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Four Mistakes that Cost the Election for Alberta’s NDP

Biggest: Notley and her party chased conservative converts who don’t actually exist.

Jeremy Appel 13 Jun 2023The Tyee

Jeremy Appel is an Edmonton-based independent journalist who writes the Orchard newsletter on Substack. He’s the author of the coming book Kenneyism: Jason Kenney’s Pursuit of Power.

Why did the Alberta NDP lose the 2023 provincial election? The major flaw at the core of their strategy was deciding to make an explicit pitch to historically conservative voters in Calgary and the suburbs surrounding Edmonton.

The idea was that voters would be so repulsed by premier-elect Danielle Smith’s embrace of COVID conspiracies and Alberta separatist fantasies that enough would reluctantly support the NDP just for this election.

From that assumption flowed four major mistakes to learn from next time.

Mistake 1: Making it about leader personality

The NDP’s strategy produced a campaign centring largely around Smith’s personality and suitability for the premiership, rather than more substantive policy debates. To the extent the NDP offered alternatives to Smith’s policies, they were tailor-made to woo former PC supporters who were asked to “lend” their votes to the NDP.

Alison Redford, the former PC premier who, unlike NDP Leader Rachel Notley, was able to defeat Smith when she was the leader of the Wildrose in 2012, noted a “morphing of ideas and issues” between the UCP and NDP. "It's not as easy to distinguish what is an NDP idea from a conservative idea anymore,” Redford told CTV News during the first week of the campaign in early May.

The NDP trotted out every former PC cabinet minister it could find — the very people they defeated in 2015 — willing to support the party to defeat Smith.

Thomas Lukaszuk, Redford’s former deputy, was the most vociferous advocate of voting NDP to stop the greater threat of Smith.

He admitted to the CBC that the NDP maxed out its support among conservatives, and the numbers back this up. While the NDP gained 11.3 percentage points from its pitiful 2019 performance, the UCP only lost 2.3 per cent.

Most of the NDP gains came at the expense of the centre-right Alberta Party, which went from running a full slate of 87 candidates in 2019 to 19 this time. Their 2019 supporters weren’t going to vote UCP anyway.

Lukaszuk called the NDP’s platform “palatable,” but said “their biggest problem is their branding.” Perhaps they should just change their name to the PCs.

An exit poll from Research Co., however, found that UCP voters were much more interested in policy than personality. It also found that Smith fared much better than Kenney would have in this election, suggesting Smith was able to reunite the Wildrose-PC coalition Kenney forged, which collapsed under the weight of his leadership in 2021.

Renowned Calgary pollster Janet Brown observed that the conservatives who were repulsed by Smith “just stayed home,” rather than voting for the NDP.

Others were likely willing to accept Smith’s more extreme views in exchange for her proposed legislation to force a referendum on future tax increases.

The NDP were chasing voters who don’t actually exist — those who have voted conservative their entire lives and would be willing to vote NDP if it offered the right configuration of centre-right policies while constantly reminding voters of Smith’s extremist sympathies.

Mistake 2: Staying silent on the most important issue of our time

The beginning of the campaign coincided with wildfires across the province which displaced thousands, including many Indigenous people. This would have been an ideal time to highlight the climate crisis, yet there was no apparent willingness to do so from the NDP.

Like every decision the NDP made during the campaign, this one must be viewed through the prism of the imaginary Calgary swing voter the party attempted to cultivate.

Yet progressive Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek won the city’s 2021 municipal election in a landslide. She had an entire section of her platform dedicated to climate action, and her first act as mayor was declaring a climate emergency.

For the past 22 years, Calgary has consistently elected progressive mayors — former federal Liberal candidate Dave Bronconnier, Naheed Nenshi, who endorsed the NDP late in the 2023 campaign, and Gondek.

The politics of its largest city show that Alberta is changing, but the most recent NDP campaign did nothing to reflect that reality.

Even before the campaign kicked off, Notley demanded Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “put the brakes completely” on impending “sustainable jobs” legislation intended to transition workers from non-renewable to clean energy jobs, because Smith had urged her to do so, allowing the UCP leader to control the political discussion.

