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Jagmeet Singh, leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, records a video clip for social media during an election campaign stop at The Forks in Winnipeg, Man. on Aug. 26, 2021.SHANNON VANRAES/Reuters

Behind its likable leader and his TikTok connection to young voters, the federal NDP has become a bit of a Potemkin party.

That’s the reason for its disappointing results in the 2021 election, when the NDP ended up with just one seat more than its poor 2019 result.

The problem wasn’t Jagmeet Singh’s image, or his missing policy details, or his tax-and-spend platform, or his strategists’ campaign tactics – not in and of themselves, anyway.

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It’s that the New Democrats are now a weak grassroots organization, one that doesn’t muster enough volunteers in communities or get out the vote on election day.

In a sense, the NDP is the opposite of what it used to be.

Once upon a time, the New Democrats were the folks who couldn’t compete with the slick ads of the Liberals and Conservatives – but they had union members or church volunteers to knock on doors and drive people to the polls. Campaigning prime ministers didn’t worry so much about the NDP leader, but some of their MPs feared the local party machine.

In 2021, the NDP was all about the air war. The popular Mr. Singh was the star. His campaign focused a lot on the idea that Mr. Trudeau was all talk and no action, but Mr. Singh is sincere – a shrewd tactic. He had a high-profile presence on Instagram and TikTok, and a lot of young people liked him.

But Mr. Singh’s prediction in a TikTok video that young people would turn out in historic numbers was wrong. The party polled at 21 per cent two days before the election, but ended up with 17.8 per cent of the popular vote on Sept. 20. Part of that was strategic voting, but some was weak ground organization. They lost a bunch of close races.

The good news for New Democrats is the party leadership acknowledged the problem. Mr. Singh spoke about the need to improve the ground game at a news conference on Thursday. The bad news is that it is not an easy problem to fix.

It is no secret that the NDP’s bonds to organized labour, especially private-sector unions, have grown progressively weaker. They no longer have the same presence in the Prairie church basements. The federal party shares only part of the grassroots of provincial parties in some areas, so its ground game is pretty good in parts of B.C. and weak nearly everywhere else.

Part of the problem was a lack of cash in the years after the 2015 election, when the party under Tom Mulcair thought it had a chance at power, but came third. The 2019 NDP campaign was run on less than half the budget of the Liberals, $10.3-million. Then, the party saved so it could spend big, about $24-million, this year.

In the meantime, it scrimped on organization and the digital and data tools that are crucial in modern ground campaigns. The NDP basically still relies on what it calls the Riverdale model, a decades-old plan to knock on every door three times, but with a patchier volunteer corps and few recent innovations.

There was also an organizational renewal that Mr. Singh promised but didn’t deliver. The former Peel region MPP won the party leadership in 2017 by signing up thousands of new members, including many Sikh- and Muslim-Canadians, and raised the hope he would organize a more diverse support base that would make the party competitive in the 905 belt around Toronto. That hasn’t really panned out, and Mr. Singh represents a B.C. riding.

And a part of the problem is also related to Mr. Singh’s image-centric style.

That style puts the emphasis on finding the orange team cool rather than community work. It is important to reach out to young voters via social media, but the New Democrats need more of them to stick with the party for more than likes. The old NDP was on picket lines with its volunteers.

Those community connections matter more to the NDP than to other parties. The Liberals and Conservatives enter every campaign with the presumption they are vying for power. The federal NDP is a third party (nearly) every time. They have to amass power from the ground up – and that is the aspect of the party that has withered.

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