for who will be named to other key roles like deputy leader, Quebec lieutenant, and critics for health, justice, and finance.

Quebec MPs Hélène Laverdière (Laurier-Sainte Marie, Que.), Ruth Ellen Brosseau (Berthier-Maskinongé, Que.), and Alexandre Boulerice (Rosemont-La Petite Patrie, Que.), who was by Mr. Singh’s side Monday, should all be in the running for key roles. Others are looking to where Mr. Cullen and Mr. Julian—who both endorsed Mr. Singh—and his leadership opponents will be placed.

“It helps build unity that every leader needs and…not having a seat really means those roles are even more important than usual,” said Mr. Cullen, who said he didn’t ask for and wasn’t promised a position.

Another strategy to shore up support and assuage hurt feelings is for Mr. Singh to help with campaign debt by holding fundraisers or putting out appeals to the membership. Outgoing leader Thomas Mulcair (Outremont, Que.) was good at doing so after he won in 2012, noted former NDP staffer Robin MacLachlan.

Mr. Caron should feature prominently in the new NDP caucus, he predicted.

“I don’t think [any candidate] is going to be particularly problematic. I do think there is some synergy that is evident between Jagmeet Singh and Guy Caron in terms of their leadership styles, and the issues they put forward,” Mr. MacLachlan said.

None of the three runners-up were available to speak to The Hill Times by deadline.

While caucus members were keeping mum on predictions, the transition has been a focus for the team for months, which is common in campaigns. Mr. Cullen said he was impressed by “how much thought and care” the Singh team put into the matter ahead of Sunday’s win, focusing on the roles, who was doing what, and how it could be done better.

 

Singh to embark on cross-country tour

Most MPs contacted by The Hill Times weren’t concerned with how often Mr. Singh plans to return to the capital, preferring the leader be on the road building the membership base. They said his presence in Ottawa will depend on issues that arise, whether legislation is being debated, or key events like Budget Day that require a leader to be front and centre.

While Parliament is important, Mr. Weir noted Justin Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) success in campaigning across the country after winning his leadership race and the need to reassert the NDP as the clear progressive choice for Canadians.

“We also need to recognize that politics happens all across the country and, if anything, I would suggest the NDP has been perhaps a bit too focused on the House of Commons,” said Mr. Weir.

Competitive ridings and, particularly, Quebec are likely to be a key focus of Mr. Singh’s upcoming cross-country tour, said observers. The leadership race didn’t draw the same level of interest in Quebec as other provinces, representing only four per cent of the NDP’s 124,000 members.

“The fact that [NDP candidates] weren’t able to grow membership is an indicator that they need to do more work in the province,” said Sally Housser, a senior consultant at Navigator and a former NDP deputy national director.

Compared to the other candidates, she noted Mr. Singh had strong support in the province despite suggestions that as a Sikh, he will face additional challenges.

Mr. Cullen called Mr. Singh a “striking figure” who will get the party some attention across Canada, and especially in Quebec.

B.C. MP Nathan Cullen, who endorsed Jagmeet Singh as leader, said he hasn’t been promised any leadership roles. The HIll Times photograph by Andrew Meade

That was the case during his first day on the job, noted analyst and NDP insider Ian Capstick, who praised Mr. Singh for answering most of questions from reporters in French without stepping on any of his words.

Building NDP support in Quebec will mean travelling to northern and rural ridings and Quebec City—places that have traditionally been “more uncomfortable with people who are different than them.”

“His very presence in Quebec is going to demand a certain conversation be had and he’s handled each and every one of those interactions with the French media and French public incredibly well,” Mr. Capstick said.

swallen@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times