By Jesse McLaren
The corporate press is celebrating an NDP collapse and attributing it to Jagmeet Singh and racism in Quebec. This is being echoed by some conservative sections of the NDP, who have never been comfortable with Singh as their leader and who have a record of blaming Quebec voters. But with six weeks left before the election there’s still time for the party—and the movements—to lead on issues that can build multi-racial unity across Canada and Quebec.
“Is the NDP on the verge of collapse?,” asked Macleans magazine, pointing to polls showing the NDP in the low single digits, with a possibility of losing official party status. For the National Post, the main source of the collapse is Quebec, and the reason is Jagmeet Singh: “the NDP struggles to hold ground in Quebec, with candidates nominated in less than half of Quebec’s ridings,” because of the “turban issue.” Sections of the NDP seem to agree, as former national director Karl Bélanger explained: “There’s no point in not talking about the elephant in the room. Short of him losing the turban altogether, which I don’t think is in the cards, they have to deal with it.”
Claiming Singh’s religion, or the response to it, is a barrier to electoral success was also the reason cited when a number of New Brunswick NDP members left the party for the Greens. As Jonathan Richardson, former NDP executive member for Atlantic Canada claimed, “That was always going to be an issue. I remember bringing that up a lot of times during the election planning committee — how are you going to deal with, first of all, the racism.” His way of dealing with racism, apparently, is to fuel it by leaving a party because of its racialized leader—the same week that a far right activist harassed Gurratan Singh, Jagmeet’s brother.
The NDP is in trouble. Financially they are in a deficit and organizationally only have candidates in half the ridings—not only in Quebec but across the country. They are far behind the Liberals and Conservatives in the polls, battling for third with the Greens. But this is neither because the NDP elected Jagmeet Singh, nor because of Quebec.
If you look at polling numbers for the past three years, Singh becoming party leader made no difference. There was no surge in popularity for the party, as party members who watched Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn hoped for. But neither has there been a collapse precipitated by the election of the first racialized leader of a mainstream political party. Instead there’s been stagnation, with the main dynamics being Liberals and Conservatives trading places in the polls, while the Green party has inched closer to the NDP.
There is legitimate frustration that the NDP, which started the 2015 election in first place is starting this year’s election battling for third. But this drop predates Jagmeet Singh–and is the real elephant in the room.
2015: failure to leap
The Orange Wave catapulted the NDP into second place in 2011, in a year that began with the Egyptian Revolution and ended with the Occupy movement. Tasting power, the NDP moved to present themselves as a responsible guardian of the Canadian state—removing references to socialism from the party constitution, and electing an ex-Liberal as party leader. The Globe and Mail applauded them in the lead up to the 2015 election: “The party has been deradicalizing, working to rid itself of Marxist bogeymen. It’s beginning to look like the NDP has finally done the deed…What proved critically important was Mr. Layton’s reaching out to a Liberal: he recruited Mr. Mulcair, who had resigned from Jean Charest’s provincial government…The New Democrats are now close enough to the mainstream that polling show them within reach of the top rung.”
But what had really benefited the NDP were the movements that had challenged Harper and exposed the complicity of the Liberals. The NDP began the 2015 election ahead in the polls by echoing the movements—promising a $15/hr federal minimum wage, national childcare, and an end to the repressive Bill C-51. In Quebec, where voters in 2011 had elected the largest number of NDP MPs of any province, support for the NDP was remarkably sustained between 2011 and the beginning of the 2015 election period. But then Thomas Mulcair campaigned to the centre, chasing conservative voters and trying to reassure Bay Street the NDP would govern responsibly—promising to balance budgets and prioritizing fighter jets over corporate taxes. Mulcair’s turn toward balanced budgets coincided nearly exactly with a mass public sector workers’ movement in Quebec against the Quebec Liberals’ balanced budget and austerity measures. (In fact, 7 days after the federal election, 400,000 public sector workers shut down schools, hospitals, and government offices.)
This lurch to the right allowed Trudeau to tack left to absorb anti-Harper votes, present the NDP as “siding with Harper in favour of austerity” and present the Liberals as the champions of real change.
