Election post-mortem, Part 2: An NDP insider on getting voters to like the party as much as they like Jagmeet Singh

TVO.org speaks with a New Democrat about popular leaders, close losses, and why the party is ready for the next election
By Matt Gurney - Published on Sep 23, 2021
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and his wife, Gurkiran Kaur Sidhu, at his election-night headquarters on September 20, 2021. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

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This is the second instalment of a three-part series looking at how the election played out in the Greater Toronto Area. Read Part 1 here; watch for Part 3 on Friday.

On Monday, Canadians voted in a federal election. Much attention had been paid to the Greater Toronto Area as a key battleground. In the end, the Liberals essentially held their “Fortress Toronto”; despite losing the popular vote nationally, Liberal strength in and around the city allowed Justin Trudeau to maintain a strong minority in Parliament.

In this three-part series, TVO.org asks experts and stakeholders for their thoughts on what happened in and around Toronto during the 2021 federal-election campaign. Next up, a senior NDP official with knowledge of both the national and Ontario campaigns. (In order to speak freely and candidly, the official was granted anonymity.)

Matt Gurney: I always start with the same question. What happened on Monday?

New Democrat: That’s a question that I’ve been kicking around in my head now for 48 hours or so. I think, by and large, what we saw was that, because there was no real reason for the election, it was hard for people to be driven around the election. So we ended up seeing people less excited about the current government, but also not really having a driving force to change things up one way or the other.

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Gurney: I did interviews just like this two years ago, and something I remember then was that the mood was pretty grim. That election was not one New Democrats had been happy with. The party didn’t have enough money for a full leader tour or a big ad buy. It was a very defensive campaign. Now, two years later, although some results are still coming in, we can say in a general sense that the outcome wasn’t hugely different. The NDP’s popular-vote share is up a bit, and it looks like one extra seat. So real, but small, gains. Yet the mood seems much better. What’s your sense of that?

New Democrat: Oh, absolutely. I mean, frankly, I’ve seen some media try very hard to make some false equivalencies between how our party feels and how the Conservatives might feel about how the campaign went overall. And certainly in any campaign, there’s going to be one or two members or people who will want to get on a soapbox to declare what went badly. But overall, yeah, this campaign was working well. We have the most popular leader in the country; we’ve been checking these numbers on everything from competency to likeability to “understands people like me.” These scores are through the roof. It’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to get the party to catch up to him by the end of the campaign, but I think that we see that possibility still. This is a campaign we are proud of — we represented ourselves well to Canadians, and I think that that gives people a lot of pride in how the campaign was run. And when we look at the results, we see a lot of seats where we were close. Winning is better! But we see a path forward.

Gurney: It’s interesting. Just as a pundit, I can sketch out good-news and bad-news versions of the O’Toole and Trudeau campaigns. I could do, like, a debate club “for or against” on either of them. But I’d have a harder time making a case against Jagmeet Singh here. Not impossible, but you don’t seem to have as much bad news to digest as the Conservatives and even the Liberals, who won but keep seeing their votes go down, putting more ridings in danger.

New Democrat: Let’s be honest: campaigns are about winning more seats. So that’s the number one goal, for sure. But running a campaign that you’re proud of and showing the foundation from which you can build on is an important part for any political party. And, certainly for us, going back to Jack Layton, when he became leader, we were in a tough, tough spot. It took time. In 2019, let’s be honest, we were saving the furniture — or at least as much of it as we could save at all. And, yes, we were looking to grow this time, and we made some inroads. But, again, the seat count is what you’re looking for. But, realistically, in vote percentages and in enthusiasm, growth is real. So there are lots of reason for optimism for the next campaign coming out of this one.

Gurney: It wasn’t a full interview, but I had a chat the day after the vote with a colleague of yours in the Greater Toronto Area. And, yeah, there was disappointment that hoped-for gains didn’t materialize. But he also said, “Matt, it was really nice to have a campaign where we could spend money, afford a plane, buy some radio ads, and not have to mortgage our office building.” And there just seemed to be this relief at the end of this campaign in the sense that, in a year or two, you could do it all again, if necessary.

New Democrat: That is so right. What we did between 2019 and December 2020 was incredible. We eliminated the debt for not only the 2019 campaign, but also the 2015 campaign. We fought the last election with debt still left over from 2015! We wrapped that up by the end of last year and started having the money to invest going forward for this campaign. So the short answer is, we moved mountains to get ourselves in a good financial position for this election. And I’m sure that we’ll be ready to do it again whenever is necessary. We’ve done hard work on this.

Gurney: I want to fire a few good, bad, and ugly questions at you here, but we’ll start positive. What was something you really liked from this campaign?

