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What happened in Surrey?

Liberal organizer and strategist Harbir Dhillon on why Jagmeet Singh and the NDP failed to gain traction in Surrey.
Surrey residents vote like anyone else – individually. (wikicommons)

As I watched the election results roll in from Surrey, I couldn’t help but smile. The Liberals had won Surrey once again, albeit with two casualties in Gordie Hogg in South Surrey-White Rock and Jon Aldag in Cloverdale-Langley City.

It wasn’t a surprise that the Liberal’s lost those ridings to the Conservatives; after all, they were won during Trudeaumania 2.0.

What was a surprise was how non-existent the New Democrats were in Surrey. Just one distant second place finish in Surrey Centre, the only riding most thought they had any chance of winning – just don’t tell them that.

The poor performance begs the question: how does a party with the first South Asian leader in Canadian history do so poorly in one of the most South Asian cities in the country?

Here’s what I saw on the ground.

Reason #1 – Social media hype =/= votes

Advance polls had just opened and Jagmeet Singh’s New Democrats were surging in the polls in British Columbia, coming off his strong performance in the nationally televised debate. Jagmeet Singh had "stolen our hearts" and had picked up momentum at just the right time, much like Justin Trudeau four years ago.

From my perspective as a Liberal, I was convinced an NDP wave would hit Surrey – and compounded with Trudeau’s blackface scandal, would cost the Liberals.

I was making the same mistake the New Democrats were making. I was buying the HYPE.

As much as social media has changed political campaigns in the last 10 years…not much has actually changed. Let me explain.

The New Democrats were winning the social media battle, going viral one Tik Tok at a time, and getting positive press. (Or “press.”)

Well done, but you have to capitalize on it. Crucially, they had no organization to convert the hype they had generated. Yes, Singh may well have been having his 2015 Justin Trudeau moment, but there was one key difference: the NDP hadn’t built a party machine like the Liberals had in 2015 to capitalize on his popularity.

Social media likes, views, or follows by celebrities (looking at you Drake & Rihanna) don’t get you votes! You still need an organization of volunteers who knock doors tirelessly to connect with supporters and get out the vote (GOTV).

That’s what wins elections.

Whether the New Democrats had forgotten that, lost focus, or if in-fighting within the party had derailed any organizational structure, the result is the same.

The Liberal organization/machine built from 2015, even with some nasty bumps (take your pick!) along the way, is what has guided Justin Trudeau to successive election victories.

Reason #2 – Myths and myth-takes

For the most part, there is no such thing as an ethnic voting block.

It’s a surprise that this myth has lasted so long, but the Jagmeet Singh-led NDP’s poor showing in Surrey (plus Brampton, Ontario) should finally put it to rest.

Ethnic or racialized communities vote like any other voters; not in any one partisan manner but rather are politically diverse.

Still, many assumed (not naming any names), that just because Jagmeet Singh was a turbaned Sikh of Punjabi decent that he was somehow entitled to all or would get a majority of the Sikh-Punjabi votes in Surrey – simply because he shared their same race/religious background.

That was dead wrong.

Ethnic/racialized communities vote based on policy, socioeconomic standing or social values – not because someone looks like them.

That’s why there was no Surrey breakthrough for Jagmeet Singh and his NDP like many had embarrassingly assumed. Despite a strong performance in national debates and top social media game, Singh did not have some built-in Surrey voting network. His policy ideas didn’t sway enough people in the city – and his party didn’t build a network to get out their vote.

It’s as simple as that.

Harbir Singh Dhillon is political strategist who has served as a staffer for both the federal and BC provincial governments. Harbir is a lifelong resident of Surrey, the fastest growing city in Western Canada. He is keen on uncovering issues surrounding diversity, inclusion and factors impeding millennial electoral participation. In his spare time he can be caught discussing his love/hate relationship with Arsenal football club.