The federal NDP’s response to two other developments that year has also had a lasting impact: in May, Rachel Notley was elected Premier of Alberta and reassured Big Oil that they can “count on us” and in September the Leap Manifesto emerged from the growing climate justice movement. Which would the NDP support: a government propping up tar sands or a movement fighting climate change? Some NDP candidates spoke to the demands of the movement, like Linda McQuaig who stated the scientific fact that “a lot of the oil sands oil may have to stay in the ground if we’re going to meet our climate change targets,” but she had to withdraw these comments under party pressure. Instead of supporting the Leap Manifesto, Mulcair campaigned on leaping into the Energy East pipeline, which was massively unpopular (and eventually defeated) in Quebec.
Learning the wrong lessons
Campaigning for a balanced budget and pipelines in a province that is anti-austerity and anti-pipeline cost the NDP: under Mulcair the NDP lost more than half its seats, and most of them in Quebec (dropping from 59 to 16). As one NDP strategist acknowledged on election night, “the deficit versus non-deficit position of Trudeau and Mulcair…hurt in that it got a lot of attention and it did frame [the Liberals] as being bolder than Mulcair.”
But the corporate press had another answer: Quebec racism. Mulcair agreed with this assessment, claiming it was his principled opposition to Islamophobia that cost him the election, specifically in Quebec. But his position on the niqab was to the right of the Liberals and Greens. Mulcair called the niqab a “divisive issue” issue that made him “uncomfortable”, and a number of NDP candidates in Quebec denounced the niqab. But Elizabeth May was clear: “It’s a false debate…What is the impact of the niqab on the economy, what is the impact of the niqab on climate change, what is the impact of the niqab on the unemployed?” Trudeau’s position was also clear: “Those who would use the state’s power to restrict women’s religious freedom and freedom of expression indulge the very same repressive impulse that they profess to condemn. It is a cruel joke to claim you are liberating people from oppression by dictating in law what they can and cannot wear.” If Quebec was so racist as to cost the NDP the election, why did seats go to the Liberals instead of the Tories? This is not to suggest that Quebec is immune to racism and Islamophobia — far from it. But neither is any other province in the rest of the English Canadian state where racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Quebec bigotry are carefully cultivated by the corporate media, the corporate bosses, and their political representatives.
While the subsequent NDP convention removed Mulcair as leader, there was no clear path forward—with votes to postpone the next leadership debate until 2017, and simply discuss the Leap Manifesto so as to not upset the Notley government. This indecision compounded financial problems of a deficit in 2016 and 2017 (prior to the election of Singh), under long-term pressure from Conservative campaign legislation that disproportionately benefits corporate parties. As Party Treasurer Tania Jarzebiak said, “We continue to be in a precarious financial state. We have not yet figured out how to fill all of the hole that was left by Harper’s cancellation of the per vote subsidy.”
So politically, the party was not clear on why they had lost the previous election, nor were they clear on the path forward. At the same time, they were running a deficit, and they were stagnant in the polls. As NDP MP Nathan Cullen summarized, “I don’t think the party was honest with itself, and therefore with Jagmeet, as to how bad things were when he took over.”
Jagmeet Singh’s challenges
As a member of the Ontario Legislative Assembly, Jagmeet Singh has a record of fighting racism—from passing a motion against carding (echoing a demand from Black Lives Matter), to declaring April as Sikh Heritage Month. He even supported crucial legislation proposed by the Fight for $15 and Fairness to protect temp agency workers, when the provincial party brass would not. But he was also the deputy premier for Andrea Horwath, who has largely failed to provide a clear alternative to austerity. Singh won the federal leadership nomination both by bringing in new members and by winning the support of the party establishment.
