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The Last Thing Alberta’s NDP Needs Is a Name Change

Once Rachel Notley leaves, picking the next leader is Job 1.

David Climenhaga 5 Dec 2023The Tyee

David J. Climenhaga is an award-winning journalist, author, post-secondary teacher, poet and trade union communicator. He blogs at AlbertaPolitics.ca. Follow him on Twitter at @djclimenhaga.

It would be a pity if the coming NDP leadership race got sidetracked into a silly fight about whether the Alberta Opposition party should change its name.

But exactly that could happen when former premier Rachel Notley announces her intention to retire from politics, which I hear will happen soon after the fall sitting of the legislature ends on Thursday.

That’ll be Dec. 7, the 82nd anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbour, by the way, and if Notley pulls the plug on that day, we’ll all remember what we were doing at the exact moment we heard the news.

Just kidding. But it is true that New Democrat circles in Alberta are abuzz with speculation about who will run to replace Notley, who has firmly said no to campaigning for the job, and who is already recruiting campaign managers and campaign volunteers.

The last thing Alberta New Democrats need to be spending a lot of time debating is what they should call the party if they don’t call it the NDP — because, of course, calling it anything but the NDP is an extremely bad idea.

Let’s dispatch the idea quickly so the largest Opposition in Alberta history can get down to the serious question of figuring out who can lead the party that Notley fashioned to a significant extent in her own image.

And not just who can hold the party together, or just beat Danielle Smith in the next election, but who can defeat whoever replaces Smith as leader of the United Conservative Party and premier.

Because, let’s face it, politicians and the strategists they hire alike are famous for picking the best general to fight the last war.

Notley stuck around after the debacle of the 2019 election because she accurately saw that in a short time Albertans would come to despise Jason Kenney, the smart-arse Laurentian elitist who rode in from Ottawa in a fake-populist Tory-blue pickup truck.

She called that right, and had the May 29 election this year been a contest between parties led by her and Kenney, that very well could have tipped the balance in the NDP’s favour.

But the UCP, its base unhinged by the inconvenience of obeying the rules during a pandemic, didn’t stick with Kenney, did they? They sent him packing and chose Smith, the glib populist who gaslit her way to a narrow victory.

The NDP needs a leader who can deal with the threat it faces in 2027, not just the one it faced in 2023, because they’re unlikely to be the same.

Meanwhile, we have former NDP MLA Brian Malkinson’s bright idea to defuse the constant references by the UCP to federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh as Notley’s “boss” and their claims that there is a “Trudeau-Notley-Singh alliance,” distracting everyone from the task at hand.

Malkinson was elected in 2015 as the MLA for Calgary-Currie. He was defeated by the UCP candidate in 2019 by fewer than 200 votes. He might reasonably have expected, therefore, to be NDP candidate in 2023, but he was defeated for the nomination by Janet Eremenko, who handily won the riding in the general election by more than 3,000 votes.

By setting up a group called Alberta’s Progressive Future, getting half a dozen former NDP candidates to clamber on board and publishing a poll that suggests about half of Albertans think the federal party has some influence on the Alberta NDP, Malkinson is repeating and lending credibility to a corrosive UCP talking point that dates back to the Kenney days.

It obviously wasn’t the NDP’s name that lost the 2023 election; it was “the Alberta NDP’s scattershot messaging and futile game of political whack-a-mole against Smith,” as political blogger Dave Cournoyer put it.

If the NDP wants to win the next election, it needs to focus on strategy, not tactics — and that strategy needs to zoom in on no more than three or four issues and hammer the UCP with them day after day.

Alberta’s Progressive Future and Malkinson seem to have forgotten what the New Democratic Party has accomplished in the past decade. In the 2012 election, it had four seats and was the fourth party in the legislature.

In 2015, it won a majority government, and in 2023 it came close enough again to put the fear of God in the UCP. It is on a track not just to win again, but to win sustainably.

Changing the party’s name would divide the party’s supporters, drive away a significant portion of its base and hose away much of the hard work done to implant the idea in Albertans’ minds that the NDP is the only Alberta party that offers government by grown-ups.

I’d suggest that the survey by Janet Brown, a respected pollster, is a sign of the party’s growing credibility, not evidence of a popular prejudice it can never overcome. But, of course, no one thought to run a similar poll in 2012, so we have no benchmark against which to measure change in public perception of the provincial NDP’s relationship with the federal party.

I’d be willing to bet that trying to rebrand the party as the Progressive Originals, or whatever forgettable name Alberta’s Progressive Future has in mind, would be a marketing disaster on the scale of the now-defunct New Coke. The party would have to reintroduce NDP Classic just to hold four seats in the legislature!

That the NDP has the same name as a federal party isn’t “creating confusion for the average Alberta voter,” as Alberta’s Progressive Future patronizingly claims on its website, any more than the fact the UCP and the CPC both call themselves Conservatives is confusing anyone.

Such connections are a strength for the UCP and a strength for the NDP.

Malkinson’s worst idea, though, is that the NDP should give itself a new name but not bother to formally split from the federal party.

Talk about trying to eat your cake and have it too!

If that happened and I were a UCP strategist, I’d mock them for it mercilessly and accuse them of trying to hide their relationship to the NDP — which would be fair.

The New Democratic Party has won before and can again. Alberta’s Progressive Future is a brand that has no future. The NDP needs to forget about it now.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Alberta

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