In politics, we are told, anything can happen. A week is an eternity and the predictions of experts may prove useless.
For Canada’s federal New Democrats this credo — the possibility of a bright future — is the only good news. Because right now, the party is languishing. It is low in the polls, starved of money and largely invisible
Within party ranks, much of the blame is placed at the feet of its new leader, Jagmeet Singh. A bitter slogan, “Singh or swim,” is making the rounds.
Indeed, Singh has not delivered. He won the NDP leadership on a promise to expand the party’s reach, particularly among suburbanites and new immigrants.
So far, that hasn’t happened. The party’s performance in byelections has been tepid. The gains it had made in Quebec under Jack Layton and Thomas Mulcair are threatened.
In British Columbia, the Greens are siphoning off traditional NDP supporters. One prominent New Democrat is even thinking of running for the Greens.
In Alberta, the federal party’s anti-pipeline position is earning it no friends. Linda Duncan, the party’s sole MP in Alberta says she won’t run in October’s federal election. Her Edmonton seat is not likely to remain New Democrat.
Singh has also managed to antagonize almost the entire Saskatchewan wing of the party. He has done so by evicting Regina MP Erin Weir from caucus for the crime of being socially inept — a sin that put the popular New Democrat in the crosshairs of the Me Too movement (Weir was accused of standing too close to some women and talking too much to others).
Even in Toronto, where the NDP has a chance of winning back some of the seats it lost to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals four years ago, party activists are demoralized.
Talk of using the so-called Leap Manifesto to revitalize the NDP and point it in a more activist direction has produced little.
Is this all Singh’s fault? Certainly, he hasn’t helped. He won the leadership on the poetic slogan of “love and courage.” But he has not managed to translate this into anything real.
Indeed, the most memorable promise he made during that campaign was to eliminate what’s left of the universal Old Age Security program for seniors and wrap any savings into a new means-tested benefit for the elderly poor.
It was a bold move if for no other reason than it ran counter to party policy. Luckily for Singh, few paid much attention to it.
In fact, few have paid much attention at all to Singh. He initially chose not to seek a seat in the Commons in order to spend more time building the party across Canada. But the party remains unbuilt and Singh remains unnoticed.
Now he has changed his strategy and plans to run in a B.C. byelection. If he wins, he will enter the Commons just a few months before it shuts down for the next federal election campaign — raising the question as to why he is even bothering.
If he loses (as some New Democrats privately hope), he will be under pressure to step down as leader.
But Singh alone isn’t responsible for the NDP’s travails. The party remains confused about where it stands on the big issues of the day. It opposes building pipelines to move bitumen from Alberta but is vague about the future of the tarsands themselves.
It supports electoral reform. But, as the results from a recent B.C. referendum suggest, the general public does not.
The party’s position on free-trade deals seems indistinguishable from that of the Liberals.
The NDP has still not recovered from Trudeau’s feint to the left during the 2015 election campaign. Its response has been that the devious Liberals can’t be trusted to deliver on their promises.
But the problem with this strategy is that sometimes the devious Liberals do deliver — as they did with the legalization of marijuana and the Canada child benefit.
All of which leaves New Democrats in a terrible quandary. What can they realistically offer that the Liberals have not already promised? And who is this guy Jagmeet Singh anyway?
Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based columnist covering politics. Follow him on Twitter: @tomwalkom