Brad Lav­i­gne How Jag­meet Singh Won

Policy - - In This Issue - Brad Lav­i­gne

For On­tario MPP Jag­meet Singh, the ob­sta­cles to win­ning the lead­er­ship of the fed­eral New Demo­cratic Party seemed formidable. But as Brad Lav­i­gne, a vet­eran strate­gist and se­nior ad­viser to the late Jack Lay­ton, writes, the cam­paign was a tri­umph of or­ga­ni­za­tion and mes­sag­ing over con­ven­tional wis­dom.

In the back of a sec­ond-floor ball­room at the Westin Har­bour Cas­tle Con­fer­ence Cen­tre in down­town Toronto, a group of older Jag­meet Singh sup­port­ers were lis­ten­ing in­tently as New Demo­cratic Party of Canada Pres­i­dent Marit Stiles and Vice Pres­i­dent Hans Marotte were about to an­nounce, in al­pha­bet­i­cal or­der, the re­sults of the first round of bal­lot­ing for NDP leader. It only took a sec­ond after the an­nounce­ment of the vote count for On­tario MP Char­lie An­gus for the sup­port­ers at the back of the room to cal­cu­late the out­come.

“He’s got it,” one man cheered to no one in par­tic­u­lar. “He did it,” roared an­other.

With 53.8 per cent of the vote on the first bal­lot, it wasn’t just a clear and de­ci­sive vic­tory, it was a drub­bing. Of the 124,733 el­i­gi­ble vot­ers, 65,782 or 52.9 per cent New Democrats cast a bal­lot. Singh re­ceived 35,266 or 53.8 per cent of the el­i­gi­ble votes cast, 22,561 more votes than An­gus, the sec­ond-place can­di­date. Over 5,000 more New Democrats voted for Jag­meet Singh to be leader than those that voted for his three ri­vals com­bined.

Singh’s cam­paign raised more money, signed up more new mem­bers and gained more support than his ri­vals—by ev­ery mea­sure.

He did so by over­com­ing sig­nif­i­cant ob­sta­cles.

He was the only non-fed­eral politi­cian on the bal­lot, with the least ex­pe­ri­ence on national and global is­sues. He had lit­tle if any name recog­ni­tion out­side of the re­gion where he was elected as an MPP six short years ago. And, un­like other can­di­dates, he faced ques­tions and com­men­tary more fo­cused on his race and re­li­gion than on his vi­sion and ideas for a stronger party and a bet­ter Canada.

Yet de­spite th­ese con­di­tions, Singh, just as an­other out­sider, Jack Lay­ton, did 14 years ear­lier, ig­nored the skep­tics, de­fied the odds, and won the fed­eral NDP lead­er­ship on the first bal­lot. Be­hind the charis­matic can­di­date there was a young, highly tal­ented and en­er­getic cam­paign team who, in their in­au­gu­ral fed­eral ef­fort, ran a near- flaw­less cam­paign on the ground and in the air.

The ground game for the 18-week cam­paign, was laid out in three phases: first, start off strong (and never let up) on fundrais­ing; sec­ond, sign up new mem­bers be­fore the Au­gust 17 dead­line; and third, en­gage pre­ex­ist­ing mem­bers be­fore the start of vot­ing on Septem­ber 18.

The first pub­lic and mea­sur­able ev­i­dence that the Singh cam­paign had or­ga­ni­za­tional mus­cle was the Elec­tions Canada re­port on sec­ond quar­ter fundrais­ing.

It is not a given that the can­di­date who raises the most money will au­to­mat­i­cally win the most votes—but it’s an in­di­ca­tion of the breadth and depth of support and the or­ga­ni­za­tional prow­ess of the cam­paign. You don’t au­to­mat­i­cally win if you raise a lot of money, but you never win if you don’t.

Singh en­tered the race on May 15 with just six weeks left in the sec­ond quar­ter of 2017. De­spite his late start, his cam­paign raised more money in half of Q2 than his ri­vals fundraised com­bined—for the en­tire quar­ter. In one and a half months, Singh raised $356,784, while An­gus, Ash­ton and Caron com­bined raised a to­tal of $240,703 over three months.

To ac­com­plish this feat, the cam­paign was un­apolo­getic in its fundrais­ing fo­cus­ing on three ar­eas: net­work­ing with peo­ple who have never sup­ported the party be­fore, es­pe­cially among pro­fes­sion­als, small busi­ness peo­ple and other pro­fes­sion­als; events that catered to small as well as max­i­mum donors; and dig­i­tal fundrais­ing har­ness­ing Singh’s im­pres­sive on­line pres­ence on mul­ti­ple so­cial me­dia plat­forms.

