With the next Parliament looking like a mirror image of the last one, pundits and politicians from across the partisan spectrum have taken to calling the recent federal election a waste of money. But if you think the $600 million taxpayers spent on it was bad, wait until you find out how much it cost the NDP to end up back where it started.
After spending upwards of $10 million in 2019 to win 24 seats and 16 per cent of the national vote, Jagmeet Singh’s party more than doubled its campaign budget this time around to a reported $24 million. As NDP national director Anne McGrath told the Toronto Star, “We are spending more on advertising in this campaign than we spent on the entire campaign last time — so that’s pretty significant.”
But those extra millions only resulted in one additional seat and an extra 1.7 per cent of the national vote, with both totals coming in well short of what Thomas Mulcair managed in 2015. TikTok ads aren’t cheap, apparently.
This was the second straight campaign where Singh rated as the most popular leader in Canada, only to wind up leading his party to a fourth-place finish. But despite this underwhelming track record and his predecessor getting the boot after just one (vastly more successful) election, Singh’s position at the top of the federal NDP’s pecking order seems safe for now.
That doesn’t add up for David Herle, a former Liberal strategist and the host of The Herle Burly. “If this party had a winning instinct in it,” he said on his Curse of Politics podcast, “they would be crushed by this result, because this should have been a realignment election for them — or at least the possibility of it. They have a super popular leader, they’ve got a fully funded campaign, and their progressive opposition is vulnerable.”
It’s not just Liberals who are critical of Singh’s performance, either. As political analyst (and NDP supporter) Evan Scrimshaw wrote in his recap of the election, “My real ire is for Jagmeet Singh, who has run a deeply unserious campaign and blew a genuinely good chance at making advances. The party’s seat haul is deeply disappointing, and even if it improves slightly, to be as low as they are, after being told the NDP were a serious party, is pathetic. Jagmeet should resign for the good of the party, because it is clear he cannot run a campaign good enough to convert good vibes into seats.”
And for all the money spent on the leader’s tour, which saw the party charter a plane and send Singh to 51 ridings, it doesn’t seem to have delivered much in the way of ROI. As former NDP candidate for York-Simcoe Jessa McLean tweeted, “NDP federal council took the rebates from the local ridings and poured it all into @theJagmeetSingh’s image and campaign… We’re not a movement. We’re an ad campaign.”
The question the federal NDP faces now is the same one it has struggled to answer ever since the passing of Jack Layton: What, exactly, does it want to accomplish? Is it a movement that seeks to move the Overton window on key public policy issues, or does it want to win elections, form a national government and implement change? If it’s the latter, it needs to lean far more heavily on the experience of its provincial wings in Alberta and British Columbia, where the combination of a personable leader and more pragmatic policies has proven a winning combination. If it’s the former, it needs to do better on defining issues like climate change, where its plan was widely panned by both economists and climate scientists as being aggressively unserious.
It also needs to decide whether it’s going to start heeding its former leader’s call to be “loving, hopeful and optimistic.”
In the recent election, Singh campaigned far more like Stephen Harper than Layton, attacking Justin Trudeau at every available opportunity and trading in misinformation about everything from student loan interest payments to the eight child-care deals with the provinces and territories that had already been struck. Avi Lewis, his star candidate in West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country, launched a personal attack on University of Calgary professor Jennifer Winter — one that was reminiscent of his 2018 broadside against then-premier Rachel Notley when he described her as “the new patron saint of the corporate welfare bums.”
Based on his first post-election press conference, where he effectively blamed the prime minister for low voter turnout, that seems unlikely to change any time soon. “I think there’s a lot of cynicism,” Singh told reporters. “And I think that cynicism has been fed by people like Mr. Trudeau.”
Opinion: This was the second straight campaign where Jagmeet Singh rated as the most popular leader in Canada, only to wind up leading his party to a fourth-place finish, writes columnist @maxfawcett for @NatObserver. #elxn44 #NDP #cdnpoli
At some point, the NDP faithful are going to have to decide if this approach deserves a third kick at the electoral can, or whether it’s time for a new leader who can actually give voice to Layton’s spirit of optimism and hope. At the very least, they might want to find one who can deliver a better return on their investment.