Jagmeet Singh sets his sights on the billionaires, differentiating himself from Trudeau and O'Toole

Marketing is a key component of modern politics—and Singh's Robin Hood approach sets him apart

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      Ever since Douglas Fairbanks played Robin Hood in a 1922 silent film, Hollywood has been enamoured with this swashbuckling outlaw of English folklore. Over the next few decades, dashing leading men such as Errol Flynn, Sean Connery, Kevin Costner, and Russell Crowe all played Robin Hood, a hero who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.

      Robin Hood’s antagonist, the detestable Sheriff of Nottingham, protected the oligarch of his day, the king, by enforcing unfair taxation on the common folk. The sheriff was the antithesis of Robin Hood in that he had no empathy for what average people had to endure.

      In this year’s Canadian election, the closest thing to Robin Hood is NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who’s the politician most eager to take from the rich. And in his world, there are two Sheriffs of Nottingham protecting the oligarchs—Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole.

      “One of the key problems that we’re highlighting—whether it’s with the climate crisis, whether it’s with a rigged economy, or whether it’s with housing—we’re saying really clearly, ‘The billionaires are making out like bandits,’ ” Singh told reporters on September 11 during a campaign stop in Vancouver Granville. “Whether that’s in the housing market or the biggest polluters or in the economy: those at the very top continue to exploit the system, and Liberals and Conservatives have let them do it.”

      With Singh’s oft-stated mantras about taxing the ultrarich and the billionaires, he has positioned himself outside the boundaries of traditional Liberal-Conservative thinking.

      In advancing his arguments, he points to a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives article written by Alex Hemingway showing that billionaires’ wealth rose by $78 billion in the first year of the pandemic. Singh also cites a Parliamentary Budget Office study showing that as much as $25 billion in government revenue per year is not collected because it has been legally transferred offshore.

      In addressing these issues, Singh has demonstrated his Robin Hood approach through various policy prescriptions, including a one percent wealth tax on those with assets of $10 million or more. Singh claims that this would generate about $13 billion per year in revenue by the fifth year of an NDP federal government.

      Also under a federal NDP government, people earning more than $210,000 in annual income would face a top marginal tax rate of 35 percent, up from 33 percent.

      It’s not a huge hike, but enough to send a signal that this NDP is more inclined to pluck the wealthier geese to a greater degree than either Trudeau or O’Toole.

      In addition, Singh has proposed boosting capital-gains taxes on investors in the stock market by lifting the inclusion rate from 50 percent to 75 percent. This means that investors would have to multiply any gain by this amount to determine their taxable capital gain. It’s a move that the NDP says will generate more than $10 billion per year in the final two years of its five-year fiscal plan.

      Then there’s a proposal to boost corporate tax rates from 15 percent to 18 percent, where they stood in 2010. The NDP says that this will increase revenues by $6.1 billion per year by year five.

      Overall, Singh’s plan to raise revenues by between 7.81 percent to 8.99 percent in each of the next five years is very similar to U.S. president Joe Biden’s five-year fiscal plan. It contains similar annual percentage increases, largely derived from imposing higher taxes on the ultrarich and corporations.

      “Our offer to Canadians, what makes us really different is, we’re going to take them on directly,” Singh continued. “We’re the only party that’s said we’re going to tax the billionaires. We’re going to take on the superwealthy. And we’re going to make sure companies like Amazon start paying their fair share.”

      According to Singh, these windfalls, taken from corporations and the wealthiest Canadians, are going to help finance a national pharmacare program, cancel up to $20,000 in student debt to current and former students, fund a national dental care program, and create rent subsidies of up to $5,000.

      He might as well have borrowed this line from Disney’s 1973 version of Robin Hood: “We never rob. We just sort of borrow a bit from those who can afford it.”

      Justin Trudeau is facing NDP attacks for doing nothing about high home prices during his six years in office.
      Justin Trudeau

      Housing emerges as a key issue

      These NDP policies are presenting a serious challenge to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau as he tries to woo voters who want to prevent a Conservative victory. Whenever Trudeau says that the Liberals are the only hope for forming a “progressive government” and that the NDP platform demonstrates “unlimited zeal against the successful and wealthy”, Singh responds that the Liberal leader and O’Toole have a great deal in common with one another. Then Singh repeats his meme that the NDP is the only party willing to go after the ultrarich.

      This was on display again during the recent visit to Vancouver Granville, where Singh promised to fight for residents “to make sure that they can find a home that’s within their budget”. He made this astonishing pledge in one of the most expensive areas to live in all of Canada.

      “First-time homebuyers are competing with large corporations with deep pockets that are trying to snap up property to make profits off,” Singh told reporters. “They’re using our housing market like a stock market—and that’s something we’ve got to stop.”

      He neglected to mention that municipal and provincial governments, including the NDP in B.C., play key roles in housing prices. That’s because municipalities have power over zoning and the province owns the vast majority of Crown land. Moreover, Singh has not promised to extend the capital gains tax to the sale of principal residences—a policy that would likely alienate homeowners across the country, even if it would contain rising costs.

