Monday, April 30, 2012

Did the left blow it in Alberta?

Even though the end result was a Stephen Harper majority government, the NDP took a giant leap forward last May. In one election, the party may very well have taken the first step in killing off Canada's natural governing party, positioning the Dippers to one day form government.

Although last Monday's Alberta election was a battle between two conservative parties, it’s not far flung to imagine how a similar scenario could have unfolded there.

Let's close our eyes and go back in time to the spring of 2008 - Leona Lewis topped the billboard charts, and Ed Stelmach had just stumbled his way to a crushing 70-seat majority. In our scenario, perhaps the Liberals and NDP finally decide that 50 years of fighting each other for second place has been counterproductive. They talk to some disaffected PCs and non-partisans and decide to start a new progressive party from scratch – let’s call it the “Alberta Party” for lack of a more creative name.

Since there’s general displeasure with Stelmach and no viable alternative on the right (remember, this is pre-Danielle), a few polls show this party is popular at the conceptual level. Maybe Dave Bronconnier finally has enough guts to jump to provincial politics. Or maybe the leadership goes to a little known Mount Royal professor by the name of Nenshi.

In either event, this new party is seen as credible by voters, setting up a real three-way election battle. Maybe the Alberta Party follows the federal NDP's path and winds up as the official opposition to a Wildrose government. Maybe we get Alberta's first minority government. Hell, maybe the PCs choose Gary Mar or Ted Morton as their leader, and all those “Redford Liberals” find a home in the new Alberta Party, sweeping them into power.

Yes, it’s all fantasy, but fantasyland is the only place the left ever comes close to power in Alberta so there's no harm in closing our eyes and imagining it.

Now, let’s try another scenario, grounded slightly more in reality – what would have happened had the “strategic voters” been less strategic? Could progressives have made a breakthrough on Monday night?

It’s important to remember that despite being the punchline of Canadian politics, the left in Alberta is not nonexistent. Since the Liberals' near-victory in 1993, the Liberals and NDP have combined for between 35% and 42% of the vote in each election, falling victim to the unforgiving nature of first past the post.

The Liberals' did not bled to the Wildrose Party this election, but to Allison Redford. The final Abacus poll showed around 10% of 2008 Liberal and NDP voters jumping to the Wildrose Party, but this is off-set by the 5% of past PC voters who planned to follow Raj Sherman to the grits. Toss in the departure of the Alberta Greens from the ballot, and it's not unreasonable to assume the Liberals and NDP could have held their 2008 vote, had things broken a little differently.

So what if they had?

To find out, I moved PC voters “back” to the Liberals, until the 2012 regional totals matched the 2008 numbers. As an example, to get the Liberals back to 33% in Calgary, I needed to shift 11% of the total vote from the PCs to the Liberals in each riding. I recognize this is an inexact science but, once again, this is perfectly legitimate math for fantasyland.

Here’s what that legislature would have looked like:

WR 42
PC 26
Lib 14
NDP 5

That may not be an overly appealing outcome, but it does leave the Liberals and NDP as players in a minority government. Moreover, if you shift to 2004 levels of support, suddenly we get 23 Liberal MLAs and 13 for the PCs, with the Wildrose holding a slim majority. That's a scenario similar to last May, and one that could eventually lead to the Liberals squeezing the PCs out of existence.

Again, we're playing with hypotheticals in the land of make believe, but it does show that the landscape isn't so completely barren for progressives that the only option left is assimilation by the PCs. Situations can change - even in Alberta.

11 Comments:

  • One of the scenarios I enjoyed playing around with in my head involved the idea that the conservative portion of the PCs would jump en masse to the Wildrosers, and the ensuing collapse of the PCs would free up moderate Tories to flee to the Liberals, who could've formed some bedrock ridings in the cities (especially Edmonton, but Calgary as well), and formed the Official Opposition with 15-20 seats.

    That would've given the Liberals some legitimacy if the Smith government then tanked, allowing the most frequent Opposition party to form their first government since 1921. I mean, all things considered, had the Liberals held 30% of the vote, it could've happened.

    But reality doesn't work that way, and the Liberals ended up saddled with a less-than-inspiring leader, and the PCs ended up with someone who was essentially a Liberal in blue.

    I wonder if we'd have these same results if Swann had stayed on as leader. Sherman never inspired much confidence, he was essentially just a repeat of Nancy MacBeth, except worse. Swann though, I like that guy.

    By Blogger Volkov, at 11:25 AM  

  • Hypothetically, we could also have been heading to a Wildrose Dynasty without strategic voting. The Wildrose under a minority situation would have likely gotten disaffected PC MLAs to defect to their party further taking from the PCs' right wing. Alison Redford then would likely get deposed and replaced with someone who couldn't bolster the PCs' left wing. Meanwhile the left wing parties would have still faced large vote splits due to the left wing vote being split between the Alberta Party, NDP, Liberals, and possibly the Greens.

    Considering oil prices should not plummet anytime soon, the economic advantage starts working for the Wildrose rather than the PCs with the Wildrose facing no real opposition unless the opposition parties force themselves to do something more bold/drastic which I have absolutely no faith that they’d do.

    Strategic voting at least gave Alison Redford some time to make her mark on the PC and possible even redefine the political spectrum before turning over the keys to a possible right wing dynasty. Besides for most left wing voters over the next four or so years, a Redford government is far more palatable than a Smith government.

    By Blogger C. Banana, at 12:57 PM  

  • Dan, you’re absolutely right that if these chicken-little progressives who “strategically” voted PC last week had instead stayed in Liberal base camp, Team Raj would now probably hold the balance of power in Alberta’s first ever minority government legislature. Facepalm.
    My message to the Libs in October 2009, three days after Danielle Smith won the WR leadership:
    “I congratulate Danielle Smith on earning the leadership of the Wildrose Alliance Party. Her victory, coupled with Paul Hinman's win in last month's Calgary-Glenmore byelection, promise to make provincial politics interesting again, in what for too long has been the one-party Banana Republic of Alberta. I'm hoping that we see Wildrose Alliance ahead of the PCs in the polls very soon (just prior to Stelmach's leadership vote on Nov. 7 would be fun).
    As for the Liberal opposition, it is time to face the fact that most Albertans appear unwilling to consider them as an alternative government under that brand name. Smith is right when she says, "You have to position a party where most Albertans think they are. And most Albertans think of themselves as conservatives." The Liberals, in many ways, have been far more conservative than the PC party for several years, yet public support for their party has remained static even while the perpetual governing party has plummeted in the polls.
    I think it was Kevin Taft who once joked that maybe the Liberals should change their name to the Democratic Conservative Alliance. How about the "Reform party," a name with significant and relatively recent electoral success in Alberta? Or the "Alberta Party," which would require absorbing the existing fringe party?
    Hey, Liberals, a vibrant Smith (and a hapless Ed Stelmach) have turned boring Alberta politics into a real contest for the first time in many years. Change your name and get in the game!”
    Response from the Libs: “The party had a debate on this matter last year and decided against a name change.”
    Even saddled with their toxic name, the Liberals (until last week’s election) could typically be counted on to take 25-30% of the vote. Repackaged under a new label (Alberta Party), and last week’s election could well have been a three way race. Is it too late for those few remaining Liberal party backers and fringe (whopping 1% of the vote) Alberta party supporters to quit their petty bickering and unite under the latter team’s banner in time to make a real go of it in 2016? Possibly, but when you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.

    By Blogger Herbert B. Patrotage, at 3:00 PM  

  • This whole election was a disaster for Alberta's left.

    Much of Alberta's left voted for a party they've hated their entire lives.

    Now what was formerly the Progressive Conservatives control 78 of 87 seats, are both the government AND the opposition, an arrangement that actually received the whole-hearted endorsement of much of the left.

