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17 September 2021

Jagmeet Singh: the rise of Canada’s kingmaker

The New Democratic Party’s youthful leader is, once again, set to shape the agenda of the next Canadian government.

By Megan Gibson

Justin Trudeau’s self-described “sunny ways” have clouded over, and Jagmeet Singh hasn’t stopped talking about it. Over the course of Canada’s whirlwind election campaign this summer, the biggest thorn in the beleaguered prime minister’s side arguably hasn’t been the official opposition leader, the Conservative Party’s Erin O’Toole. Instead, it’s been Singh, the dapper, charismatic leader of the progressive New Democratic Party (NDP), who has doggedly — in campaign ads, in stump speeches, in leader debates — castigated Trudeau on his failures in office.

For Singh, drawing a firm distinction between himself and the Liberal Party leader makes sense. Both politicians appeared on the national stage as rising stars, brimming with optimism and progressive promise. Yet while Singh is still riding the crest of his popularity wave, Trudeau’s could be about to crash. Once Canadians cast their ballots on 20 September, there’s a not-so-small chance that Trudeau could be out of a job after calling a miscalculated snap election five weeks ago. Singh, meanwhile, is poised to become the next government’s kingmaker. 

A former criminal defence lawyer, Singh moved into Ontario provincial politics in 2011, where he made a name for himself by pushing policies on increasing police accountability. Then, just six years later aged 38, he made the leap to the federal stage by decisively winning an NDP leadership race. He also became the first visible minority to head a major federal party in Canada (Singh is Indo-Canadian and a practicing Sikh).

That momentum, however, soon stalled. In the 2019 federal election, the NDP under Singh had its worst electoral performance in 15 years. Although voters think of it as Canada’s third party – rather than a possible contender for government – upsets aren’t inconceivable. In 2011’s election, under the leadership of the late Jack Layton, the NDP became the official opposition party. Singh’s first federal election, however, saw it downgraded from third-party status to fourth behind the nationalist Bloc Québécois. 

Yet the political landscape in Canada is much different in 2021 – and so too is the NDP. Singh has a stronger team in place and the party is better funded. Meanwhile, he has capitalised on his relative youth, garnering a reputation for connecting with a younger demographic, comfortably embracing platforms such as TikTok and Twitch. His enthusiasm is contagious. A CBC poll ahead of the English-language debate on 9 September found that of all the party leaders, Singh was rated the most trustworthy and most competent. 

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In spite of this, Singh’s ability to translate personal popularity into votes for his party is unclear ahead of Monday’s 20 September vote. The NDP remains firmly in third place across polls. While Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system doesn’t do the NDP any favours, perhaps neither do the party’s biggest supporters. “Are young people going to break Jagmeet’s heart, is the question,” says David McGrane, a professor of politics at the University of Saskatchewan and the author of The New NDP: Moderation, Modernisation, and Political Marketing. “If you’re putting all your chips into young people voting, are you actually [in a] comfortable [spot]?”

That’s not to say that the NDP hasn’t been able to move the needle. Indeed, after two years of propping up Trudeau’s Liberal minority government, Singh can make legitimate claims about influencing policy. Many credit Trudeau’s most progressive campaign promises as stalwart NDP pledges. “If the country ends up with $10-a-day childcare or a $15 federal minimum wage, it was because the NDP pushed for it,” says David Moscrop, author of Too Dumb for Democracy? and political theorist. “That’s not nothing.”

While the race for prime minister remains too close to call for either Trudeau or O’Toole, it’s a relatively safe bet that the NDP will comfortably increase its seat count – and Singh will likely continue to play a pivotal role in shaping the policy of the next government. For political analysts and those within the party, that result will mark a victory. 

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Yet it also raises a deeper question: if electoral success in 2021 means that the NDP will essentially play the same role it did after taking a beating in 2019, what does that say about the party’s purpose? Is it enough for the NDP to continue to be a “policy farm for the Liberals”, as Moscrop puts it, influencing rather than setting the agenda? Or is it time to reassess the party’s ambitions? It’s a question that the NDP – and Singh – will have to grapple with at some point, no matter the outcome of this election.

[See also: Canadian federal election 2021: Justin Trudeau’s rival closes in]