Opinion: Singh walking a tightrope without a net

There is often a penchant among Canadian politicians and pundits to over-analyze byelection results and search too hard for tipping points or tectonic shifts that may be merely mirage.

But this time, it cannot be overstated.

The political future of Jagmeet Singh and the foreseeable fortunes of his federal NDP now sit with voters in the Vancouver-area riding of Burnaby South.

No federal leader in modern history has ever lost a byelection bid to gain entry into the House of Commons. He cannot afford to become the first.

Singh, after 10 months in the wilderness as federal NDP leader, searching for the proverbial safe NDP seat like Diogenes searching for an honest man, has staked his future on a riding his party won by a mere 547 votes in 2015.

In recent history, Singh is the third federal NDP leader to rise to the party’s pinnacle without benefit of a seat in the Commons.

Both Alexa McDonough and Jack Layton resisted pressure to ask for a caucus member to give up a seat or seek a byelection path, and both waited until the next general election, winning at home. McDonough waited 19 months; Layton, 16 months.

Singh no longer has that luxury with a federal vote still 14 months off. With little presence in Ottawa, he has fallen into a political black hole and dragged his party with him.

In October of last year, he inherited a dispirited NDP with a mandate to lead it back to relevance after a 2015 election debacle. He was to inject much-needed energy into a party that had left far too much lame-duck rope for its deposed leader, Tom Mulcair.

Instead, the federal NDP has faded from the national conversation, the party’s finances are precarious and the leader is working without a salary.

Singh will run in a riding vacated by Kennedy Stewart, who is running for mayor of Vancouver.

Besides Stewart, David Christopherson, the five-term MP from Hamilton Centre, will not run again. That would have been a much safer NDP seat closer to home for Singh, but Christopherson has chosen to finish his term.

Hélène Laverdière, the party’s foreign affairs critic who vanquished former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe in Laurier-Sainte-Marie, will not run again, and Mulcair has resigned, sparking a byelection in Outremont.

Mulcair’s breakthrough in a 2007 byelection was highly symbolic and presaged the 2011 Orange Wave under Layton. It now seems headed back to the Liberals, a symbol of waning NDP fortunes in that province.

Singh seeks to replace an MP whose opposition to the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline runs so deep he has been arrested and fined $500 for his part in blockading Kinder Morgan’s Burnaby pipeline terminal.

Singh opposes the expansion and has condemned the Liberal use of public dollars to purchase a “65-year-old leaking pipeline,” but, as national leader, he must be careful before heading to the ramparts.

He must be mindful that there are unionized workers in this country whose support he needs who look at pipelines and see jobs.

Burnaby South has been the best fit for the leader. The demographics would play to his strengths. It is a racially diverse riding with two-thirds of its population identifying as visible minorities, with more than 8 per cent identifying as South Asian.

Distance from his home base of Brampton should not be a factor. Other leaders, including Jean Chrétien and Brian Mulroney, have strayed far from home to win seats after winning their party’s leadership. Singh has vowed to move to Burnaby if he wins.

The riding, through all its incarnations, has a strong NDP pedigree and the chance to have a federal leader as MP should be a lure for voters.

Yet, for all the history and the calculation that has gone into this choice, there is the nagging sense that this party is spiralling downward and may have more grief ahead before it bottoms out.

As Singh took questions after his announcement Wednesday, a reporter asked him if he had considered what would happen if he didn’t win.

He properly ignored the question. No politician should bite on the “what if you lose?” question.

But then he reverted to rookie form on the final question when he was asked if he lost, would he continue as NDP leader without a seat.

Inexplicably, Singh bit. “Absolutely,” he said.

He might be right, but only because the party had run out of time to make a change before the general election.

Singh has no room for error. There is no net.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer.

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