Finally unpinned from PMO byelection tactics, this may have been Singh’s rebound week

Every successful political leader goes through their trial by fire. The pundits take a run at the new guy. The politicos pile-on in an effort to smother a new political threat before it can grow. This is standard practice.

Jack Layton was a “used car salesman.” Jean Chretien was “yesterday’s man.” Stephen Harper was “too cold.” All had stumbles, all had rebounds. New Democrats should neither tear their teeth out in fear at their new-ish leader’s performance nor shake their fists in rage at media bias. What they should do is learn from the experience.

Right now, the most important story for the New Democrats is, a week into the Burnaby South byelection, Singh was already cruising to a win — well before the Liberals crashed into utter disarray due to a desperate, gross and brand-incinerating race-based strategy from their local candidate, Karen Wang.

The actual story of Karen Wang’s downfall has hardly been written, though a local paper hints at it. Last Saturday night, January 12, both Singh and Wang attended a fundraising gala for the Burnaby Hospital Foundation, an event with many Chinese-Canadian attendees, reflecting the area demographics. And Singh was much in demand — people crowding around to meet him, chat, wish him well, get to know him. In contrast, Wang was sidelined, little noticed and left early. A few hours later the ‘vote for your own’ social post was made. And the rest is history.

Given this melt-down, Singh’s support has probably grown since the poll released just before it. Based on interviews done January 8 to 11, Singh was 13 points ahead with 39 per cent support. Now, with some wind at their backs at last, the NDP needs to pull the sail tight to make the most of it.

First, though, learning is important. For over four months – from September until January – the PMO’s game of byelection delay had Singh pinned in no-man’s land. Time was suspended — extended, even — while Singh remained stuck in the open, taking on shots from all sides. A problematic Mainstreet poll in November added weight to the media narrative that Singh might lose the byelection and, thereby, the NDP leadership.

From this semi-factual basis, layers of conspiracy theory got larded on top of each other – culminating in the outlandish “zebra hooves” theory from the National Post’s John Ivison. According to his theory, the PMO engineered the candidacy of Karen Wang knowing she would implode and result in the Singh win the Liberals want. That Singh was already well ahead is, of course, rendered obsolete by this contorted logic.

But this was the kind of ‘analysis’ possible while Singh was pinned. All serious discussion about him, his appeal or his policies could easily – increasingly easily, as one disparaging meme was topped upon another – be batted away by pundits with mockery and ridicule. The only thing the NDP had going for it was the increasingly poor performance of the Prime Minister and the weak appeal of Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer. And even those attacks could be countered by Liberals and Conservatives with a redirect to the guy in no-man’s land.

The problem of no-man’s land is something for New Democrats to reflect on. When elected NDP leader 15 or so months ago, Singh said he intended to run in Brampton East in the general election, but would take advice about a byelection run if an appropriate one came along. In advancing this line, the NDP pointed to the fact that Jack Layton remained outside the Commons from his election as NDP leader in January 2003 until the general election of June 2004. But maybe pointing to past practice — a sort-of effort to lead forward from the past — was an error.

Conditions had changed. In 2003 and 2004 no one cared about the NDP and no one asked about Jack Layton. Sure, he became a super-star in 2011. But in 2003 he took over a party near extinction, which had received a miserable 8.5 per cent support in the previous election of November 2000. Questions about Layton winning a byelection seat were not asked because everyone knew the answer — not happening. On the other hand, Singh inherited a party that had just missed a chance at government and was polling at around 20 per cent support. Singh’s NDP is a player.

And the actual past practice led to misinterpretation. Because Layton didn’t run in a byelection, the appeal to history opened the door to a Liberal and Conservative reinterpretation of Singh’s position as a rejection of a byelection run. Their assertions and NDP corrections made the NDP look weak. And when Singh took the first reasonable vacancy – Burnaby South – it appeared like a flip-flop, though it wasn’t. But appearances in politics…well, you know.

So perhaps here’s the point. In general in politics, it may be better to avoid arguments from history so as to avoid being trapped in it. Let the future always be the focus, staying open to doing whatever is needed to build and win, evaluating each opportunity as it comes. Ambitious eyes forward, on the horizon, always.