New Democrat: For me, it’s genuinely the way Jagmeet was able to connect with people. And the way that he was able to be himself in this campaign. He was able to get out there really well, be himself, be comfortable as leader, and connect with people. Now, again, we weren’t able to convert that completely all the way to the ballot box. But, you know, when the campaign started, there were forest fires burning across the country. It’s hard to remember that, but that was just five weeks ago. There’s the fourth wave, kids going back to school. There was a lot going on, and we had to get out there in the middle of all that. And the polls show it was working — people responded well to him. I think these leadership numbers are a leading indicator of where we can go and what we can do; we need to bring the party up to that level, but there is room to grow here.

Gurney: Now the bad question: What didn’t you like?

New Democrat: Well, it’s the flipside of the above. That we couldn’t link up personal approval for Jagmeet with results at the ballot box. Did you read the Star’s endorsement of the Liberals?

Gurney: I did. It was lukewarm at best.

New Democrat: It was an endorsement of us, really. They wanted Liberals backed up by a strong NDP contingent. And that’s still our challenge — “We like Jagmeet, so vote Liberal.” That’s what I didn’t like. We need to link up support for Jagmeet with a vote for the NDP.

Gurney: Where I live is normally pretty Liberal — it was blue during the Stephen Harper years, but it’s solid red now. But I grew up in the 905, which is a battleground for the Liberals and the Tories. You guys have areas that are also your battlegrounds. Why do you think you lost some of those close races? You’ve talked about needing to link up approval of Singh with a vote for the party. Is this a problem of Jagmeet being wildly popular, or is this some kind of brand problem with the party?

New Democrat: [laughs] The better answer is how amazing Jagmeet is. But, again, that’s what we saw with Layton between 2006 and 2008. He built up his own brand, and the party then became more and more credible to people across Canada. In 2011, people looked at the Liberals and decided they didn’t like what that party had become, and there was familiarity and comfort with the NDP and with Jack. They had faith that they could vote for us. Look, I’m not telling you anything you don’t know: people are not in love with Trudeau anymore. That Teflon has rubbed off. Something we heard a lot was that Canadians believed Trudeau called this vote for himself. Canadians now can really believe, in their hearts of hearts, that Trudeau would make a major national decision that could cost $600 million just for his own benefit. They believe that. And we just need a few more people to decide that that’s too much to stomach. I don’t think we quite got there. That’s the next step. 

Gurney: Two years ago, for an interview just like this, I was talking to one of your colleagues, and there was this real disappointment that the long nightmare of NDP planners had come to pass yet again: a last-minute bolt to the Liberals by NDP voters to block the Conservatives. This time, though, just in my own conversations with your guys and my own network, I didn’t get much sense that that was going to happen. I know it’s very early, but what is your sense on that?

New Democrat: I could tell you more in a few days when we get back a bunch of numbers. We always, always hope for more. There are a few ridings where we weren’t where we expected to be — where we expected to be higher, and it didn’t happen. So, yeah, that’s always concerning. The Liberals call it “disciplining the progressive vote.” In 2019, Justin Trudeau never mentioned the NDP. And in this campaign, he was doing it almost right from the beginning, trying to campaign against us as well. So being able to hold our vote is definitely something we need to continue to work on. And also we need to grow it. We need to keep a leader they can trust when they’re ready to move their vote, and right now there is a lot happening in Canada and the world. People are going to be ready for a change. 

Gurney: You mentioned some ridings. I know your data analysis is still happening, but when you talk about coming up short, do you mean specific ridings or coming in below target on your national number?

New Democrat: I mean more like in pockets of the country. I need more time to analyze, but we’re watching Toronto — Davenport is going Liberal now, but I hope we can flip that. In southwestern Ontario, in the Hamilton area, in Windsor–Tecumseh, we wanted to do better than we did. In British Columbia, we were able to pull off some solid wins, but, again, there were a few more ridings where we felt we might have a shot. And some other places. It’s great we took Edmonton Griesbach. We’ve been trying for a long time, and we have a heck of a candidate there — Alberta’s only Indigenous MP, [Blake Desjarlais]. So that’s good. Getting him sworn in will be great. But we couldn’t do the same in Saskatoon West, which the Conservatives held. We are going to need to look at all the ridings where we fell short by a few hundred or few thousand votes.

Gurney: The Conservative I spoke with was overall happy with their get-out-the vote. I’m not sure how much insight you have into that part of your operation, but I’m just wondering what you’ve heard.

New Democrat: You always want more, and you always want to do better, but in the key ridings where we fell just short, I can’t say. It’s just too early to tell if it would have mattered.

Gurney: No, that’s fair enough. It’s something of a truism in this country that eventually the federal Liberals will defeat themselves, and you’ve already mentioned above some of the accumulating damage that Trudeau has taken over the years. But you can’t just wait for the other team to lose. What’s a missing ingredient you think you guys need to punch things up a level?

