Alternate Title: Why do Unsuccessful Parties Endure?
In my previous post on the subject of Alberta politics, I discussed potential futures for the party landscape in the province. A thoughtful comment on the piece from Phil Penrod, a dear friend of mine and close observer and onetime participant in Alberta politics, prompted me to think a bit about not only what could happen in Alberta politics going forward, but what is likely to happen. This post is the result. So, you’ve been warned: if you don’t care about Alberta politics, now’s a good time to point your browser somewhere else.
For me, the key take-away of the first piece was that the rise of the Wildrose Party as a competitive political entity fundamentally changes the political landscape in a way that will likely lead to political irrelevance for one or both of the Liberals and NDP, unless those parties finally start to take some form of merger seriously.
As a participant in Alberta politics however, Phil suggests that cooperation between Liberals and NDPers in the province is very unlikely. For him, the relationship between committed members of both parties actually bears a striking resemblance to the Dog River / Wullerton rivalry in the show Corner Gas. Ask an old-time NDPer about the Liberals, and be prepared for some spitting.
I think that comparison is quite apt. It gets at the heart of what I’ve come to believe electoral politics is about for many, maybe even a majority of people, namely identity. Party positions on any given issue matters in only a very general way: does the particular position help to reinforce the identity they have, and does it make that identity more or less accessible to current and potential supporters?
It is my sense that the remaining NDP and Liberal party faithful continue to participate and support those parties, and shun other potential alternatives, because membership in that party forms an important part of how they view themselves. Voting for the Liberals or NDP (and, at the federal level, the Greens) reaffirms who they are as individuals, often in explicitly ethical terms, and the party becomes a social group that they belong to, and a symbol for the kind of person they are. In this sense, being a “Liberal” or “NDP” member is analogous to being “Albertan,” or “Canadian,” or indeed, an “Oiler fan” or “Flames fan.” It’s quite literally part of who they are, and its difficult to conceive of being any other way. Accordingly, the actual substantive differences between parties and the electoral implications of a given vote matter only peripherally.
I want to emphasize that I do not think there is anything intrinsically wrong with this. Indeed, in a proportional representation system, Liberals could be Liberals and NDPer would be NDPers, with no negative electoral consequences.
That said , the presence of such a deeply ingrained sense of political identity in the context of a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system does create what might be termed “inefficiencies” in the political arena. It gives non-committed voters — even if they are inclined to vote for a broadly progressive party and don’t particularly care which one — too many nodes on the spectrum to try to coordinate their votes around, with no good way to figure out which is more likely to succeed, and good reason to doubt that any will. The result in Alberta right now is actually that, somewhat ironically, the Conservative Party offers the best point of coordination for progressives who don’t have a strong party affiliation. At least it’s competitive electorally, and it’s closer to their political preferences than the Wildrose alternative.
Accordingly, under FPTP, the only path to even potential electoral relevance for Alberta’s progressive parties – if indeed that is the goal, something that an identity-based theory of voting would tend to cast some doubt on – is to reduce the number of progressive nodes on the spectrum, to make voter coordination easier.
In theory, it could be done through a strategy, suggested by provincial Liberals, of running only one candidate of all three parties in a particular constituency – in this case including the Alberta Party, a potential option as the home of a united progressive party. In my opinion however, this would have to be one step in a longer process; it’s not a long-term solution for precisely the issues of identity I discuss above. Specifically, this approach doesn’t allow voters to form a new sense of belonging with a single progressive option, which is a vital prerequisite of long-term electoral success. People have to know what kind of government they’re voting for in choosing a member, and feel comfortable with the result. A limited multi-party pact impairs the development of that relationship.
Accordingly, to achieve lasting relevance, the leadership of all three parties would have to agree to present voters with a single coherent progressive party, in effect removing the option of loyalty to the old party from the ballot. They would then have to simply accept the resulting fallout, which would undoubtedly be ugly. Such a move would almost inevitably be seen as a betrayal by some portion of the party faithful no matter how it’s done (think Peter MacKay and David Orchard), to the extent that it would temporarily or even permanently alienate some of the old guard from both parties. (Following the federal Conservative merger, Orchard abandoned the party and most recently ran as a Liberal in the 2008 election.) However, for what it’s worth, the example of the Saskatchewan Party, not to mention the federal Conservatives, does suggest that for most party faithful, the hurt feelings mend over time, with most eventually adapting to the new political landscape.
All that said, from present indications, these are not steps that current party leaders are willing to entertain. Accordingly, it’s quite likely that all three are looking at an extended, or permanent state of political irrelevance in Alberta in the coming years. The real conversation in the province, the one that matters from the perspective of choosing a government, is going to be between the Wildrose and Conservatives.
 I suspect that there is a psychological effect here, where some people are just intuitively drawn to an identity-based concept of voting and party allegiance, while others, like me, consider their voting choice in much more instrumental terms, as a way to select the “best” government available, given the availability and viability of parties competing. Or maybe it’s better described as a fundamental difference in political philosophy. Not sure how much research has been done on this, though; once I finish my dissertation, it might be a fun area to do some work. For instance, an interesting question would be, to what extent do personal political opinions change as the available political options change? (How) do institutional changes affect the way we view political issues? But, I digress…