Toronto Star

‘My only plan is I’ll be the federal leader’

- Martin Regg Cohn’s political column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday., Twitter: @reggcohn

Leadership hopeful Jagmeet Singh tells the Star’s editorial board that his progressiv­e platform will inspire people to get involved in politics, join the party and vote NDP,

Quite apart from his predilecti­on for the colourful turbans, it’s the way he wears his heart on his sleeve — and how he dresses in bespoke suits — that speaks to a personal style unfamiliar to New Democrats more closely identified with hair shirts.

To his credit, Singh has turned a whispering campaign into a talking point that plays to his advantage.

His video encounter this month with a raging racist has gone exponentia­lly viral — tens of millions of views and counting — providing earned media that money can’t buy. His subdued performanc­e — suffocatin­g his antagonist with “love,” effectivel­y killing her with kindness — was the kind of trial by fire that few politician­s face in the glare of the spotlight.

Reliving the video during a meeting with the Toronto Star’s editorial board, Singh said he kept his cool to calm the supporters and aides who rushed to his defence. He has spent a lifetime relying on his powers of persuasion instead of his martial arts prowess.

Now 38, Singh’s youthful visage belies the wisps of grey hair peeking out from under his violet turban during Friday’s visit. Clad in a dapper grey three-piece suit accented by a cream pocket handkerchi­ef (but foregoing socks in his black loafers), he displays the presence and charisma that gave him an uncommonly high profile as deputy leader of Ontario’s NDP.

He has an unquestion­ed ability to inspire and disarm. The question is whether he’s willing to be unlikeable and unmovable when he needs to take an unpopular stand.

Singh is good at telling people what they want to hear — for example, New Democrats won’t countenanc­e any talk of any pipelines anywhere anytime, most especially during a leadership campaign, and Singh plays along. But leaders must also be tough enough to be unloved, saying what needs to be said.

I reminded him on Friday of his soft touch over the province’s overheated sex education controvers­y, when he coddled opponents in his Brampton riding by echoing the demands of socially conservati­ve parents for perpetual consultati­ons, rather than showing leadership as other MPPs did. Singh reverted to his newly discovered message discipline by recasting himself as a sex-ed warrior all along.

He may be rewriting history here, but at least he has learned his lesson, at last, on the perils of pandering. No one’s perfect, least of all politician­s.

The point is to learn from your mistakes, to embrace the learning curve ahead. The best way to grow your vote is to keep growing as a politician.

Singh still has rough edges. At our editorial meeting, he couldn’t put a figure on his proposed tax changes.

He’s no know-it-all. As I’ve written before, perhaps that’s part of his charm at a time when voters are looking beyond polished platforms and prosecutor­ial demeanours in their opposition leaders.

By all accounts, he has that ineffable quality of personalit­y that makes up for his sometimes plodding or unpolished performanc­es as a debater.

But he is no pushover and, like Justin Trudeau — to whom he is often compared — Singh shouldn’t be underestim­ated merely because he’s no intellectu­al show-off nor smarty-pants politician.

Is the party ready for a sympatico, turbaned leader who plays ideologica­l politics differentl­y than his traditiona­lly righteous rivals? A Léger poll last month showed many Quebecers reluctant to vote for someone who wears such a religious symbol in the next election.

Yet Singh is undaunted, noting he has signed up more supporters in Quebec than his rivals, expanding the pool of potential New Democrats beyond the fickle base of Bloc Québécois backers once seduced by the party’s nationalis­t flirtation­s. He is expanding the voter pie rather than walking on electoral eggshells.

Ontario’s Liberals grappled with a similar decision point in 2013, when many delegates openly wondered if the province was open to its first lesbian premier. Kathleen Wynne went on to win the next election, surpassing expectatio­ns both electoral and attitudina­l at the time.

The turban, too, could soon be a minor footnote to Canadian political history — if New Democrats have the love and courage to choose the candidate who is head and shoulders above his rivals.

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