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Alberta Election Review: NDP's Deserved Failure
On One Of Modern Politics' Disasters
“If you can tell me something worth fighting for”
Monday night, the Alberta NDP lost their best chance at winning office they will have, and they will have to live with their failure to do so. Yes, a lot of ink will be spilled on Danielle Smith, but for an incumbent government, this election was almost uniquely not about them. It was a referendum on whether Rachel Notley had learned since being booted from office in 2019, and whether the NDP could earn a victory without playing on easy mode.
The answer’s in, and it’s sobering for them – they failed, and they failed because they didn’t at any point make a case that an NDP government was actually worth fighting for.
“Managerial competence is attractive to the voters in a crisis, but the next election will not be a referendum on the past, but a choice between two futures, and it’s the case that the NDP have not publicly shown any interest in the choice they’ll offer to the people.”
That was written in November of 2021, when Jason Kenney was still leading the UCP and the idea of a leadership challenge was still in its infancy, because the issues the NDP faced were clear and obvious then. During the Kenney leadership, the NDP often led and led big, a combination of right wing micro parties polling some UCP voters away and disgruntled UCP voters parking their votes with Rachel Notley. But even in 2021, I had it in my gut that the NDP were not in an election winning position.
Since then, the basic criticisms of that piece have held – the NDP have been focused on criticizing the UCP for the wild ideas espoused by their leader, whether it was Kenney or now Danielle Smith, and what we have is a situation where the UCP has been returned to government in spite of all the warnings about letting this very thing happen. Why did it work? Because the NDP never gave voters any reason to think a change in government would be better.
The NDP’s signature policy in this election was a 3% rise in corporate taxes, a move that however defensible it is in economic terms is a sizeable shakeup, which was introduced to do … well, I’m not sure what, actually. Unlike in 2015, when Justin Trudeau raised taxes on the rich, he framed the tax rise on the rich as a mechanism to pay for the middle class tax cut he was simultaneously introducing. Attempts to frame his as some tax and spend communist fell apart when his goal was to merely shift the tax burden up the income scale a bit.
Had the NDP sold the corporate tax increase in a similar way – three points on corporate tax for X – they would have had a better time in this campaign, but instead, they ended up hanging this anchor on themselves for no discernible policy gain. The problem is they tried to have a balanced budget with a declining oil price and had committed not to raise personal taxes, so they looked at the corporate tax hike as their magic key.
The problem isn’t so much the tax rise then, understood properly – it’s the absolute paucity of the offer. In an attempt to not lose any voters through overt radicalism, the NDP forgot to appeal to anybody with anything at all. The message of this campaign from them has been full of secret agendas, a message the left trots out when they’re out of original ideas, and while it airquotes “worked” in 2004 for the Liberals, it only worked because Cheryl Gallant and Ralph Klein wouldn’t shut the fuck up. Here, the UCP has (mostly) gotten away without any policy blunders, so the secret agenda stuff came up flat.
The reason the NDP lost isn’t about any of the convenient narratives that will pop up in time, it’s about a singular fact – they didn’t give Alberta anything proactively to vote for. They had a few half measures designed to peel off a few half measures, and the contraceptives policy was actually genuinely good, but there was no overarching message or ideal. There was no narrative about the campaign except Danielle Smith is bad, and there were a lot of unanswered questions.
I still have no idea what Rachel Notley’s answer to the basic principle of paying for a new arena for the Flames is, despite that being the issue of the first week of the campaign. I have no idea what an NDP government would do on climate – would they just let the federal carbon tax continue and do nothing else? Would there would be subsidy for carbon capture and storage? What is her plan for orphan wells? – nor, do I suspect, do they. And if they don’t have an idea of where they’ll be in a year, it’s hard to fault people for not voting for them.
At the end of the day, the NDP have only themselves to blame for this result, because they cannot say they did not know. They did, because the dirty little secret of Alberta politics is that every time I would write about the Alberta NDP and how they were fucking this up, I never got pushback, and a lot of responses (both public and private) along the lines of thank fuck someone is saying this or this finally explains what I’ve been feeling for a while, which shouldn’t be happening from a Laurentian Elite asshole with almost no ties to the province.
It's been apparent to anybody that the NDP was on a crash course for this kind of result, because I said as much when I went on Ryan Jespersen’s show in February and when I’ve written versions of the same numerous times for the last 18 months. None of this is surprising if you properly understood that in Alberta, tie goes to the right and the NDP would have to win this outright on their own merits, and not just be there when the UCP collapsed. They didn’t do nearly enough.
The voters they made progress with tonight, but not enough progress, were Jim Prentice voters in 2015 who either reluctantly voted UCP in 2019 or voted for the Alberta Party. They definitely made progress with those voters, and given the swing being so much bigger in Calgary elsewhere, they certainly disproportionately won over those voters, but it wasn’t enough because the NDP didn’t let it be enough. The NDP were still stuck on the idea that they couldn’t try and win this on their own merits, and so in trying to be inoffensive and conformist, they ended up pissing away their best chance at victory.
Yes, for three days it looked like it might be enough – that Smith’s comments about the vaccinated and Nazi Germany might have been enough – but it’s been clear for a while now that my exuberance to believe that was Lake Of Fire 2.0 was the product not of sound thinking, but of hope. I hate Danielle Smith, and I am deeply saddened to see her win. But, she has, and we’re here. My exuberance might be easily dismissed as the product of a rush of blood to the head, but the NDP’s failures can’t. Rachel Notley must resign as leader of the NDP tonight and the party must engage in what NDP branches across the country never do – a proper analysis of why they lost and a proper blood letting. This result should be a wakeup call to so many about what to do, and should be taught in campaign school as a disasterclass beyond compare. The NDP failed their province, they failed their voters, and they failed the people who really, really cannot do with another four years of a very bad government. And their failure to give anybody anything worth fighting for will go on the conscience of every person who failed to heed the warnings.