A great deal of recent punditry is creating an expectation that Jagmeet Singh will lose the Burnaby South by-election, forcing him to resign as leader, creating a dilemma for the NDP as the 2019 election looms.The state of the NDP was addressed by UBC political scientist Richard Johnston who holds the Canada Research Chair in Public Opinion, Elections, and Representation. One of the best analysts of public opinion in Canada, he recently wrote a post on his website titled: Is the NDP tanking?
Having looked at the politics and precedents, my view is that he is actually more likely than not to win Burnaby South. First it needs to be said that overall the NDP is not all that badly off. It is clear now that it was a mistake for the party to oust Thomas Mulcair, but to suggest this means the NDP is about to be permanently decimated is unjustifiably melodramatic.
A few excerpts:
That the NDP is tanking seems to be something of a media commonplace. The image is often invoked as part of the coverage of Jagmeet Singh’s pending contestation of the Burnaby South by-election. He is damned for not running for a seat–somewhere, anywhere–before now. (Where he might have run is not obvious, a neglected fact.) Justin Trudeau’s delay in calling the by-election and the suspicious timing of the potential opening on Singh’s home turf feeds the sad sack narrative.
But do the fact(s) support the tanking perception? Not really, although danger does lurk in the shadows. ...
The party currently sits within the range of typical outcomes since its first election (as the NDP) in 1962. ...
If there is a general pattern, it is one of equilibration, of bring the NDP back to its long-term average. Occasionally, the trajectory is downward. More often, it is upward. ...
Coming back to the present, recent polls do suggest a modest drop, and the trend may continue. ... The nation-wide pattern may disguise special weakness in Quebec.There is no doubt that the NDP is weak in Quebec, due in part to dumping Mulcair. The NDP is currently down about 11 percentage points from the 25.4% it won in Quebec in 2015. However, this is not the case in British Columbia, which is what matters for the by-election. The average of recent polling numbers suggest the party might actually be slightly stronger than in 2015. Polling data is noisy in BC so it is difficult to say for sure.
Many reports cite the closeness of the result in Burnaby-South in 2015 when NDP candidate Kennedy Stewart defeated the Liberal candidate by just one percent. But any given election outcome is contingent on its context, not carved in stone. 2015 was very good election for the Liberals. In Burnaby South the Liberals gained over 20 points from its showing in the same area in 2011 (this is an estimate done by http://www.election-atlas.ca as the boundaries changed). There were elements of a wave election in 2015, and it well may be that the Liberals picked up support in 2015 from voters who previously supported parties such as the NDP and the Greens.
The Green vote will matter a great deal in this by-election as the Greens are not running a candidate to permit the NDP leader to gain entrance to Parliament. An environmental issue that could easily affect the race is the Trans Mountain Pipeline whose terminus lies a few kilometres north of the riding. The Green Party has decided in the case of this by-election to extend "leaders' courtesy" by not running a candidate, in effect, endorsing Singh, who will be the only major candidate opposed to the pipeline. If opposition to the pipeline actually proves to be weak here as a vote motivator, it suggests smooth sailing ahead for Trans Mountain.
Leader's courtesy no doubt played a role in the initial election of Elizabeth May in 2011 in Saanich-Gulf Islands. The Green vote there jumped from 10.5% in 2008 to 46.3% in 2011.
The phenomenon of 'leader's courtesy' can also be detected in much older election results. One striking example was the victory of John Turner in Vancouver Quadra in 1984 general election. Not only did the Liberals lose in a landslide to Brian Mulroney but the party won just forty seats overall. However, despite losing all those seats in this case a constituency that had voted four times in a row for the PCs saw its incumbent defeated by Mr. Turner.
A second example is provided by Calgary Centre in the 2000 election when Joe Clark, in his second stint as PC leader, won a seat that had voted Reform twice in a row despite the fact that overall PC fortunes declined by a third from 1997 TO 2000.
Yet another example was provided in provincial politics in Manitoba in 1972 when Liberal leader I.H. Asper won a by-election in Wolseley constituency, a riding that had been represented since its creation in 1958 by Progressive Conservatives including former Premier Duff Roblin. The Liberals at the time were a weak third party in the legislature.
Will Jagmeet Singh win Burnaby South on February 25th? In politics you never know but most facts about this by-election suggest the answer is yes. A more likely NDP loss would be Thomas Mulcair's constituency of Outremont. As noted Liberal support is up in Quebec; the NDP significantly down, and of course leader's courtesy will not apply. However, even there look for the NDP to win polls in the eastern end of the riding, an area that recently voted for the left wing provincial party Québec solidaire in the October 2018 provincial election.
Update since posting
Since I posted this item on January 13 there have been two important developments. A poll was released by Mainstreet Research on January 15 reporting a large lead for NDP candidate Jagmeet Singh, placing him over 12 points ahead of his nearest rival, Liberal candidate Karen Wang.
In one respect the poll became immediately outdated as on January 16 the Toronto Star's Vancouver edition reported:
The Liberal candidate running against NDP leader Jagmeet Singh in the Burnaby South byelection has resigned following a Star Vancouver report on her post on the Chinese social media app WeChat that urged people to vote for her, the “only Chinese candidate,” and not “Singh of Indian descent.The Liberals still have a couple of weeks to find a new candidate but this type of incident contradicts their message and values and can only be harmful.
Both developments reinforce my conclusion that the answer to question posed in the title is yes.