The cam­paign em­ployed a cul­ture of ap­pre­ci­a­tion that en­sured donors were seen not just as a source of rev­enue for the cam­paign but en­ablers of ev­ery­thing it did. This all-out, six-week sprint to have an ex­pec­ta­tions-de­fy­ing fundrais­ing re­sult not only gave the cam­paign mo­men­tum, it im­pressed pre­ex­ist­ing mem­bers and the me­dia. It also meant they could hire or­ga­niz­ers to sign up new mem­bers, who in turn were also new donors.

Suc­cess­ful lead­er­ship con­tests with a one-mem­ber-one vote formula need to do two things: sign up new mem­bers and get those new mem­bers to vote.

At the Singh cam­paign’s launch on May 15 in Bramp­ton, at­ten­dees were met at the door by a vol­un­teer with a clip­board. One friend told me she was greeted by a teenager wear­ing a Jag­meet for leader t-shirt. She asked him how long he’d been do­ing this kind of work and he replied that this was his fourth cam­paign for Jag­meet. Two days later she re­ceived a call from the cam­paign ask­ing how she wanted to help.

In the be­gin­ning of the cam­paign, the Singh team had set the goal of sign­ing up 40,000 new mem­bers be­fore the Au­gust 17 cut-off. That meant the team had no less than 13 weeks to sign up over 3,000 new mem­bers, each and ev­ery week through­out the sum­mer. Sign-ups started slow and grew ex­po­nen­tially. They reached their goal a few weeks be­fore the cut-off so they ad­justed their goal to 45,000 new mem­bers. In the end the cam­paign had signed up 47,000 new mem­bers, an av­er­age of 500 per day.

To achieve th­ese im­pres­sive re­sults the cam­paign em­ployed a model of dis­trib­uted lead­er­ship, which in prac­tice em­ployed a Cap­tain Sys­tem. In­di­vid­u­als who vol­un­teered to sign up mem­bers (Cap­tains) would set their own goals and tar­gets and set out meet them.

Team Lead­ers would then hold the Cap­tains ac­count­able by con­stantly check­ing in on progress and would of­fer as­sis­tance when peo­ple fell be­hind. Through­out the coun­try there were hun­dreds of Cap­tains and dozens of Team Lead­ers. The same Cap­tain that signed up a new mem­ber stayed in con­tact with that per­son and was later re­spon­si­ble for en­sur­ing that each and ev­ery one of their sign-ups voted.

While the com­pre­hen­sive ground game was be­ing em­ployed, in the air, the Singh cam­paign worked hard to de­fine the bal­lot ques­tion. In­stead of re-as­sess­ing the 2015 elec­tion cam­paign or get­ting into war of words over which leader was more like Bernie San­ders, the cam­paign wanted to es­tab­lish who was the growth can­di­date for the NDP and who could win in 2019. This oc­curred in par­al­lel with the sign-up pe­riod.

A sec­ond el­e­ment was to po­si­tion Singh not just as the choice among the four lead­er­ship con­tenders, but to jux­ta­pose him against Justin Trudeau and An­drew Scheer. This was il­lus­trated dur­ing the re­lease of the cam­paign’s fundrais­ing to­tals where the Singh cam­paign com­pared their to­tal, not to An­gus’s, Ash­ton’s and Caron’s to­tal, but to Trudeau’s and to Scheer’s when they were run­ning for leader of their re­spec­tive par­ties.

Singh, just as an­other out­sider, Jack Lay­ton, did 14 years ear­lier, ig­nored the skep­tics, de­fied the odds, and won the fed­eral NDP lead­er­ship on the first bal­lot.

But it wasn’t just the well-ex­e­cuted strate­gic and tech­ni­cal as­pects of the cam­paign that are note­wor­thy. It was a cam­paign whose cen­tral mes­sage of “Love and Courage” was an au­then­tic em­bod­i­ment of the can­di­date him­self. The com­pelling life story of Jag­meet Singh was a mag­net for new Cana­di­ans, peo­ple of colour and those who don’t see them­selves in this coun­try’s lead­ers.

Trudeau may know the lyrics to the Canadian story of the strug­gles of in­clu­sive­ness and be­long­ing. Singh and his cam­paign ac­tu­ally know the tune be­cause they have lived it. That’s why their near-flaw­less cam­paign is what makes them so dan­ger­ous to Justin Trudeau and the Lib­er­als.

Baldeep Sehmbi photo

NDP Leader Jag­meet Singh on Par­lia­ment Hill in the days after his de­ci­sive first bal­lot vic­tory in the party’s lead­er­ship race.

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