A related problem was the several byelections called between Singh’s leadership win and his Burnaby South announcement. Of course none of them were in ridings the NDP could win. But while a political leader might be blamed for playing it too safe, no one can be blamed for failing to jump off a cliff. And while that sort of reality-check is probably not for the Leader or MPs to offer, NDP pundits perhaps could have been more aggressive in recasting Liberal demands for Singh to jump of a cliff as self-evidently wrong, self-interested, preposterous advice.

Although an eyes forward stance from Singh combined with pundits ridiculing partisan demands for cliffs jumps might have worked better, they are just tweaks. It’s important to advance your own narrative, but you can only make it from the conditions you find yourself in. Narrative choices are limited when a party elects a leader without a seat.

So finding room to manoeuvre is always important. Once Singh made his Burnaby South decision, perhaps things could have been done differently to advance out of limiting conditions earlier. Perhaps a strategy of direct PMO challenge might have encouraged the PMO to call the byelection on October 28, alongside the byelection for Leeds-Grenville-1000 Islands and Rideau.

Putting Singh on a more aggressive stance could telegraph confidence, switch onus, move Singh out of no-man’s land, and recast him as the dangerous outsider. A strategy of PMO direct challenge could include a call for Butts to call the byelection forthwith – and for him to decide, without delay, on whether there would be a Liberal candidate. Singh could have directed tough Question Period-type questions at the PM from Burnaby South – perhaps speaking from the working class doorsteps of Burnaby South constituents. Or Singh could announce bills, to be tabled on arrival, to fix Trudeau’s failures or the results of his inaction.

It’s impossible to know how a strategy of PMO direct challenge might have succeeded in pushing the PMO call the Burnaby South byelection on October 28. But it’s been my observation that New Democrats often lack the confidence to direct their own play and cast themselves as the central plot protagonist — instead ending up as the guy who you don’t understand why he’s in the play. While there might be occasional upstaging opportunities, it’s no win if they are comic — or an annoyance.

On the other hand, the game played on Singh amid the non-resignation of Raj Grewal was addressed well. Despite the baiting by Liberal operatives for Singh to switch to Brampton East, Singh not only made the right choice, but made it promptly. Unless he could suddenly find a local star for Burnaby South, switching would have shown opportunism, disloyalty and weakness. And, of course, as we see now, the Liberal operatives were baiting Singh to switch to a seat they knew wasn’t actually vacant – and never did become so.

What may have aided Singh’s confidence in sticking with Burnaby South is some information not publicly shared. An internal poll, taken in September and never made public, showed him well ahead in Burnaby South (note to NDP strategists: the default answer to the question of “should we leak this poll showing us leading?” is yes).

Singh’s stumble last weekend on Evan Solomon’s CTV Question Period needs to be addressed. He was caught out on the story of an op-ed by China’s Ambassador to Canada.

Since then, Globe columnist Gary Mason tweeted the timeline of the taping and airing of the interview in relation the date of the op-ed, arguing a bit of slack should be cut for Singh as awareness of the piece really occurred between the Thursday taping and its Sunday airing. Insofar as viewers were not made aware the interview was done four day earlier, when the op-ed was just an emerging story, rather that Sunday, by which time much of the show’s insider audience would have become aware of it, was no doubt a mistake on the part of the show’s producers.

However, some New Democrats, it seems, have misconstrued the timeline Mason presented. The question may have been asked before condemnation of the op-ed exploded the story,  but Solomon’s question was, in fact, fair, coming a full day after the op-ed was posted. It is part of the trial by fire. Yes, that was the day after the PM’s byelection call and no doubt a hectic time. But the test was to see if Singh was briefed-up on a strange op-ed amid current, sensitive Canada-China relations or, even without briefing, could have taken a better swipe at it.

The China-Canada issue is extremely thorny and the NDP needs a China policy – though perhaps can muddle through without for a bit longer as it appears neither the Trudeau government nor Conservatives have one. But whether it’s China or other issues, someone competing for Prime Minister needs to be on top of the hot issues and have a perspective to contribute when called upon. Cycling back to favourite issues is not always possible or appropriate.

