Centre-Left Merger is the NDP’s Only Chance in Alberta

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If Alberta’s left ever wants to come close to power again, it has no choice but to merge with its smaller competitors and move into the mainstream.

In the 113-year history of Alberta, no governing political party – once defeated – has ever returned to power.  It is a peculiarly Alberta phenomenon that sees a single party govern –normally without significant opposition – for a long period, to be followed by its total collapse and a new dominant party beginning the process over.

The only notable exception to this otherwise iron rule was the election of 2019 that saw the NDP become Alberta’s first and only one-term government, and a restoration of the Tories under a new brand.

The NDP fit into Alberta’s natural political equilibrium about as well as the Wildrose would fit Vancouver’s.  Its win in 2015 was primarily caused by the disastrous mass-floor crossing of 2014, a disastrous PC campaign, and a triumphant debate performance by Notley.  The NDP’s victory was entirely fair, but it was a one-off.

It is doubtful that the NDP could have won a second term even if the Wildrose and PC parties had not merged, but the marriage sealed their fate more than a year before the votes would be cast.  Despite running a ho-hum campaign plagued by scandal, a clear majority of Albertans were united behind a single purpose: throwing out the NDP.

Major policy reversals and the unceremonious end of the “grassroots guarantee” should have caused serious fissures with the Wildrose wing of the UCP, but the coalition held together for the single goal of ousting Notley from power.  It was a vivid example of the axiom that in Canada, “Oppositions don’t win elections.  Governments lose them.”

The NDP still held onto a large opposition caucus united behind a single party, overwhelmingly in Edmonton, but with small toeholds remaining in Calgary and Lethbridge.

At present, they have no real hope whatsoever of forming government again.  Even if major scandal were to hit the Tories from the RCMP investigations currently underway, and economic recession returned, the NDP’s core values do not make it a viable vehicle for government in Alberta’s political environment.

The question before the NDP now is whether to mainstream the party to contend for power again, or to double-down on its ideological convictions and return to its role as the leftist pole of gravity as a loud but permanent opposition voice.

In the eventual leadership race to replace Notley, the party’s members may have good cause to go with the latter: a loud but permanent opposition.  From the NDP true-believer’s perspective, the party already sold-out and moved to the centre after 2015.  Despite raising taxes on businesses, the party went out of its way to appear friendly with large corporations.  Despite introducing a carbon tax, it wasn’t high enough to actually affect behavior, and much of the money went back to Oil Sands producers in the form of corporate welfare subsidies.  The NDP might have stifled the growth of non-government schools, but should have shut them all down.

The true-believer wouldn’t be wrong in concluding that they had made great ideological sacrifices, just to lose anyway.  Members of this view will want Notley’s replacement to be a firebrand socialist running to pull the Tories left, not replace them.

If the left is to make a legitimate attempt at seizing power again, it’s highly improbable that they will do so under the NDP banner.  For the Tories to buck Alberta’s iron rule of defeated parties never returning to government again, they had to strike a deal with the Wildrose to do so under a new name.

The NDP alone dominants the entire opposition side of the legislature and does not face an ideologically-similar rival of a strength that the Wildrose faced in the PCs, but it failed to consolidated enough of the progressive vote to have a chance.

With no discernible policy differences, the morbid Liberals received just under 1 per cent of the vote running in 51 of 87 constituencies.  More important than the 1 per cent of the vote though was lost manpower.

The NDP’s biggest foil was the Alberta Party.  The AP ran a markedly more centrist campaign in 2019 than it did in 2015 and managed to capture 9 per cent of the vote, but Alberta’s first-past the post system being what it is, failed to translate into any seats.  The Alberta Party may have run a campaign in the mythical ‘centre’ of the political mainstream, but without the unifying force of “defeat the NDP” or “stop the Tories,” didn’t have a solid base on which to build and was squeezed out.  Most Alberta Party activists were driven by a deep unease about Kenney, but were unwilling to drink the socialist bathwater of the NDP.

However much they may view themselves as the political goldilocks of Alberta, without a solid ideological base, it is unlikely that they will go anywhere anytime soon.

If the NDP intends to actually contend for power, the logical conclusion is to reach out to the Alberta Party and the remnants of the Liberals and Greens to build a broad new, centre-left coalition.  There may be ideological space for four successful left and centre-left parties at the federal level, but not in Alberta.

There is the possibility that more die-hard elements of the NDP would split off to form a less compromising party, but as those of us who attempted it on the right found out, the will to defeat the hated incumbent in power is a more powerful unifying force than any principled policy stance.

The NDP still dominates the left and it’s doubtful that there’s much appetite for putting more water in its wine, but all it might take is for a Jason Kenney of the left to win the leadership of the Alberta Party.

Photo Credit: CBC News

More from Derek Fildebrandt.     @Dfildebrandt

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