OTTAWA—The polls can tell you one thing about the federal New Democratic Party, and these days it’s not all that good, but a walk with Jagmeet Singh through the Metrotown Mall will tell you something else entirely. At least that’s how Marie Della Mattia sees it.
It was a blistering hot day last summer, around the time the NDP leader decided to uproot from Brampton — the nexus of his political success until then — and run in a byelection on the other side of the country, in the British Columbia riding of Burnaby South.
Della Mattia, a veteran New Democrat campaigner, was with him in Burnaby that day. They were meeting a reporter, and decided to cut through the mall, a huge shopping complex plunked in the suburban city east of Vancouver.
And they got swarmed.
“People are losing their minds,” said Della Mattia with a laugh, describing how young workers at a Telus booth ran over for selfies and parents from northern B.C. were “freaking out” at the chance to chat with the federal leader.
“It was shocking to me,” she said. “That is not happening on the radar of public opinion polling.”
The prevailing view of the NDP is that it is beset by troubles, that it exists in the shadow of its dispiriting defeat in the last federal election, when it stood at the tantalizing brink of power, only to crumble back outside the arena of serious contention.
Under Singh’s leadership, a quarter of the party’s MPs stepped down or decided to retire ahead of this year’s federal vote. Fundraising has plummeted. The party is in an open feud with its Alberta cousins over the Trans Mountain pipeline, while fear of a Green insurgency has rattled New Democrats in British Columbia. And if the polls are right, the Quebec base that lifted the party to historic heights under Jack Layton has all but collapsed.
This summer, Della Mattia and others in charge of the campaign are firing up the NDP’s election machinery with an eye on how to beat expectations in the federal vote scheduled for Oct. 21. In interviews with the Star, they say they see new and untapped pools of voters who gravitate to Singh on a personal level, as a warm-hearted man who overcame hardships he has shared with the public. With a plan to frame the election as a populist rejection of Conservatives and Liberals beholden to the rich, the party is trying to capture the anxieties of the moment — climate change and affordability chief among them — to pick up seats and compete for power in the coming campaign.
“The goal for me is always to win government,” said Jennifer Howard, a former Manitoba cabinet minister who is Singh’s chief of staff and national campaign director.
“Lots of people would say that’s a far way off,” she said, but the last election proved that false. “Ultimately, it’s up to Canadians.”
After the defeat in 2015, the party convened a working group to sift through the ashes. They concluded the campaign suffered from broken communications between the operations at the riding level and the headquarters in Ottawa. They determined the campaign was too “cautious,” lacked a “strong national narrative,” and released the platform too close to election day.
Mathieu Vick, president of the federal NDP, was part of the working group that dissected these failures. The major takeaway, he said, was that the party was too timid and needs to embrace its traditional identity: a champion of workers that isn’t afraid to hike taxes on businesses and the wealthy.
“People wanted us to be ourselves, be the true NDP and to connect with people with our real message, and I think that’s what we’re doing right now,” said Vick.
In recent months, the NDP has been working to fill its slate of 338 candidates, lining up advertisement strategies and finessing its plan for the writ period, said Howard. The campaign has two co-chairs in Della Mattia, who is working on overall strategy and communications, and Alexandre Boulerice, a Montreal MP named deputy leader earlier this year.
Michael Balagus, chief of staff and principal secretary to Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, is serving as a special adviser, while NDP national director Melissa Bruno is leading the process to sign up candidates, among other responsibilities.
One major strategic decision that has already been made was to release the entire platform on June 16, four months before voting day. Della Mattia said the move springs from a perceived change in how campaigns are covered by the media. “It used to be about news: you had to keep all these things in your hat and make sure you had news every day,” she explained.
But now, Della Mattia said they expect the media to cover daily tensions between parties and other eruptions of interest during the campaign, rather than whatever policies are announced.
“Why hold your stuff back?” she said. “When your candidates and your campaigners are not clear on what it is you’re offering voters, then that’s a problem.”
The NDP is at pains to make sure it’s very clear this time around. Its 109-page platform is called the “New Deal for People,” a nod to the romanticism for Depression-era government programs that is à la mode amongst the American left. It throws out any plan to balance the budget in favour of a “historic expansion” of health care to cover prescription medicine, dental and eye care, seniors and long-term care, and mental health and addictions treatment.
The party would hike taxes on corporations and top income earners, and create a 1-per-cent wealth tax for the ultra-rich with assets over $20 million.
Combined with measures to curb cellphone and internet bills, build hundreds of thousands of affordable housing units, as well as the party’s $15-billion environment plan, Howard said the party isn’t shying away from “bread and butter” NDP issues of fair taxation and social programs. She argues this will contrast the NDP with other parties and help it gain seats in key areas across the country.
