December 8, 2019

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Scandal-free NDP seeks lift-off in Manitoba

Opinion

The good news for NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is, this week, the third in a gruelling six-week federal election campaign, he has a plane.

Although a chartered aircraft is a traditional must-have for leaders of federal parties during the writ period, the NDP have been operating on such a tight budget a plane is not available, at least not every week. In those weeks where Singh does have his own wings, he must make the most of the opportunity.

It's not surprising, then, Singh used one of his airplane-enabled weeks to visit Manitoba, and Winnipeg, in particular, where the NDP are not only defending seats but also where there is legitimate opportunity to steal seats.

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh could get further support with good performances in the leaders debates and a few more stumbles by the frontrunners, Dan Lett says. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh could get further support with good performances in the leaders debates and a few more stumbles by the frontrunners, Dan Lett says. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Moments after disembarking, Singh made a climate change policy announcement at the University of Winnipeg with his candidates, before heading to The Forks Market for a meet-and-greet voters. All in all, it was just a few hours on the ground, but in a campaign that has suddenly become impossible to predict, those few hours could be extremely import come Oct. 21.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's admission he thrice wore black or brown facepaint to augment costumes landed last week in the federal campaign like a hand grenade. Remarkably, there hasn't been a significant shift in opinion since Trudeau used a visit last week in Winnipeg to own up to his inherently racist past behaviour.

The Liberals and Conservatives seem more or less live in a statistical tie, while the NDP and Green parties lag significantly behind.

That suddenly puts Singh, 40, in a very interesting position. Even in a campaign where he will be denied many of the campaign tools the Liberals and Tories enjoy, Singh could well hold the balance of power in what is increasingly looking like it will be a minority mandate.

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh poses for a photo with young supporters during a campaign stop at The Forks Market in Winnipeg on Tuesday. (Andrew Vaughan / The Canadian Press)</p>

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh poses for a photo with young supporters during a campaign stop at The Forks Market in Winnipeg on Tuesday. (Andrew Vaughan / The Canadian Press)

Before he can occupy that pivotal position in federal politics, he will have to shake off a pre-election period that was a true roller-coaster of emotions for the NDP.

Hopes for growth rose significantly in March, when Singh won a federal byelection in British Columbia's Burnaby South riding. Unfortunately, Singh's ascension to Parliament did not provide his party with a bounce in federal opinion polls.

In most pre-writ surveys, the NDP seems mired in the mid-teens of support, well below the nearly 20 per cent of the popular vote it received in the 2015 election. If something positive doesn't happen for Singh soon, he may see his party win fewer than the 44 seats the NDP captured last time.

The lack of a post-byelection bump in support can be seen in other aspects of party operations.

In mid summer, it was reported the NDP — saddled with a multimillion-dollar operating deficit — would be forced to rely on borrowed money to fund its campaign.

There was also some concern the NDP would not field a full slate of 338 candidates. After a flurry of nominations, it looks as if there will be a warm body in every riding. That is not to say the NDP can afford — either financially or strategically — to compete in every riding.

This election will be a test of the NDP's ability to be selective in the fights it takes on.

This national strategy is at work in Manitoba, where the NDP hold one Winnipeg seat (Daniel Blaikie in Elmwood—Transcona) and one in the North (Niki Ashton in Keewatinook—Aski).

Ashton won a tight race in her riding in 2015, with Blaikie's win even tighter. Beyond those two, however, it's clear the NDP is focusing the rest of its limited resources behind candidate Leah Gazan in Winnipeg Centre — a long-held NDP seat lost to Liberal Robert-Falcon Ouellette four years ago.

It is impossible to ignore the effort the NDP is putting into raising Gazan's profile. Prior to Singh's arrival for his first visit to Manitoba, the profoundly energetic Gazan was being used as the local talking head to promote national NDP announcements.

Gazan will be competitive in Winnipeg Centre, a poor and ultra-urban riding where the NDP have deep roots and where the provincial wing of the party engineered a virtual sweep in the recent Manitoba general election. Singh will still have to contend with the fact his party will have less money for advertising, polling and — yes — national air travel.

Leah Gazan the NDP candidate for Winnipeg Centre got time at the microphone when federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh visited the University of Winnipeg on Tuesday. The NDP is looking for Gazan to beat Liberal incumbent Robert-Falcon Ouellette. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Leah Gazan the NDP candidate for Winnipeg Centre got time at the microphone when federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh visited the University of Winnipeg on Tuesday. The NDP is looking for Gazan to beat Liberal incumbent Robert-Falcon Ouellette. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

In 2015, the NDP went into the election as the frontrunners in most national opinion polls. The burden of expectation that came with it caused the party (led at the time by Tom Mulcair) to implode.

This time around, Singh is leading from the rear of the pack and fighting a profound uphill battle, even with the obvious flaws and baggage surrounding the Liberal and Tory campaigns.

Voters should watch carefully, however, for signs of momentum. The NDP has been scandal-free, and Singh's elegant and understated performance in the wake of the Trudeau blackface revelations have positioned the NDP for growth.

Good performances in the leaders debates by Singh, a few more stumbles by the frontrunners, and there is every possibility the NDP could see its overall opinion poll support rise. With such a spike would come additional donations, which would undoubtedly allow Singh to broaden the reach of his campaign.

Just think of it: a plane right up to election day.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Tuesday, September 24, 2019 at 7:26 PM CDT: Fixes spelling of name

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