[Note: I wanted to write something about the NDP’s stunning win last night in Alberta, but don’t really have the time. So, I’ve done the
lazy next best thing and compressed a couple of exchanges I had on social media this morning.]
Man, I had the craziest dream last night. There was this big election in Alberta, and the NDP won!
Q: So tell me, will/can this spell into a NDP majority in the next federal election?
A: No. It’s important not to read too much into what happened here. Alberta didn’t turn socialist overnight, any more than it was ever the Conservative monolith that outsiders saw. At its simplest, this election is the story of a province that got tired of a 40-year-old government, a government that had been around longer than most Albertans have been alive. Once a collapse in prices stripped the PCs of their oil-fueled incumbency powers, Albertans didn’t like the look of what was left. They turned to the best option available. Rachel Notley and the NDP, in what will be remembered as one of the great campaigns in Canadian history—not to mention one of the worst by an incumbent—convinced Albertans that they were that best option. The PCAA offered Albertans a CEO, and they elected a leader instead. (And what a leader! If you haven’t seen Notley’s acceptance speech yet, do yourself a favour and watch.)
An NDP win at the federal level, let alone a majority, really also requires a collapse of the Liberals, and I don’t see that happening. If anything, this might slightly help the Conservatives insofar as it’ll cause the NDP to dig in, and make strategic voting among progressives even less likely.
This is a story about vote splitting above all else, and the crazy ways that First Past the Post voting systems can mangle their representation of voters’ preferences. As my former professor Max Cameron said, that is not a good news story for either the NDP or the Liberals at the federal level.
(Incidentally, my favourite subplot to watch for in the coming months is the sudden conversion of Albertan conservatives to PR supporters. If PC/WR can’t manage a merger by next election, we may hear some loud calls for institutional change coming out of my home province.)
If you want to read more on this subject, my friend and colleague Daniel Westlake wrote a very good analysis of what changed, and what did not, in the election last night.
Q: Ok, so will Alberta go fully blue again in the next federal elections? apparently the NDP can take the seats from the Conservatives and not just the Liberals.
A: Not to take anything away from Notley’s team’s campaign, which was dynamite, but had Danielle Smith not defected, I think it’s more likely than not we’d be looking at a WR government in Alberta this morning.
I bet the NDP carries a handful of federal ridings in Edmonton and Calgary. The Liberals are looking at another generation in the wilderness after this. Their brand has never been particularly welcome in Alberta because of that thing Pierre Trudeau did back in 1980, and this is about as clear a signal as you could ask for for voters to coordinate around.
I normally think momentum is bunk, but this is organization-changing momentum in Alberta. Suddenly, there’s a progressive provincial party with the potential to build a local political machine (something else Alberta has never had in my lifetime). While the national and provincial NDP have their significant differences—this piece touches on some of the most important areas of convergence and divergence—the NDP is now the team to play for among among Alberta progressives. In consequence, in urban areas at least, the NDP will be a force in the federal election.
There’s one final point that’s hard to capture pithily, because it goes to the very basics of social identity. Growing up in rural Alberta, I remember it being actually embarrassing to talk about supporting a party other than the PCs—and really, to show an interest in politics in general. It immediately marked you as a weirdo. That may be gone now. Being NDP is suddenly a legitimate choice. It may not change much, but then again, it might be the thing that matters most in the long run, particularly if the NDP manages competent, pragmatic governance throughout the coming term, no mean feat giving their newness and the stiff economic headwinds facing the province.
For the short term however, the best the NDP can hope for is to push the Liberals out of the way completely in the province. 52% of Albertans voted for a right-of-centre party in this election, and a similar number will do so in the coming federal election.
The bottom line is that the Alberta party system shifted dramatically last night. We saw the dramatic rise of one party, and the decline or demise of several others. That will have huge implications in the province, and some significant effects beyond its borders as well.
The people of the province however, are just the same as they were yesterday.