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Jagmeet Singh Under Scrutiny As NDP Looks To Turn The Tide

The party is gathering for a caucus session in British Columbia this week.

SURREY, B.C. — Federal New Democrats hope leader Jagmeet Singh can successfully hit the reset button this week during a three-day caucus session in British Columbia, after a year of disappointing byelection results, lacklustre fundraising, weak polling numbers and unfavourable media coverage.

"We tossed the leader, and the leader stuck around, and we let everything mould on the shelf for two years," B.C. MP Nathan Cullen told HuffPost Canada on Monday. "I'm not making excuses, I'm just an observer."

People wonder why the transition between leaders went less well than it should have, he said, and why it took so long to put the wheels back on the car.

"It's because we put the car out on the rain for two years and didn't do anything to it... We lost talent. Our lists went stale.... I didn't realize how profoundly unattended some parts of the machine were left."

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh announces he will run in a byelection in Burnaby South on Aug, 8, 2018.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh announces he will run in a byelection in Burnaby South on Aug, 8, 2018.

Former NDP national director Karl Bélanger readily acknowledges that the party is not in the best position.

"There is a need for the leader to showcase what the plan is for the next year and ... for the troops to be motivated by a clear plan and a clear vision," he said Monday.

"Hopefully, what is going to happen at this caucus retreat will help articulate that, because time is running out and people are starting to wonder what is going to happen next year."

The departure of veteran MPs has raised eyebrows, he said. Seven New Democrat MPs — including former leader Thomas Mulcair — have announced they won't be running again in 2019.

While it's true that not all those resignations have to do with Singh's leadership, "if the party was at 40 per cent in the polls and heading towards government, people would think twice before announcing a year out that they are not going to run in the next election," Bélanger said.

In the seven byelections held since Singh became leader last October, the party has seen its share of the vote drop. None, so far, has been in an NDP-held riding, but the result is concerning to insiders, especially in Quebec, where the party was pushed to embarrassing third and fourth place finishes in ridings it had won or nearly won in 2011 and 2015.

In public opinion surveys, the NDP consistently ranks a distant third behind the Liberals and Conservatives. It averages about 15 to 18 per cent — far less than the 30.6 per cent that landed former leader Jack Layton a historical 103 seats in 2011 and even less than the 19.7 per cent that led to Mulcair's ouster as permanent leader in 2016.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen speaks to reporters before Question Period on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 8, 2018.
NDP MP Nathan Cullen speaks to reporters before Question Period on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 8, 2018.

The party is having trouble raising cash as it heads into an election year. In 2017, the NDP raised $4.864 million from 39,053 donors, according to financial records filed with Elections Canada. That's less than it raised in 2016 — when it reported $5.398 million from 26,754 donors — and far less than in 2015 when it raised a whopping $18.593 million from 118,777 contributors.

The NDP is still paying off its campaign debt from the 2015 election. Although it could refinance its Ottawa headquarters or take out a loan against its election tax credit for the 2019 race, neither would speak well of the party's ability to manage its own money.

"The party needs [to raise more] not only because it needs the money but also because being seen to be successful at raising money is a marker of political success," said Robin Sears, a principal with Earnscliffe Strategy Group and a former NDP national director who ran several election campaigns.

Conquering the 'centre-left' space

Sears said his advice to Singh's team is twofold: focus first on fundraising, then start hammering the Liberals where they are vulnerable.

"The party has to seize a single anti-Trudeau message and hammer it hard. I think the one that they are tempted by ... is that you can't trust the Liberals to deliver — folding on climate change, folding on Mr. [U.S. President Donald] Trump, folding on supply management, all of the various disappointment that they can collect about what the government said it was going to do and didn't do...

"But on top of that, they then have to present a more positive message of what they would do."

Sears said his advice is to focus on jobs and the message that people are not benefitting from a relatively strong economy. His comments are echoed by others, such as former New Democrat columnist Tom Parkin.

I'd rather lose saying the things we want to say than saying things that you don't fully believe.B.C. MP Nathan Cullen

"There is a huge space there among the centre-left voter," Parkin told HuffPost, referring to those who will vote Liberal or NDP depending on what issues are at play and how they think their vote has the best chance of making a difference in their local constituency.

"The issue for them in this caucus meeting is to find a strong way to be in this space," Parkin said. "They need to focus on the everyday life issues."

NDP provincial politicians, such as Ontario leader Andrea Horwath and B.C. Premier John Horgan, Parkin said, have effectively hammered the message that conservative parties won't fix the problems and folks are tired of waiting for the Liberals to address them. "The push is for the NDP to step in to that space as strongly as they can and [to] try to challenge the Liberals by bringing forward solutions that push them."

Cullen favours the stronger approach, but he raises a flag of caution.

"Everyone says, 'Be bold,' right? So that takes a higher risk tolerance and it takes a greater appreciation for 'it might not work out.' But I'd rather lose saying the things we want to say than saying things that you don't fully believe."

Story continues after video. Earlier on HuffPost:

What's next

Most of the party's now 42-member caucus are expected to attend strategy sessions at the Sheraton Vancouver Guildford hotel in Surrey, B.C., and hear leader Jagmeet Singh share his vision for the party.

The hotel is located in a riding the party has not won, but it's about 15 kilometres from Burnaby South, the electoral district Singh plans to contest after NDP MP Kennedy Stewart officially files for his bid to be Vancouver mayor.

Stewart has held the seat since 2011, although he won in 2015 by only 547 votes.

Singh, a former Ontario NDP MPP who has struggled to create a national profile without a seat in the House of Commons, is hoping the residents of Burnaby will welcome him, going so far as to promise to run there again in 2019 if he wins and to move his family. The Green party has pledged not to run a candidate against Singh and the Liberals and Conservatives have yet to announce their candidates.

Many observers think that the race is his to lose. The riding has had an NDP MP since 2004, it has a strong South Asian population, and with the Liberals now championing a pipeline position that is unpopular with many area residents and the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain terminal located just in the neighbouring riding — the thinking goes that if the NDP leader can't win a seat for here, he may not be able to win a seat anywhere.

"If Jagmeet wins a significant byelection victory, he will put behind him all of the unhappiness of the last nine months," Sears told HuffPost. "If he doesn't, it will be very much harder for him."

Bélanger puts it more bluntly. It's "improbable," but if Singh runs and loses, "I don't see how [he can remain]."

Listen to Jagmeet Singh's full interview on "Follow-Up":

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