New Democrat: People are busy with their lives. Regular Canadians don’t necessarily know everything that’s going on in Ottawa. And that’s one of the roles of the opposition. We have to point out what’s going on in Ottawa. We need to do that. And as I said before, we have the leader where we want him. Canadians know Jagmeet; they trust Jagmeet. We need to get the party up. The party is key. So that’s getting great candidates, right? Making them well-known. Having a team Canadians know and trust. We talked already about how, in 2019, we were burning furniture to stay warm. In 2008, when Jack said he was running for prime minister, journalists laughed. We don’t get that anymore. People know they can trust Jagmeet, and we’ll get results for Canadians. We need to continue to build that credibility, continue to build up who we are as a party. I think we’re close. We’re getting to that place where we just need to keep showing people who we are. We always need more money and more advertising, but we also need more presence and more trust.

Gurney: We talked before about how, unlike with O’Toole and even Trudeau, Singh’s leadership seems secure. If I’ve seen any grumbling — and this is just me scrolling social media or pinging a few random Dipper friends of mine — it has been that there’s too much emphasis on Singh. You’ve talked about linking up his approval with the vote, right? But has so much attention been put on him that the party is being left out of the coverage?

New Democrat: Yeah. That’s interesting. Look, we take our cues from American politics, right, and the president is the central figure in U.S. politics. That’s not our parliamentary system, but that is how we often cover it. This isn’t new. It was true under Jack, too. “JACK LAYTON” was in bigger letters on the plane than “NDP.” And that’s true across the board usually, right? Federally and provincially. People need to know the leader. They need to trust the leader. We’ve spent two years doing that, working on that. Our leader has to be an appealing alternative to the leader Canadians already have! A focus on leaders is just part of our politics. I know the knives are coming out for O’Toole, and you can go search Twitter and find someone saying anything, but we aren’t seeing a lot of that with Singh. 

Gurney: Were you out there much knocking on doors?

New Democrat: A bit, but I was mostly plugged in to what we were hearing from others.

Gurney: What were you and others hearing?

New Democrat: Frustration with the early election was a big one. We had made a decision to make that a day-one issue and then move on, but it was a big one people kept bringing up. We kept hearing it through the campaign. Other issues varied regionally. We heard a lot about the environment. That was heightened when I had to explain to my kids what all this smoke was and why the moon was orange in Ontario.

Gurney: I had the same chat. It was like fog. You couldn’t see a few hundred metres away.

New Democrat: Right. And then that shifted, and it was a lot of talk about COVID-19, the pandemic, health care as an issue. But also just a lot about a general cynicism. One of the things that I think Justin Trudeau has done is driven cynicism even further. This is a guy that gave people hope in politics, for a lot of folks across this country. I obviously was never one of them. But a lot of people saw him in 2015, and thought, maybe there’s hope and politics can be better. And for the last six years, we’ve learned that he’s actually not better than some of the worst things we think about politics. And so that just means kind of fighting uphill, and we hear on the phone and sometimes at the door, “You know, I’m sad to say I’ve lost my faith,” and that’s hard to fight against.

Gurney: Did anything much surprise you out there? As an outside observer, I felt like it was a campaign where we all expected something to come along and happen, but, other than Afghanistan buckling right at the beginning, it never did. No real twists or gamechangers. Did anything surprise you?

New Democrat: Not really. In fact, I have a lot of pride in the fact that we had a campaign plan, and we were able to stick to it and execute it. Let the critics come, but we didn’t shift a lot. Sometimes there are last-minute developments you need to react to; you need to bring something up or change your strategy because of a development, and campaigns adapt on the fly. I’ll tell you this: I wish we didn’t spend as much time talking about tweets from years ago, which was something that happened to some of our candidates. Look, I recognize where I’m coming from, and so do you, so take this for what it’s worth. But we had bad tweets, and the Liberals and their leader are struggling to help the members of our armed forces with sexual misconduct. They haven’t done nearly enough on that. Very little progress on ending this problem in our armed forces. And these issues have gone right up to the PMO. And then these issues took out two approved Liberal candidates during the campaign … I’ve been around long enough to not be shocked by much, but I found that shocking. It was just really disappointing to see that and how little Trudeau was held to account. It’s upsetting there wasn’t greater priority put on squashing that. All of us, Canadians and especially politicians, need to look back on that. 

Gurney: That’s about all I have for you, but do you have any concluding thoughts?

New Democrat: Just this. It’s easy to get cynical about our elections. This one is being framed as about “nothing,” and I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think we should frame any election as being about nothing. But I think we can say that this one shouldn’t have happened. We should have stayed at work. We should have been helping Indigenous communities clean their water, helping communities hit by wildfires, finalizing and advancing child-care deals, dealing with the fourth wave, helping Alberta cope with what’s happening in their hospitals now. This election didn’t happen by accident. It happened because Justin Trudeau wanted a majority more than he wanted to keep actually working for Canadians. And I don’t think he should get off the hook for that.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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