Politics

‘Never waste a crisis’: After a troubled year, federal NDP gear up for a fight in 2019

SURREY, B.C. — Amid fundraising woes, poor performances in
recent byelections and a lingering feud with a Saskatchewan MP
booted from caucus, the federal NDP put on a brave face at a
caucus strategy session in Surrey, B.C., this week, where they
set the stage for the 2019 federal election.

It was a quiet affair that did not display any of the internal
disputes that have dogged the party since leader Jagmeet Singh
was elected in October 2017. Instead, the caucus appears to
have largely rallied together a year out from the next
election, recognizing the effort that will be required first to
get Singh elected in a Burnaby South byelection, and then to
prevent a catastrophe when Canadians go to the polls next
year. The mood, if not optimistic, was “at least hopeful,”
according to one NDP source. “They see a path forward.”

Singh and his caucus worked hard during the three-day session
to hammer home the message that will likely be a cornerstone of
the party’s 2019 campaign: that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
promises big but rarely follows through — on health care, the
environment, poverty and electoral reform. “People are really
struggling in our country,” Singh told reporters as the session
came to a close on Thursday. “And we know that the Liberals
have said a lot of good things, have talked about helping
people out. But at the end of the day, they have not delivered
what people need.”

Singh said he recognizes the NDP has work to do to, though he
offered few details about what the plan is to reverse the
party’s misfortunes. On Thursday, he said the party will focus
on “telling stories” of Canadians who are suffering, referring
to it as a “change of focus.” Throughout the retreat, caucus
members said they’re motivated and ready to fight, with Quebec
MP Alexandre Boulerice referring to his colleagues as “warriors
in suits.”

“There have been problems in the past. Maybe fundraising wasn’t
as expected,” said House leader Ruth-Ellen Brosseau. “But we’re
talking about solutions and we’re talking about moving forward…
and I’m sure we’re going to be doing a lot better.”

Still, the Surrey retreat comes in the midst of what seems like
an endless stream of bad news for the New Democrats. Earlier
this month, the party’s annual financial report showed it had
raised just $4.86 million in 2017, down from $5.39 million the
year before, and had finished the year $3.1 million in the red.

The party is polling at less than 20 per cent and has been
losing vote share in byelections since Singh took the reins
last October, most recently in Chicoutimi, Que., where the
party won just 8.7 per cent of the vote in June after winning
the riding in 2011 and finishing a close second in 2015.

And to top it all off, the party can’t seem to shake the
ongoing drama of Saskatchewan MP Erin Weir, who told the Globe
and Mail on Wednesday that he plans to seek the NDP nomination
in his riding of Regina-Lewvan once again, despite being kicked
out of caucus in May amid allegations of sexual harassment.

Weir’s announcement comes after 67 former Saskatchewan New
Democrat MPs and MLAs wrote a letter accusing Singh of
mishandling the situation and calling for Weir’s reinstatement.
Singh insists his decision is final and Weir won’t be allowed
to run for the NDP in the next election.

MP
Erin Weir
Brandon Harder/Postmedia

Frustration at the party’s seeming inability to change the
channel to something more positive boiled to the surface once
during the three-day session, when B.C. MP Alistair MacGregor
insisted to reporters that the public reaction to Singh lies in
stark contrast with the negative headlines.

“We had Jagmeet out in Victoria for the Victoria Pride parade
in early July. We were holding up people behind us, because
people were walking out in the street trying to get selfies
with him,” MacGregor said. “So I know that there’s this
narrative being driven in the national media and by our
political opponents, but… what I see on the ground is very
different from the stories that we read.”

But for the most part, caucus members were all smiles
throughout the retreat, with none of the divisions on display
that have occasionally flared up over the past year. Quebec MP
Pierre Nantel, who told Radio-Canada a year ago, just ahead of
Singh’s election, that his “ostentatious religious symbols”
were “not compatible” with Quebec values, was on Singh’s team
during a bowling night in Surrey on Tuesday. “I think Jagmeet
clearly has taken stock of the work to be done in Quebec,”
Nantel told the Post. “He’s listening, in any case. That’s very
clear.”

Still, the party that came so close to forming government three
years ago seems, today, to have curbed its expectations. “I’m
very confident that we’ll be able, in the next election, to
considerably increase the number of MPs that we have,” said
B.C. MP Peter Julian, whose riding is adjacent to the seat
Singh hopes to win.

NDP
Leader Jagmeet Singh speaks after a three-day NDP caucus national
strategy session in Surrey, B.C., on Sept. 13, 2018.

Darryl Dyck/The
Canadian Press

Julian said he was confident that Singh will win in Burnaby
South, a sentiment echoed by several of his colleagues. Still,
outgoing MP Kennedy Stewart won the riding by just 500 votes in
2015, and there are clearly concerns about what might happen if
Singh loses in a byelection months before Canadians go to the
polls. Burnaby is an “all-in bet,” said B.C. MP Nathan Cullen.
If he loses, “it’s not fatal, but it’s definitely difficult,” —
both for Singh’s political future and the party’s.

Cullen partly blames the party’s troubles on an NDP machine
that he says was left to stagnate between the decision to
reject former leader Thomas Mulcair in April 2016 and Singh’s
election in October 2017. By way of example, he said many NDP
memberships have lapsed simply because people’s credit cards
changed and the party failed to call them about it. “If you’re
not building, you’re eroding,” he said.

But he said he’s been encouraged by an “open and honest
admission from the leadership of the need for change,” and
suggested the party may be able to find an opportunity in its
struggles.

“Grandma used to say, ‘Never waste a crisis.’”

• Email: mforrest@postmedia.com |
Twitter: MauraForrest

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