Jagmeet Singh often starts conversations with Burnaby South residents by asking a question: “I want to take on the government in Ottawa. What do you need me to do?”
Singh has lacked a voice in Parliament since he became NDP leader in the fall of 2017. The former Ontario legislator finally has a shot in a B.C. byelection, but it’s a risky bet with his political future at stake.
The New Democrats narrowly won the riding by about 550 votes in 2015, and experts say while recent Liberal turmoil has helped Singh, there’s still a month before the vote on Feb. 25. He had a rocky first year as leader, they add, and losing a byelection would likely end his tenure.
Singh, 40, said he’s not thinking about what would happen if he loses.
“I’m not worried about my own political future. I’m worried about the future of this country,” he said in an interview. “I’m confident that if we continue to hit doors and work hard like we are, and we’re working so hard, that we will win here. We’ll do very well.”
The leader has faced criticism for weak fundraising, low support in the polls and his handling of harassment allegations against a caucus member. Singh said the past “number of years” have been difficult for the NDP, but he’s seen an upswing.
“We’ve seen some positive movement in our donations. But more importantly, I’m focused in on the fact that people are feeling let down, and their sense of resentment at the options they have,” he said, referring to the Liberals and Conservatives.
Nathan Cullen, the NDP MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley, said struggles are normal for a new federal leader and he has seen improvements in Singh, including a deeper understanding of national files.
There is risk involved in the byelection, but Singh’s chances are “very good,” Cullen said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put “maximum pressure” on the New Democrats by delaying calling the byelection for several months after Kennedy Stewart stepped down to become Vancouver’s mayor, said Gerald Baier, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia.
“If Singh did lose the byelection and you’re asking those kinds of questions about his leadership, they really don’t have a lot of time to pick a new leader to go into a fall election,” Baier said.
The strategy suggests the Liberals still see their path to winning the next election as making sure they can draw support from the centre-left that might otherwise go to the New Democrats, Baier said, adding the NDP’s “internal dissension” gives the Liberals ammunition.
Laura Kane, The Canadian Press