OTTAWA – The leader of the New Democratic Party is talking about fear and insecurity.
It is not his, remember you; nor that of your party. Perched on a sofa in his office on Parliament Hill, Jagmeet Singh is in his usual state of mind, his boiling is now a well-known feature.
It's almost enough to mask the rudeness of your discussion points. Singh is arguing that behind the rosy economic statistics held by Justin Trudeau and the Liberal government, "real people, real Canadians" are struggling.
Look at the shutdown of General Motors in Oshawa, he says. Hundreds fired in Cape Breton. Workers protesting wage cuts at Montreal airport. On the verge of an election year, "this insecurity, this fear" pervades Trudeau's Canada, Singh says. People are worried about precarious work, the cost of living, the scourge of climate change – and the NDP is here to ease that fear.
"The reality is that, to ordinary people, things are not going well," Singh told The Star early on a December night.
"Our mission is to be sure to defend people who do not feel there is someone in their corner."
Singh may know something about being on the ropes.
More than a year since his dominant campaign to win the NDP's federal leadership, Singh had – by his own recognition – some "political ups and downs." Fundraising has fallen since the days when the New Democrats were the official opposition in Ottawa. A parade of deputies who are sitting decided not to participate in the 2019 federal election, including NDP front-page veterans (though Singh points out that at least one former congressman is competing for a comeback, Toronto's Andrew Cash). In the midst of all this, Singh was forced to repress controversies such as last spring's furor over his participation in Sikh separatist events and allegations of inappropriate behavior against two of his lawmakers.
Now Singh is looking to turn the page on all this in the new year when the NDP leader does not have one but two important elections on the calendar.
First, sometime in February, Singh will have a chance to enter the House of Commons for the first time. Brampton's former Ontario MPP never occupied a federal seat. But in his quest for a vacancy, the NDP leader decided in August to move to British Columbia to run in Burnaby South, a race presided over by new Democrat Kennedy Stewart until he resigns to run – successfully – Vancouver.
If all goes well for Singh in Burnaby – and a survey this fall suggested that riding is by no means a trap for him – Singh will then turn to the larger battle: the general election scheduled for October.
Farouk Karim, a former NDP press secretary who campaigned with Guy Caron of Quebec in the NDP leadership race in 2017, said there is no doubt that Singh and his party are in a recession. The party was defeated in each of the eight elections since Singh became leader, with a smaller share of the total votes in each contest compared to the general elections of 2015.
Singh himself lost the NDP's salary while the party struggled to raise funds. Donations fell to under $ 5 million in 2017 from $ 18.6 million in 2015, according to Elections Canada. Quarterly reports so far in 2018 do not look better.
Meanwhile, the party's position in national polls stopped in third place, well behind liberals and conservatives and not far ahead of Elizabeth May and the Green Party.
The challenge for the NDP, Karim said, is to present arguments to voters on the progressive side of the spectrum that the liberal government of Trudeau has not fulfilled in its priorities. This can be difficult, given that liberals are still ruling in their first constituency term. Voting for change is like trying to convince a family to buy a new appliance after only a few years, he said.
"It is easier to say that there are" manufacturing defects, "Karim said.
Karim hears this when Singh attacks the Liberals by nationalizing the Trans Mountain pipeline, a $ 4.5 billion purchase that the NDP supports will undermine Canada's commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Accord. The party is also launching a new rhetoric about how the NDP is "on its side," a message that Karim said is intended to highlight the party's traditional association with trade union and labor rights, versus the liberal government that passed legislation to force strike. Canada Post employees return to work.
At the same time, some have argued that the political field has changed with the prevalence of populist nationalism in Europe and the United States. Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research Associates, said the same forces that lure people to Donald Trump's anti-elitist rhetoric may be a major factor in the 2019 Canadian elections.
That could represent another opportunity for the NDP if it can position itself as the champion of those who feel excluded from broader economic success by pursuing policies such as the more aggressive taxation of the rich, Graves said.
Indeed, Singh has already unveiled a set of proposals to close fiscal loopholes for corporate leaders and prevent the rich from hiding their money, but left-wing critics such as Avi Lewis – co-author of the environmental and social-democrat treaty, the Leap Manifesto. – are calling on you to sharpen your demands with attention-grabbing proposals, such as "free transit for all."
"One of the answers could be to exploit this populist vein," Graves said. "(Singh) could definitely be a magnet for people who find it exciting to hear these things more directly."
Political strategies aside, Singh's first hurdle is the February election in Burnaby South. For Karim, victory is the only way to spark a brighter 2019 for the Social Democrat party – or put Singh's leadership in question.
"People are counting the NDP, so there is plenty of room to surprise people in 2019," he said.
"And people love a children's story of return."
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa reporter who covers national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga