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Sifting Through the Wreckage of Alberta Election 2023
The NDP's strategy was an abject failure. Notley and her clique have to go.
The second it was announced that UCP Premier Danielle Smith was re-elected with a comfortable majority government, the NDP’s most fervent partisans attempted to portray their embarrassing loss as a win.
It was the most votes the NDP ever received in an Alberta election. The UCP lost 15 seats. The NDP won the popular vote in the province’s two major cities. People voted NDP for the first time in their lives. None of this shit matters in the slightest.
If the NDP is going to learn lessons from its defeat against someone who has endorsed every quack COVID conspiracy in the book, and once opined that smoking is good for you, it needs to first recognize a loss as a loss.
I’m sympathetic to the view that a party can win a moral victory even in the face of electoral defeat. But that clearly isn’t the case here. The NDP didn’t change the political conversation in this province at all, save for helping Smith move the Overton window rightward.
You don’t get to claim moral victory when your goal was to win at all costs.
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At NDP headquarters, the atmosphere on election night appeared unfathomably jubilant.
“Where we fell short the responsibility rests entirely with me,” NDP leader Rachel Notley said in her concession speech, which was a bizarre way to preface her intention to stay on as leader.
When Notley announced her intention to remain leader after her 2019 defeat, I thought it was the wrong decision but it was understandable that she would wait around a few years to say ‘I told you so.’ This was her opportunity to do just that and she blew it by making the campaign about Danielle Smith’s character, banking on the beneficence of former conservative voters.
No sugarcoating will disguise the fact that Notley’s strategy was an abject failure. She ran an incredibly weak campaign rooted in the promise of victory, and she lost. Notley needs to go, as does her entire team of sycophants who enabled this failure.
While it’s easy to talk about politics in the abstract, one mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the consequences are real. People will be harmed by another four years of UCP rule, and Notley and her inner clique are partially responsible for that.
In the coming days and months, we’re no doubt going to hear that the NDP lost because they were too progressive and that Albertans simply have no appetite for social democratic politics.
The party is going to listen to those who said it talked too much about health care and education, which it barely spoke about, and not enough about supporting the police and taking a hard line with Ottawa. The NDP’s meagre proposed corporate tax increase is already being blamed for their loss.
Anyone who suggests they lacked a bold progressive agenda will be systematically ignored, if not outright blamed for holding the NDP back.
The former PCs who “loaned” their votes to the NDP will be invited to stay with the party long-term, and the NDP will shift even further rightward.
There will be calls for the party to disassociate from the federal NDP and rebrand — similar to the right-wing B.C. Liberals, who are now B.C. United, as if the problem was the NDP’s name and colour palate, and not something substantive.
The fact is the NDP ran an almost entirely negative campaign, attacking Smith’s character by highlighting all of her erratic views and policy prescriptions from over the years. Smith made a conscious decision not to run on these policies — even those she advocated as recently as last year — which effectively neutered the NDP’s attacks.
The NDP hired an AirBnB lobbyist to run its campaign in the midst of a housing affordability crisis, who they refused to acknowledge was even working for them.
They didn’t talk about climate change at all. They committed to the neoliberal consensus of low taxes and balanced budgets — a recipe for crippling austerity that furthers the province’s dependence on fossil fuel revenues for budgeting.
To the extent the NDP had a positive agenda, it mostly consisted of a series of policies that weren’t all that different from what the UCP offered.
The UCP said they’d hire 100 more cops in Calgary and Edmonton. The NDP said they’d hire 150 across the province and partner them with social workers.
The UCP said they’d create a lower income tax bracket for those who make less than $60,000 a year and pass a law requiring a referendum to increase taxes. The NDP said they would eliminate small business taxes entirely, freeze income taxes and ensure corporate taxes remained the lowest in the country.
I could go on.
If you’re constantly attacking your opponent’s character but offering policies eerily similar to theirs, don’t expect to sway enough people to win an election. We’re electing politicians, not Saints.
The NDP barely talked about what it did when it was in power from 2015 to 2019, which Smith deftly seized upon to argue it was in fact the NDP, not her, who harboured a hidden agenda.
On election night, CBC News reporter Julia Wong asked David Shepherd, who was comfortably re-elected as the NDP MLA in Edmonton-City Centre, about his party’s record in power.
The first thought that apparently crossed Shepherd’s mind was that the NDP was the first government to “build a pipeline to tidewater” in years. He said this as people were just returning to their homes from unprecedentedly ferocious wildfires, no doubt exacerbated by the climate crisis the NDP purports to care about.
His party reduced child poverty when it was in power by half, a remarkable achievement, yet Shepherd could only bring himself to boast about a pipeline with a ballooning budget that was built to ship a product that won’t be needed in a decade.
If the NDP is trying to portray themselves as responsible fiscal stewards to please centre-right voters, this isn’t the way to go about it.
According to Brian Mason, Notley’s immediate predecessor as NDP leader, these criticisms of the NDP’s electoral strategy somehow contributed to its defeat.
In response to a twitter thread from this author about the NDP campaign’s myriad deficiencies outlined above, Mason said: “I can’t believe that a would-be journalist who did his best to trash the @albertaNDP during a very tight campaign is now shitting on them for losing.”
This three-card trick will be familiar to anyone on the left:
You warn something bad is going to happen unless those in power change course.
Those in power ignore you and something bad happens.
You get blamed for having the audacity to warn it was going to happen.
The ‘would-be journalist’ descriptor is a nice touch, since it suggests that a real, Brian Mason-certified journalist wouldn’t attempt to hold his party to account for its glaring deficiencies.
The morning after, however, Mason had a sober assessment of his party’s failure, which made some important points worthy of consideration.
For starters, he acknowledged the shortcoming of assuming centre-right voters will abandon the UCP en masse.
“There were less ‘former PC voters’ than expected,” Mason tweeted. “Having spent lots of time with dozens of PC MLAs over the years, I can say that many of them are quite comfortable with Danielle Smith. Many of the rest were hanging with the @AlbertaParty, and the @albertaNDP did[n’t] get their vote.”
He also noted that, at best, the party’s more centrist turn wasn’t all that effective.
“I’m not sure what impact the NDPs ‘shift to the right’ had on the campaign,” Mason added. “It didn’t move a lot of vote[s] away from the UCP for sure. Did left NDP voters stay home? I remain to be convinced. But the strategy should be carefully reviewed.”
No doubt the NDP will conduct a review into their 2023 failure, but in the meantime, we can expect the party to further acquiesce to aspects of Smith’s agenda, continuing the narrowing of political debate in Alberta.
The NDP strategy was premised on the notion that soft conservative voters in the suburbs would be so repulsed by Smith that they would reluctantly vote NDP if the NDP didn’t stray too far from conservative orthodoxy.
This is why they made an effort to showcase all the former PC cabinet ministers who were backing them in this election — Thomas Lukaszuk, Doug Griffiths, Jim Foster. But the NDP won in 2015 in part because people were fed up with the entitlement and corruption of the PC dynasty.
The NDP portraying itself as the heirs to the PCs they defeated in 2015 was a clear miscalculation.
I always questioned whether the soft conservatives of the NDP imagination really cared all that much about Smith’s views on Alberta sovereignty and COVID culture wars. I’m sure they aren’t thrilled with these views, but their discomfort was clearly allayed by Smith’s promise to make it harder for future governments to increase taxes.
At the end of the day, it seemed Danielle Smith, rather than Notley, was in control of the NDP messaging, which should be cause for immense concern.
The writing was on the wall when Notley came out against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s impending “just transition” legislation in January after Smith demanded she do so to demonstrate her fealty to the oil and gas industry.
CBC News reporter Michelle Bellefontaine asked Notley whether this position would alienate the NDP base, who support a transition away from fossil fuels. Notley’s response was telling.
"Maybe, maybe not," she replied. "Not sure. It's hard to say."
Anyone with this much contempt for their party’s base shouldn’t be running that party, as Jason Kenney learned the hard way.
The NDP no doubt needs a change of direction if it’s going to ever form government again, but I fear it will move in the wrong direction, furthering the political conversation’s perpetual rightward drift.
Meanwhile, the planet will burn, quality health care and education will be catered to the wealthy exclusively, more people will lose their unaffordable homes, people will continue overdosing on increasingly lethal street drugs, and more police funding will be offered as a solution to all social ills.
Edited by Stephen Magusiak