Chairman's Desk

In an aspirational election, Jagmeet Singh has a chance to break away

Over the past week, as each federal leader has criss-crossed the country, each has tried to use personality and personal charisma to steal the show and run away with the momentum that’s needed to win.

RCAF Dad, a.k.a. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, has been meeting Canadians and pitching his platform. Green Leader Annamie Paul has been raising her party’s profile across main street Ontario. And after a slow kickoff with a minor policy announcement, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has moved west to inject some energy into B.C. ridings that have all of a sudden become competitive.

But for those following closely, the one to watch this week was NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who was eagerly courting voters not in safe, bedrock NDP strongholds, but in ridings with the potential to flip his way, like Burnaby North—Seymour and Edmonton-Griesbach.

A leader’s campaign itinerary speaks volumes about their strategy and, more importantly, their expectations for election day. Singh’s grand early tour of potentially fertile new ground — rather than existing seats — suggests the NDP is confident enough to play offence.

And not without good reason. Polling from Discover, our firm’s research team, suggests that Jagmeet Singh may be the decisive factor in the outcome of this election.

We already know that a slight majority of Canadians want a new governing party. We also know that while the NDP’s national polling is lukewarm, Singh’s personal ratings tell a different story. He is only two points behind Trudeau in national positive impressions and, crucially, he pulls ahead in B.C. and Ontario, both must-win territories for the NDP.

These numbers become even more interesting when you consider whether or not this election is a referendum on Justin Trudeau’s handling of the COVID pandemic.

It is not.

Rather the opposite: our polling shows that only 14 per cent of Canadians intend to vote based on Trudeau’s pandemic performance. Conversely, 43 per cent plan to vote based on each party’s plan for the future, and 38 per cent based on priority issues.

So this is no backward-looking election that seeks to relitigate the past. Rather, Canadians are focused on what’s ahead. And it’s the frame of an aspirational election voters will use.

This public opinion landscape is ripe for Singh’s NDP to reassert themselves. Not only because of the appetite for change, but also because many of his party’s campaign pillars speak directly to Canadians’ concerns for the future. In policy terms, more than one-third of Canadians feel Singh would do better than Trudeau on Indigenous issues. On climate change, 30 per cent of Canadians feel Singh is better suited to the task.

And ultimately, when it comes to “what kind of country do you want to live in?” many Canadians aspire to live in a country that is led by someone like Jagmeet Singh: a young, racialized leader who is tuned into the issues of the day. Especially urban Torontonians and West Coast progressives who have grown more conscious of racial justice and equity issues. It is exactly those voters who will keep Trudeau from a majority, if Singh has his way.

The position of today’s NDP is reminiscent of the modern party’s most successful standard-bearer. Just over 10 years ago, Jack Layton was leading the NDP into his fourth election as leader. Then, as today, the party was in fourth place and buoyed by remarkably positive sentiment toward its dynamic leader. Layton’s NDP swept the country and did the unthinkable, coming within grasp of the levers of power.

To be clear, Layton’s victory was a decade in the making, and relied on much more than his own charisma. But make no mistake — in times of change, when voters yearn for something “else,” personal affinity is hugely important. It can be the difference between someone staying home or trying something new at the ballot box.

Still, it remains to be seen if young voters turn out and whether fears of the unknown will trump the desire for change. But at the very least, Singh has a fighting chance to keep the Liberals from their coveted majority.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on August 22, 2021.

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