“We are in a moment when people do feel that we’ve lost some equality, we’ve lost some fairness in Canada,” she said. “We’re not shying away from that; we’re campaigning on that.”
Aside from holding the 44 ridings that elected New Democrats in 2015, the party is targeting major cities like Toronto, where they were swept by the Liberals last time, as well as areas in Winnipeg and Vancouver and former NDP ridings in Halifax and St. John’s, N.L.
To help identify supporters, the party has been honing its use of Populus, the NDP’s data application that’s used to record voters’ preferences and issues they care about. It also records things like who has agreed to display a lawn sign, and is part of a broader effort to ensure central headquarters can react to what campaigners are hearing on the ground across the country, Howard said.
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All this could mean improvements over the last campaign, but the planning itself can’t change the reality that today’s NDP faces some serious obstacles.
Eight months ago, veteran party organizer Brian Topp published a think piece on the party’s chances in the 2019 election. Anything could happen, he wrote — with one daunting caveat: the party needs to win in Quebec.
The thinking is that only by establishing a solid base in that province can the NDP signal to progressives in the rest of Canada that it is a legitimate contender, thereby freeing them from any impulse to support Liberals to keep the Conservatives out of office.
“Victory for the NDP will go through Quebec,” Topp determined. “A federal NDP without that … struggles with relevance.”
If that’s true, the struggle is real. The most recent suite of polls place the NDP around 10 per cent in voting intentions in Quebec, basically tied with the Greens behind the Bloc Québécois, Conservatives and Liberals.
“That’s a steep hill to climb,” said Karl Bélanger, a longtime NDP insider who was principal secretary when former leader Thomas Mulcair was opposition leader. Bélanger said the party made “concerning mistakes” on key issues in Quebec, and the strong stance against a niqab ban during the last election contributed to a disconnect with voters, in his view.
A similar disconnect could continue with Singh’s vocal opposition to Bill 21, a provincial law that bars people wearing religious symbols — like the turban and kirpan Singh wears as a practising Sikh — from working as teachers, Crown lawyers and other positions in the public service.
Like elsewhere in the country, chief of staff Howard sees Singh himself is a key part of turning things around in Quebec. The party still holds a solid 15 seats there, and Howard believes the more Singh meets people there, the more they feel positive about him and respect his views on the secularism law.
“He does stand as a strong symbol and example to people who are concerned about the impact of that law,” she said. “And that is powerful.”
Of course, Quebec isn’t the only tough spot for New Democrats. They’ve been slower than other parties to nominate candidates, with just 131 in place by July 24 — less than three months before voting day. The Greens, by comparison, had more than 214 by mid-July.
The party also has less money than in 2015, when it spent millions on TV and radio ads ($10.4 million), staff salaries and benefits ($10 million), travel ($7.6 million) and office expenses ($2.7 million). That was possible in part because of an unprecedented, $18.6-million fundraising haul that year, a level from which annual donations have since tanked. Quarterly reports indicate they raised about $5.2 million last year, and $1.2 million in the first three months of 2019.
One way they expect to soften the blow is in how the party has always relied on hordes of volunteers for local campaigns, and typically has a smaller war chest than the other major parties, Howard said. There will still be national TV ads — the party has hired the Now Group agency to help with that — but Della Mattia said the focus will be on digital advertising this time around, targeted at key demographics like women with children and ageing parents.
The leader’s tour is designed to be as efficient as possible, with a bus based in B.C. for jaunts out west, and another for swings through Ontario and Quebec, as well as a plane for trips in between and to other corners of Canada. “We don’t want to be wasting time or money in a limited campaign period because we haven’t mapped it out,” said Della Mattia.
Perhaps more than financial constraints, though, the NDP has to find a way into the main current of political debate in this campaign, a battle that has been dominated by conflicts between Trudeau’s Liberals and the Conservatives, said Bélanger.
“Right now the biggest problem for the NDP is that they are not part of the political narrative,” he said. “If the election is cast as a two-way race, there might be little room to manoeuvre for the New Democrats.”
But, Bélanger added, “the fact that Jagmeet Singh is still not well known is a key factor.”
In fact, the party is banking on it. Alongside efforts to speak to economic anxieties from its left-wing perspective, the NDP believes whatever Jagmeet Singh has that inspires scenes like Della Mattia witnessed at the Metrotown Mall will be critical.
“He is a real asset for us as a leader, in the way he can connect with people,” Howard said. “Our challenge is getting everybody to see that … The path for us to do well in this campaign is to make sure that people know Jagmeet.”
The NDP is optimistic it can happen.
But October is two months away, and time is getting shorter. Every day.
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga