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Memo To The Alberta NDP: Coherence, Please
Stop Being An Opposition, Start To Lead
Friday saw the first Alberta poll of the year, a Mainstreet Research poll that saw Danielle Smith’s UCP lead province wide but an NDP lead in Calgary, basically my sweetspot for expected Alberta outcomes at this point. Smith’s basically erased the (in my view, entirely artificial) decline in the UCP’s rural vote from 2019 to the polled results of 2022, which ends up shifting the calculus of who has a more efficient vote.
All else being equal, you’d expect a 17% province wide swing (which is what Mainstreet shows, from UCP+22 in 2019 to UCP+5 now) to be more concentrated in Calgary and less in the rurals, and low and behold, that’s what it shows. The reason the NDP will win this election if they do will not be because the NDP taps into kind of working class populism in places like Camrose or Lesser Slave Lake – places with a NDP MLA in 2015-19 – but because it taps into votes of cultural liberals who don’t love the redistribution stuff in places like Calgarys Lougheed or Elbow, places the NDP wave couldn’t bring over.
This NDP government, if it happens, will be radically different in terms of makeup and in terms of voters than the last one. The problem is, I’m not sure the party has quite internalized that, or internalized how to handle that fact. More to the point, I’m still not really the NDP knows how to win from the front.
Notley won in 2015 from a combination of failure around her and the fact that nobody really realized what happened until it was too late. Nobody really reckoned with who her Cabinet would be and what they would actually do, and then they won, the oil price collapsed, and everything got wonky. Now the NDP is trying to win an election not necessarily that they’re supposed to win, but certainly that they’re wildly expected to be competitive in. And that takes a very different skill set than winning in a wild surge.
And I don’t know if the NDP has it.
The NDP is running what could best be described as a sort of Milibandian campaign to win Alberta, a campaign where every individual decision makes sense but on the whole everything falls apart. In the UK in 2015, Miliband ran on the Tories are bad and we are good, with a suite of policies that each individually polled well. And then, when the results came, Labour barely gained any seats in England, even ignoring their Scottish wipeout.
What happened was that while the party had a lot of individual policies that made sense, they didn’t have an overarching message that was about anything. In not having a coherent central message, UK Labour walked into an election with a policy agenda that was both too ambitious for some voters scared off by the expansive tax and spend stuff, but also that felt weirdly unfinished and unfocused. It was left wing technocratism being passed off at various times as both bold and a nothingburger.
If that doesn’t sound like the current iteration of the Alberta NDP to you, I don’t know what does, because I have no actual idea what they want to be. They dislike many things the UCP has done, have a few ideas of things they’d like to do, but they’re jumpy and scattershot at the best of times. They have a bit of political headless chicken about them, in that they just move from thing to thing with no coherent, overarching message.
Notleyism isn’t a defense of a more activist government nor is it an articulation of what might be called compassionate capitalism, it’s just bland managerialism. It’s not the worst case to make against Danielle Smith’s band of incompetents, but it’s also decidedly not a great one, either. I actually agreed with Notley coming out against the Just Transition stuff, mostly because I thought the NDP should pick a big dividing line with Ottawa to show their independence, but there’s no narrative around any of their choices, and the reason is there’s too many people who don’t get what the future of the Alberta left looks like.
Edmonton and Calgary are fundamentally two different cities and two very different electorates, and the problem seems to be that there’s either a lack of understanding of the voters they need in Calgary because of it or unease at appealing to them. The voters the NDP needs to win in Calgary – and the ones who the federal LPC and NDP can try and appeal to at the same time, even if their conversion will take much longer – are not people who look at Alberta having the highest car insurance rates and instinctively think that’s the case for more government intervention, but honestly less. They are people who are not instinctive statists, because they have mostly managed to become wealthy in spite of the state not because of it.
Getting them to vote for a party of economic liberalism is not something that will be easy, for one simple reason – a lot of the people the NDP needs to vote for them this year got hit by the NDP’s 2015 tax hikes. The thing about left wing parties being increasingly reliant on social liberals is that they end up having to appeal to voters who their interest is in taxing them, aka rich professionals who make a shitload in white collar industries like law and medicine, accounting and engineering.
The fucking problem with the Alberta NDP is there’s no coherence, and there’s no argument other than the UCP are bad. If you’re trying to make the case that these voters should vote for you, you need to sell them on an actual vision and narrative. If that narrative and vision is technocratic centrism, then refract every risky, stupid decision the UCP makes against the alternative, which is to say that you’ll be above ideology and just avoid doing stupid shit. If that narrative is going to be a strengthened, more muscular vision for Alberta, then make the case that these investments will save everyone money in the long run.
The problem is the NDP is acting like an Opposition right now – bash the government over its head with their own mistakes. Sometimes that’s enough to win an election. Most of the time it’s not. The NDP will need to add some coherence, some overarching narrative, and some fucking vision to their pitch if they want to win this election.
If they don’t, they’ll have wasted their best chance to win.