More than 16 months after he cruised to victory in the NDP leadership race, the 40-year-old politician from Ontario clinched his first federal seat in a British Columbia byelection Monday.
Not only will Singh now be able to lead his party from the floor of the House of Commons, he may also have saved his political career, for defeat in Burnaby South on Monday — as many NDP insiders have put it — was simply not an option for the third-place party.
Singh’s victory came in one of three byelections held Monday, as voters in key battleground areas cast ballots against the backdrop of the lingering SNC-Lavalin scandal. In York-Simcoe, the Conservatives hold onto a Greater Toronto Area riding that has been a lock for the party since 2004.
And here in Outremont, a diverse and multilingual district at the heart of the Island of Montreal, voters returned to their long-established tradition of electing Liberals, 12 years after Thomas Mulcair’s breakthrough here became the symbolic forerunner to the unprecedented success of the “orange wave” election in 2011.
But it was the race in Burnaby South that gobbled most of the oxygen surrounding these byelections — and for good reason. The result could decide Singh’s political fate.
The NDP leader campaigned against a Liberal government he accuses of cosying up to corporate friends, falling short on affordable housing and failing to take climate change seriously. The riding was previously held by Kennedy Stewart, an NDP MP who won by about 500 votes in 2015 and resigned the seat last year to run for Vancouver mayor.
David Coletto, chief executive officer of Abacus Data, said a Singh victory is the first bit of good news the NDP has had in a long time. Under Singh’s leadership — which began when he cruised to victory in the October 2017 leadership race — the NDP has stalled in the polls, seen a parade of sitting MPs quit or announce they won’t run again in the general election, and experienced a sharp drop in fundraising from more than $18 million in 2015 to roughly $5 million last year.
Singh’s entry to the House of Commons gives the party a chance to change the narrative, Coletto said.
“It gives them a huge opportunity to pivot and to start rebuilding his own reputation,” he said. “Low expectations can be a really powerful tool, because it’s easier to meet them.”
Singh’s chances may have been boosted by the SNC-Lavalin scandal, which the NDP has used to portray the Liberals as a band of faux-progressive allies of big business. Combined with a Liberal stumble — candidate Karen Wang was replaced by former MLA Richard Lee partway through the race — and the possibility that People’s Party candidate Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson snags votes from the Conservatives’ Jay Shin, the riding looked primed for a Singh win, said political scientist David Moscrop. “Burnaby South is sort of cooked for him to win,” he said Monday morning.
Meanwhile, the results in York-Simcoe pointed to victory for Conservative candidate Scot Davidson. For 14 years, the riding north of Toronto was home to Peter Van Loan, a Harper-era cabinet minister who resigned from the House of Commons last year. That continued Monday with Davidson on pace to beat Liberal challenger — and second-time candidate — Shaun Tanaka.
With such a record of Conservative voting, Coletto said he is looking to see how Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party — and local candidate Robert Geurts — performs in the riding.
“The most important signal we get from tonight is how well does Max Bernier’s party do,” he said, adding the party could make an impact in all three byelections.
“That will give us an indication of the potential effectiveness of his party,” he said.
Meanwhile, Outremont was a Liberal stronghold for decades, until Mulcair won it for the NDP in a 2007 byelection. It is therefore hallowed turf for New Democrats, who see Mulcair’s success as the symbolic toehold for the “orange wave” in 2011, when the party was lifted to its best-ever federal election result by overwhelming success in Quebec.
But now that Mulcair has left politics, local lawyer Rachel Bendayan wrested Outremont back for the Liberals Monday night. By late Monday, she had a sizable lead over Julia Sanchez, an economist who worked for decades in international development, who campaigned on an environment-focused platform for the NDP.
One factor in the race may have been voter reaction to the SNC-Lavalin affair, which has a strong local component given the company is headquartered nearby in downtown Montreal and is a significant employer in the province. Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute not-for-profit polling firm, said while early polling has suggested the Liberals have taken a hit during the controversy, SNC-Lavalin is seen in a different light — as a big employer worth saving — by many in the province.
But regardless of its impact Monday, it is too early to conclude whether the controversy surrounding the company and Justin Trudeau’s office will linger into the fall general election, Moscrop said.
“I think this is a reminder to the Liberals that, boy, you don’t want this in the news in October,” he said. “The sooner you deal with this completely, the better.”