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Canada

NDP leaning in to Jagmeet Singh’s ethnicity, targeting resources strategically

OTTAWA — As Liberals and Conservatives prepare to launch their well-funded election machines to fight for the highest political office in the land, federal New Democrats are taking a much less ambitious approach: try to outperform lowered expectations.

The party will run a national campaign, with promising a full roster of 338 candidates. But with fewer resources than its two main political rivals, the plan is to be more targeted in areas where the NDP can get the best bang for its buck.

“I think it just means being more focused, more strategic, more effective,” says Jennifer Howard, the party’s campaign director.

“We will be making some choices where we will be focusing our resources more.”

Planes and buses will be used to tour NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh all around the country. Areas with key candidates or where the party believes it has the best opportunity to win seats will be the primary focus, however. Those include vote-rich areas with populations most likely to have become disenchanted with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau on issues of affordability, housing, transit and pharmacare.

Expect to see Singh spend much of his time in British Columbia and in Ontario, especially in areas around Toronto such as Brampton and the union heartland of Hamilton. The party hopes especially to appeal to factory workers and farmers upset over the impacts of trade disputes with the U.S. and China.

“We are going to be spending the campaign talking to Canadians who are concerned with those issues and talking to them about what the NDP would bring — that we would be a government that would be on the side of people and not on the side of wealthy corporations,” Howard says.

Organizers plan to deliver this message not just through traditional television ads, but by buying more digital advertising. The party will also try to speak directly to their audiences through direct social media content.

Dedicated social-media staff will be on the leader’s tour to capture pictures and videos of Singh interacting with voters on the ground — something Singh has already been doing on his own with regular behind-the-scenes videos on platforms like Instagram.

Being more creative with party resources during this race will be necessary, due to a dismal party balance sheet.

The NDP finished 2018 with nearly $4.5 million in negative net assets, the third year in a row the party has filed an annual financial return with total assets that were less than overall liabilities.

It is the worst balance sheet the party has had since 2001, which is the earliest year for which the reports are available online.

Donations and contributions were up a little, with the NDP receiving about $5.2 million in 2018, compared to $5.1 million the year before — thanks in part to a return to the “Jagmeet-and-greets” that proved popular fundraisers during his leadership campaign.

But the NDP also spent $1.4 million more than it had in revenues last year.

New Democrats are facing a number of uphill battles that have blunted the competitive edge they had the start of the 2015 election race, when the party began in a virtual three-way-tie with the Liberals and Conservatives — the first time ever the NDP was in true contention for government.

After peaking early in that campaign, New Democrats suffered a devastating loss of dozens of seats across Canada, bottoming out notably in Quebec — the region of the country that helped the “Orange Wave” of 2011 deliver them to Official Opposition status.

The party’s fortunes were further hampered after members unceremoniously ousted their leader, Thomas Mulcair, at the 2016 party convention in Alberta, but then left him in place as a lame duck for more than a year.

A steady stream of recognized and well-respected NDP MPs have since left their seats or decided not to run again. In total, 11 sitting NDP MPs are not running in this race — the highest attrition rate of any party with official status in the last six elections. This, coupled with a turnover of trusted internal staff, hasn’t helped morale.

But despite all of this, party executives insist they have every reason to enter the race with a spring in their steps.

Members and volunteers have been bolstered by Singh, who won a seat in the House of Commons ahead of the election, offering Canadians a glimpse of a confident leader at work in Parliament, ready to go head-to-head with Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.

Supporters are drawn to Singh’s youthful energy, his unabashed style of brightly coloured turbans and bespoke suits and his passion for riding his bicycle to political events, New Democrats say.

“I think the opportunity in front of them is real,” says outgoing NDP MP Nathan Cullen, who, after 15 years in office, decided not to seek re-election.

Voters upset with Trudeau’s record on issues like Indigenous reconciliation, climate change and health care represent an opening for New Democrats, he says. He also believes Scheer’s political troubles on ideological issues like abortion and same-sex marriage make him vulnerable.

“I think Jagmeet represents something completely different in politics, and why not lean into that?”

While the party is quick to sing the praises of their leader, Singh’s race and religion — he is a practising Sikh — have been an issue the party has had to stickhandle from the time he ran for the leadership.

Howard says she believes Singh’s ethnicity is an asset.

“I think lots of people are excited to be working on the campaign of the first-ever person of colour who is running to be prime minister of the of the country.”

The party’s decision to run an ad in Quebec that explicitly opens a dialogue about his religion allows Singh to show voters how his multicultural identity is part of what sets him apart, Cullen says.

Even the party’s challenges could actually be a strength for the NDP.

“With expectations, I would argue, being low right now in terms of the party and his performance, this is a real opportunity,” Cullen says.

“I think Mulcair suffered from too-high expectations, in the debates and the outcome, where even 44 seats looked like a failure. But I think with Jagmeet going into these debates and his performance on the campaign, he could far exceed expectations and maybe surprise people and have people surprise themselves.”

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