      In this campaign, Singh has pinned the blame for high home prices on the Liberals, calling it “Justin Trudeau’s housing crisis”.

      He keeps repeating that Trudeau had six years to fix the problem, questioning how he can be trusted now.

      “Our plan is, all together, 1.7 million homes that will be built and renovated and retrofitted—homes that we can find that are in our budget, that are affordable,” Singh promised. “This is purpose-built rental. This is cooperative, not-for-profit housing, and homes that people can buy that they can actually afford…that’s in their budget.”

      But Singh also pointed to an obstacle in the way of achieving these goals: the “big money” in housing. That, Singh declared, can be seen in the candidates representing the Liberals and Conservatives in Vancouver Granville.

      The Liberal, Taleeb Noormohamed, bought and sold more than 40 properties since 2005; the Conservative candidate, Kailin Che, “defended speculators in court, allegedly”, according to Singh. (In fact, she represented homeowners challenging the speculation tax.)

      “So we’ve got on both sides people that are making things worse,” Singh charged. “People that are using this housing market as a stock market and the people that are defending those that are speculating. Both are on Mr. O’Toole’s team and Mr. Trudeau’s team.”

      This again dovetailed well with Singh’s Robin Hood–style marketing message: take from the rich and give to the common people.

      “We are different,” the NDP leader continued. “Our candidate, Anjali [Appadurai], is someone who’s committed to making sure people can find a home that’s in their budget.”

      Russell Crowe's Robin Hood, like Jagmeet Singh, targeted the ultrarich in order to comfort the poor.

      Liberal-minded voters like products that are different

      Don’t kid yourself—a great deal of marketing goes into any political campaign. And to be effective, it needs to be authentic.

      According to a paper published in Political Psychology in 2008, which is cited on the American Marketing Association website, liberals are more open-minded, creative, curious and novelty-seeking than political conservatives. Conservatives, on the other hand, are “more orderly, conventional and better organized”.

      Corporations like Nike have tried to appeal to liberal-minded consumers by embracing those who upset the conservative status quo, such as former quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee during NFL games.

      A study reported in the Harvard Business Review also demonstrated how conservatives and liberals respond differently to marketing messages, according to the article on the American Marketing Association website. Conservatives were far more likely than liberals to choose a mug with the slogan “Just Better”, whereas liberals were more likely to choose a mug with a message stating “Just Different”. Apple capitalizes on this idea with its motto “Think Different”.

      By zeroing in on his differences with the Liberals and Conservatives—in effect, his uniqueness as a political brand—Singh’s approach in this campaign is the epitome of how to market a product to progressive consumers. His pitch is that the NDP is unique. It’s different. And so is its leader.

      It’s demonstrated by his turban, his beard, his Sikh identity, his engaging banter with reporters, and even the three-piece black suit and black tie that he wore in the televised English-language leaders’ debate. That choice of attire set him apart from the blue-suited Trudeau, O’Toole, and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, reinforcing Singh’s uniqueness once again.

      In Quebec, the NDP is using the slogan “Oser”, which means “dare”. Singh is daring to be different by proudly wearing a turban, reflecting his heritage and his faith. And he’s doing this where the premier and the leader of the Bloc Québécois oppose people in public life wearing religious symbols.

      With his ease in making off-the-cuff comments, Singh is also dramatically different in a personal style from his stodgy yet fiscally prudent predecessor, former NDP leader Tom Mulcair.

      In 2019, University of Saskatchewan political scientist David McGrane wrote a well-received book about how the NDP came to embrace political marketing under the leadership of Jack Layton. In The New NDP: Moderation, Modernization, and Political Marketing, McGrane explained how the party’s leader was “presidentialized”, reflecting the important role that he played in forming the party’s brand. That occurred as the NDP backroom staff embraced big data and social media to advance its political prospects.

      It worked magnificently with Layton at the helm in 2011, with the NDP sweeping much of Quebec and winning 103 seats across Canada. But the NDP faltered badly in 2015 under Mulcair, who was eclipsed on the left by the more charismatic Trudeau.

      In 2019, the NDP fell to just 24 seats in Singh’s first run as federal leader as Trudeau drove home the point that the only way to stop a Conservative government was by voting Liberal. The NDP’s share of the popular vote shrivelled to just below 16 percent.

      As of this writing, the party is just over 19 percent in the CBC poll tracker, which suggests it will win more seats.

      In the final days of the campaign, Trudeau is again telling progressive voters that they must vote Liberal if they want to stop the Conservatives. But this time, Singh is emphasizing his differences with the Liberals and the Conservatives to a much greater degree than he did in 2019.

      If Singh succeeds in beating back the Liberal challenge and ends up with the balance of power in a minority government, he’ll demonstrate that Robin Hood campaign tactics have a place in Canadian politics.

      That’s when voters will find out if he’s truly willing to demand higher taxes on the superwealthy and ensuring that people can find a home within their budget.

      If Singh is serious about this, he’ll make these necessary conditions for the NDP to support whichever federal leader wins the most seats in Parliament.