Clearly, Singh is not a threat to the party establishment because of his policies—unlike Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party or Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez in the Democrats. But Singh has faced a backlash – simply for his identity. On his first day as leader of the NDP, CBC reporter Terry Milewski launched a series of aggressive questions—asking how Singh will fare in Quebec because of his turban, what his stance was on “illegals” coming to Canada, and demanding that he denounce terrorism. But Singh also faced anti-Sikh racism from sections of the NDP. Former Manitoba NDP MLA Don Scott claimed his leadership victory was a conspiracy: “it’s very damaging for a democracy to have a subset able to manipulate [the political process] to their benefit…The only people who can really take advantage of this the way it is are the ethnic groups. It’s a group of people who are orchestrated. Some groups are more open to being manipulated than others.” Such racist analysis has the effect of undermining any effective community-based organizing strategies, making it harder to diversify and energize the party membership. Later, Thomas Mulcair criticized Singh for not having his own seat, while announcing NDP candidates that wouldn’t run under his leadership in 2019. As NDP MP Charlie Angus responded, “I am surprised that Tom Mulcair is engaging in this behaviour…Attempting to seed doubt on our leader Jagmeet Singh hurts the party and isn’t helpful to our cause.”
In addition to issues of racism, Singh has the challenges of any social democrat trying to balance between supporting movements and supporting social democratic governments. In his leadership race Singh revealed the influence of the climate justice movement on changing his position on Kinder Morgan: “A commitment to UNDRIP [United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] played a profound role in my decision. First Nations opposition to the Kinder Morgan expansion was decisive for me.” But rather than campaigning on a clear climate justice alternative, he has been caught up trying to mediate between provincial governments who are hostile to climate justice and to each other.
When Alberta NDP Premier Rachel criticized him for siding with the BC NDP government’s opposition to Kinder Morgan, he tried to have it both ways, saying “She’s representing the interests of Alberta…My analysis is at the national level.” But then he sided with BC NDP Premier John Horgan in supporting the massive LNG pipeline, which cost the NDP a by-election in Nanaimo. While Mulcair refused to acknowledge his pipeline support as a reason for losing the election, he criticized Singh’s LNG support and suggested that people are “going to start paying attention to Elizabeth May’s Green Party”—giving the blessing of the former party leader to those jumping ship from NDP to the Greens.
As noted above, the provincial NDP’s failures on climate justice, and the resulting growth of the Greens at the expense of the NDP is the real elephant in the room. The NDP would not be in this position had they spent the previous two year campaigning across Canada and in Quebec with a clear, ambitious vision to address climate change and consistently oppose pipelines, while opposing austerity and advancing a renewed vision for strong universal social programs. Claiming that the NDP is unelectable in Quebec because of Singh combines anti-Sikh racism with anti-Quebec chauvinism, and this divisiveness only benefits the right-wing who are actively using racism to divide and weaken our movements. Instead of legitimizing racism and bigotry and fertilizing the soil for the likes of Andrew Scheer and Maxime Bernier, we must oppose racism and bigotry wherever it presents itself. In this federal election, let’s take inspiration from the outcry that pushed the removal of Bernier’s anti-migrant billboards and make racists unelectable.
Build the movements
When asked about the supposed challenges of Quebec on his first day as leader, Singh had a clear answer: “When I go to Quebec I find that the people are open-hearted, open-spirited. It’s one of the most progressive provinces in Canada with low tuition fees and affordable daycare. It’s a province that’s very open to the social democratic and progressive values that we have. I am confident that if we lead with the values and policies that speak to the people of Quebec in terms of issues that matter, that we will not only maintain our seats in Quebec but we will grow.”
This is the key to the election campaign: campaigning on issues that build multi-racial unity across Canada and Quebec. We already see the potential for an NDP recovery by echoing the movements: on Labour Day Singh was in Toronto announcing the NDP’s support for a federal $15/hr minimum wage, while in Hamilton labour and climate justice activists confronted Trudeau—including for his failures to support Grassy Narrows, whose chief is now running for the NDP. Meanwhile in events across the country, members of the Migrant Rights Network signed up thousands of people to a pledge to #UniteAgainstRacism. The September climate strikes, in the middle of the federal election, also offer an opportunity to challenge Conservative and Liberal pipelines and regain ground lost to the Greens, but only if the NDP comes out clearly and unequivocally in support of climate justice alternatives.
- On September 20-27 join the global climate strikes
- On October 2 join the discussion System Change not Climate Change in Toronto
- On October 19 join the Toxic Tour in Aamjiwnaang First Nation