    By Blogger Robert Vollman, at 4:08 PM  

  • The lesson is really simple. When you vote, follow your heart. You don't have the ability to affect how others will vote - so choose the government you want, not the "least worst" possible winner. The polls can be wrong (and often are in Canada), so strategic voting is an exercise in futility.

    By Anonymous hosertohoosier, at 6:09 PM  

  • I think the obvious lesson is this: either shit or get off the pot.

    The Alberta Liberals saved themselves from bankruptcy after the last election, then spent 2 years deciding whether what they saved was worth saving after all. After those two years they had already lost the 'time for a change' non-ideological voters to the Wildrose, and a good portion of their previous base to the undecideds.

    Then the Alberta Party was taken over by dissident Liberals too late, and the lack of common political sense led them to reject more Liberal floor crossing.

    There was also a chance to fold the Liberals and Alberta Party back into one last fall, consolidating volunteers, the Official Opposition, and a pretty great brand all together, but Raj Sherman kiboshed that in a regular moment of utter insanity.

    Yeah, the Left blew it. But despite the Alberta Left's standard reaction to blame the voters for choosing the best option they saw, they have to blame themselves for not being the option people wanted.

    In sum:
    Liberal instransigence
    +
    Alberta Party Lateness
    =
    Centre left irrelevance.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:44 PM  

  • @Anon 7:44

    The Alberta Party was entirely irrelevant to begin with. The was never going to be a mass movement to some silly little party that was essentially the Greens in light-blue. Your entire argument falls apart.

    By Blogger Volkov, at 7:58 PM  

  • I think this is a good example of how "strategic voting" or "tactical voting" or "lesser of the two evils" voting or whatever you want to call it is idiotic for voters.

    As a voter, its hard enough to try to gauge what the politicians will actually do after they are elected. Now if you want to vote tactically, you have to in addition gauge what all the other voters are going to do, and you have to remember the difference between your electorate and the wider/ province electorate as a whole. This is stuff that professional political types get wrong quite often.

    I really think voters should break their decision tree down to a simple "government yes or no?" then "official opposition yes or no", looking around at the third party/ minor party/ don't vote options if the answer to both questions turns out to be no. Also if a political system ever gets to the point where its survival depends on stopping one political party from taking power, its almost always doomed anyway.

    By Anonymous Ed, at 5:46 PM  

  • Yes, the centre-left blew it big time. After the 2008 election was their big chance to do something really different - with a full 40% of Alberta voters, but now we are down to an inconsequential 20%. Brian Mason, in particular, should hang his head in shame, as far as I am concerned.

    The centre-left missed their golden opportunity by not listening to good, common sense advice by many everyday voters and the Alberta DRP who asked them to work together. The NDP rebuffed the idea with a big "No way," ditto for the Alberta Party, and the EverGreens couldn't get their act together to make any decisions whatsoever. Who do they all think they are?

    That left the Liberals as the only sane and reasonable players on the court, but it's difficult to pay a game meant for 4 with only 1 player. The rest of the centre-left parties in Alberta?... riding backwards on horse with blinders on.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:13 AM  

  • The left-right model doesn't really apply in Alberta. This was abundantly clear with the rise of Allison Redford, who can be quite conservative and also quite liberal, depending on your definition.

    Peter Lougheed's policies of the seventies would be too far to the left for even the Liberals today and possibly the NDP. but he was also seen as very much a Conservative leader. Still is.

    For the most part, Albertans vote on the basis of leader and the ability to raise money. The Libs and the ND's have had little fundraising success. The Libs may have had more of a chance at the end of the Klein tears, but Kevin Taft clearly squandered that chance.

    By Anonymous DanoBandano, at 1:12 PM  

  • Actually the Alberta Party was a factor because the Alberta Party took a great deal of the Liberals ground games in several ridings and burned it getting piddly vote percentages. Many of the people active in the Alberta Party were formerly folks who could be counted upon year after year to not just vote Grit, be work on the Grit GotV. This went kaput... so while the Liberal infrastructure went Alberta, the Liberal brand stayed red, and... yeah.

    By Blogger BAJ Visser, at 2:13 AM  

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