Playing long game, new NDP leader Singh says of poor byelection showing

OTTAWA — NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh isn’t reading too much into his party’s dismal showing in a series of recent byelections, insisting he’s playing a long game as he works to shore up support across Canada in preparation for the 2019 federal election.

And the newly minted leader is waving off suggestions that he didn’t do enough to help an NDP candidate in the suburban Toronto riding of Scarborough-Agincourt, holding a so-called “Jagmeet-and-greet” — billed by the candidate himself as a byelection campaign event — well outside the actual riding where Brian Chang was trying to win a seat.

“I didn’t expect that in two months I could turn the ship around,” Singh said Wednesday after his party’s weekly caucus meeting on Parliament Hill.

On Monday, Liberal Jean Yip retained Scarborough-Agincourt, a riding that had been held by her husband, Arnold Chan, until his death from cancer in September. She captured 49.4 per cent of the vote, followed by Conservative Dasong Zou who pulled in 40.5 per cent.

Chang wound up with just 5.1 per cent, down almost three percentage points from the NDP’s already poor showing in the riding during the 2015 general election. He scraped together fewer than 1,000 votes.

The NDP share of the vote similarly declined in the other three ridings where byelections were held Monday, as it did in two October byelections held about a month after Singh took the helm of the party.

Singh noted that the party has been on a downward slide for the last two years and argued it’s unrealistic to think he could reverse that trend in just two months.

“I’m in this for the long-term. I know it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon and I’m committed to doing the hard work. I don’t expect it to happen overnight but I’m looking forward to working hard to ensure we see the results.

The most jarring byelection result for New Democrats was likely in Lac-Saint-Jean, a Quebec riding in which the party had finished a close second in 2015 but wound up a distant fourth in October as the Liberals stole the riding from the Conservatives. It seemed further evidence that the tide has gone out on the orange wave that swept the province in 2011 under Jack Layton.

But the dismal showing in Scarborough-Agincourt is arguably more significant.

It is precisely the kind of riding in which New Democrats had hoped Singh could make inroads to make up for any losses in Quebec: predominant immigrant population, sizable South Asian community and, as an added bonus, located in the area where the leader had grown up.

As for suggestions he campaigned for Chang in the wrong riding, Singh said his meet-and-greet at a cafe in a neighbouring Scarborough riding was never intended to be a byelection campaign event. Indeed, he said it had been scheduled before the byelection was called; once it was called, Chang was invited to attend.

“We had already planned a ‘Jagmeet-and-greet’ for Scarborough; we were doing a bit of a homecoming tour,” said Singh, who was born in the suburb. “We had already selected the location and we invited the candidate; naturally, we were having a byelection and we wanted the candidate to be there.”

Singh did not explain why the party would have planned a Scarborough event outside the riding for which a byelection call was imminent.

Nor did he explain why in numerous social media posts Chang himself billed it as a campaign event — and in his riding.

“When our leader comes to Scarborough-Agincourt, he actually talks to people,” Chang said in one Twitter post at the time, under a photo of Singh meeting supporters at the cafe.

Singh did not answer when asked Wednesday if he paid a campaign visit to the actual riding of Scarborough-Agincourt at some other time. A spokesman later said Singh did not campaign in the riding.

In an email blast Tuesday night seeking donations, NDP digital director Nader Mohamed put the party’s “hard losses” in Monday’s byelections down to one thing: money.

“We had four great candidates with incredible teams and so many dedicated volunteers — but we were outspent,” he said in the email, headlined “This WON’T happen again.”

Quebec New Democrat MP Matthew Dube offered another reason: the party is still making the transition to a new leader and that will take time.

“Certainly, no one was under any illusion … even in a riding like Scarborough that it was going to happen overnight,” he said, adding New Democrats will have to “look at where things could have maybe gone better.”

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