Singh also needs to warm-up as an interview subject. In person, Singh is animated and has warmth. But in a talking-head interview format, he often comes off cold. He has the right raw stuff; he need experience, time to experiment and confidence. A smile and occasional head nod are appropriate. New Democrats can’t be scared off the format; it’s an essential part of politics that needs to be mastered.

Having looked back, let’s look ahead. Now unpinned from no-man’s land, well ahead in Burnaby South and with local Liberals ruined by their candidate’s own desperate cheap-shot against Singh, New Democrats have a short window of time to advance a new narrative without too much counter-pressure. They need to think of what to do with it. Narrative starts from the conditions you are in.

Trudeau’s response to Wang’s attempt to racially divide Canadians isn’t acceptable. Rational Canadians understand her strategy isn’t just abhorrent, it’s dangerous in our country. Given Trudeau’s often-stated opposition to divisiveness, taking three days to break his silence over racial divisiveness coming from Liberal ranks is hypocritical – and encourages a creeping suspicion that Trudeau is more identity marketing machine than true belief. And even when he broke his silence there was no apology to Canadians, no apology to Singh, no firm direction to his own troops. He did the absolute bare minimum.

Encouraging suspicion of Trudeau hypocrisy isn’t unfair or opportunistic because there’s lots of evidence it’s true. Haida tattoos aside, the demotion of Jody Wilson-Raybould may be another case of the PMO profiting by reducing people to two-dimensional identities, appropriating them for political profit — then spinning away when the PMO can’t control a political actor who exists in all four dimensions; with not just a deep real life, but also ambitions for the future, both personally and for their society.

On the other hand, Singh’s long-articulated ambition to “bring people together” really is something baked in his soul – you can tell when he talks about it; it animates him and it matters to people, especially younger people. Jagmeet Singh is the lead protagonist in the story of uniting people.

Singh’s role as uniter isn’t just on issues of cultural identity or language. It’s also a class story – but perhaps with a Gramscian twist.

Rightly, Singh has been campaigning on affordability issues, pointing to the problem of people squeezed between stalled wages and rising costs. There is a lot that could be done – both directly by Ottawa and indirectly by encouraging provincial action – but Trudeau doesn’t do much. He makes plans and promises. In official Ottawa, the hegemonic issues are China and Trump and tax cuts for corporations. In subaltern Canada, those are far away.

The problem with subaltern Canada is, unlike officialdom, it lacks constant interconnection and a shared culture — that’s why it’s subaltern. It is an immense challenge to connect the cultural pockets of ‘leave-behind Canadians’ that official Ottawa doesn’t know or care much about. And this is especially true when social movements and the labour movement, which previously created alternative national networks, have been undermined, divided and weakened by both centrist stratagem and neoliberal claims of no alternative.

In this analysis of the inside culture and outside cultures, there is opportunity to bring subaltern Canadians together around change that benefit them. These outsider cultures include working class people, marginalized people, immigrants, the lonely, indebted students. They are the entire cast of real people who never get called up by the liberal glitterati, except as image accessories — but often get talked down to by them.

And here it is critical to remember the social democratic movement isn’t Singh or his caucus team or even the wider NDP membership. For broad success, social movements and the labour movement need to quit playing defence for a rotten economic, environmental and political model out of fear of a worse one playing offence. Defence never wins. Leaders create new teams and new alignments based on new visions arising from current conditions. They work to change the future, not just to slow down a collapsing present.

Official Canada may be liberal by default. But officialdom really is a thin veneer over a much bigger country with much deeper stories. A pundit pile-on is not the story. Echoing the dominant narrative isn’t the story. Singh winning a seat he is now expected to win – not a story. Singh’s unpinning now followed by the Wang inferno gives the NDP a chance to introduce a new story, one in which Singh is central protagonist in a plot about building social unity that touches us all.

But they best be quick, because Singh’s opponents are no doubt already working on a new play in which he again holds a subordinate role.

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