Political strategist Stephen Carter, who has at various times worked for Nenshi, Smith, Redford and Gondek, and is no friend of this author, correctly called Notley’s position “a complete own goal.”

“Why now? Why the weak stance? Which voters move on this? Compared to how many may leave? Looks weak. Is weak,” Carter tweeted.

After the election, Carter was part of the chorus of voices who spun the NDP’s failure as a success, although he noted the NDP’s inability “to define this election as us-versus-them.” Discussing the climate crisis may have been one way to distinguish themselves from the UCP.

Mistake 3: Soft-pedalling the corporate tax hike

UCP staffers have attributed the NDP’s proposal to increase the corporate tax rate to 11 per cent from eight per cent — maintaining the lowest rate in the country — to a reversal of fortune for their respective campaigns.

This assertion has been received as gospel by the province’s commentariat, from David Climenhaga on the left, Don Braid on the right and Max Fawcett in the middle.

I don’t doubt the NDP’s announcement marked a turning point in the campaign, but I dissent from the conventional narrative that the issue was the policy itself, which repelled the NDP’s target suburban voting demographic.

Rather, it was the fact that the NDP provided no explanation for why the tax increase was necessary, which otherwise contradicted its message of freezing income taxes and eliminating the small business tax.

There was a strong case to be made that the UCP’s corporate tax cuts didn’t increase jobs, and in the oil and gas industry actually helped eliminate them. Or that at a time of sky-high corporate profits, we should begin the process of making these companies pay a fairer share to enhance public services.

But the NDP chose not to make it. They thought emphasizing the corporate tax rate would still be lower than the rate in Doug Ford’s Ontario and Scott Moe’s Saskatchewan would suffice.

That, rather than the tax hike itself, was one of the NDP’s major strategic blunders.

Mistake 4: Erasing 2015 to 2019

Perhaps the most fatal error was the NDP’s refusal to campaign on its record in government from 2015 to 2019 — no doubt another effort to attract conservative voters who didn’t support the party previously, which backfired enormously.

This strategic silence allowed Smith to repeatedly question why the NDP won’t talk about its time in power, suggesting that’s because there was nothing to be proud of and that they harbour a hidden agenda.

The NDP should have used every opportunity on the campaign trail to discuss how its policies reduced child poverty by half, but Notley didn’t emphasize this remarkable achievement until a rally with the party faithful the day before the election, as if it was something only diehard New Democrats would appreciate.

Not a word was said about the NDP’s harm reduction policies for the drug poisoning crisis, which have been slowly dismantled by the UCP government. No doubt, they were scared of alienating those who opposed Calgary’s Safeworks supervised consumption site downtown, but even within the confines of their flawed strategy, the party could have highlighted the health-care cost savings that come from harm reduction policies.

These policies, by the way, were started under the PC government. Embracing them would have been a great way for the NDP to counter the UCP’s cruel forced treatment plan, which the party opposed without offering alternatives.

A cautionary note

In sum, there are many reasons the NDP failed to defeat Danielle Smith’s iteration of the UCP. Being insufficiently conservative isn’t one.

The NDP boasts that this catastrophic defeat, which will have major consequences for Albertans and the planet, is actually a minor victory, since the party has formed the largest official opposition in Alberta history, with 39 seats, surpassing the 32-seat Liberal opposition to Ralph Klein’s first government in 1993.

But 1993, when Laurence Decore’s Liberals attempted to appeal to disgruntled PC voters in a similar way to the NDP of today, ought to serve as a cautionary tale rather than a source of pride. Klein governed for the next 13 years uninterrupted while the Liberal Party of Alberta was gradually reduced to a non-entity.

The NDP isn’t going to move away from its fruitless rightward drift unless it’s forced to. In this sense, the onus is on progressives to take a page from the Smith-supporting hard-right populist Take Back Alberta playbook. They should focus on building long-term power by mobilizing those who feel excluded from the electoral process to take over the NDP party machinery from within.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Alberta

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