Progressives in Alberta can’t defeat the UCP – but conservatives can

Our colleagues in the world of political analysis, Scott Howard Payne and Robbie Kreger-Smith, did some collaboration and pontification on the way that progressive activists, from all parties, can rally together without merging. The ultimate goal being the removal of the current UCP government in 2023. While the sentiment is noble, and the article was well received by the progressive folks on Twitter, the devil is always in the details.

Let’s flush out the details and expose “the devil” in reducing the UCP to a one-term government.

The Facts

Let’s lay out some basic facts as our foundation:

  • The UCP earned 54.9% of the nearly 1.9 million votes in the 2019 general election
  • Voter turnout in 2019 was 67.5%, the highest in 45+ years.
  • Of the 64 ridings the UCP won in 2019, 55 earned more than 50% of the vote
  • Of the 24 ridings the NDP won in 2019, 14 earned more than 50% of the vote
  • Of the 55 ridings the NDP won in 2015, 22 earned more than 50% of the vote

False Arguments

There is always that one person who brings up hypothetical scenarios regarding elections. We are not dealing with scenarios like:

  • “If all the non-voters (32.5%) showed up, they would vote for one party” because we’re not Australia, and don’t have mandatory voting. Get rid of it.
  • “Only 37% of voting age Albertans support the UCP”, implies that the 32.5% of non-voters would not support the government. Like above, this is an immeasurable, and therefore unproven, argument.
  • “If all the voters in one party uniformly moved to another party (X party would form government)”. No party is so monotone that its supporters would move like sheep on command – it is more likely those supporters would become non-voters.
  • “The 2015 NDP government was an “accidental” government” is disrespectful to voters, implying they had no idea what they were doing by placing an X on a ballot. Every voter has a choice at the ballot box. They made their choice in 2015 and increased their vote share in 2019.
  • Leading us to a “false choice”. The NDP and UCP played their cards right in 2019. Now we have what we have.

Observations – Party problems

The following bullets are based on analysis and opinion. Feel free to argue with these as you wish:

  • The NDP have a brand problem in Alberta. This has been noted repeatedly in the media, and by pundits, observers, analysts, and people meeting for coffee who aren’t listening to any of the above. The party brand is weaker than the Leader’s brand. This was evident when, in 2019, the Party emphasized “Team Notley” rather than the NDP in their election materials. Further, the apparently unbreakable connection to what has proven to be an anti-oil ideology within the federal party, which the UCP expertly managed to exploit, all but ensures the NDP will not find themselves in a position to govern the province of Alberta until oil is truly dead and gone (spoiler – that moment is still decades away).
  • The NDP is not the natural alternative for soft UCP supporters. To move a voter from right wing to left wing is nearly impossible. If you think I’m wrong, NDP-leaning voter, would you ever vote for the UCP?
  • The NDP and UCP were both demonstrably successful in dividing voters. They are each evil incarnate to the other and there is no hope of wooing either the “socialists” or the “deplorables” to the other side. Take a bow. 
  • The Alberta Party has a fundraising problem and a leadership problem. A quick scan of the Party’s financials shows that for years the Party has been unable to fundraise at a level needed to compete with either the NDP or UCP. Further, it needs to find a leader so that messaging, strategy, direction, etc. can be set and acted upon.
  • The Liberal Party has a relevance problem. Their role in Alberta politics has been crowded out on the left by the NDP and in the centre by the Alberta Party. Having their top candidate place 4th in a “traditional” Liberal riding should be the final nail in the coffin of a party who hasn’t formed government in the province for over a century.

Number crunching scenarios

Running on the premise that the 2023 election will have the same turnout as 2019 and that the NDP, Alberta Party and UCP would be the only parties to run a full slate of candidates again, Mark modeled the following scenarios:

  • If progressive efforts were able to cleave off 10% of the UCP support that moved to the Alberta Party, the Legislature would be 59 UCP/28 NDP
  • If progressive efforts were able to cleave off 20% of the UCP support that moved to the Alberta Party, the Legislature would be 55 UCP/31 NDP/1 AP
  • If progressive efforts were able to cleave off 30% of the UCP support that moved to the Alberta Party and such a centralized message also cleaved 10% of the NDP support to the Alberta Party, the Legislature would also be 55 UCP/31 NDP/1 AP
  • If progressive efforts were able to cleave off 30% of the UCP support that moved to the Alberta Party and such a centralized message also cleaved 30% of the NDP support to the Alberta Party, the Legislature would be 51 UCP/13 NDP/23 AP

This is why details matter. Having a strong centrist party as a parking spot for disgruntled UCP supporters would have little impact on the vote share of the UCP. This is likely due to the large victories the UCP had in many of their ridings.

It would take tremendous efforts to move enough voters to impact the UCP’s vote share and, if those efforts were profound enough, a strengthened centre would impact the NDP as much as the UCP.

However, with all those scenarios, the UCP maintains a majority government.

A War on Two Fronts

Progressives, if they want real change in 2023, are going to have to cozy up to their enemy’s enemy. Cleaving support off of one wing of the UCP is not going to be sufficient to cause a change in government. Support will have to be taken from both the centre-right and hard right wing of the UCP.

That’s right; progressive need to embrace the emergence of Wildrose 2.0.

The UCP has been flirting with the separatist faction of their membership since the inception of the party. Sometimes it’s under the guise of a “Fair Deal Panel”, other times it’s pondering on social media about independence within Canada.

With the severity of “anti-Ottawa” rhetoric coming from the current Alberta government, it is no surprise there is a considerable faction of UCP supporters who would like to see either segregation from Canada or greater independence within Canada (like South Tyrol!). This would include administering our own pension plan, having our own police force, and any means of reducing the tax dollars Alberta sends out of province.

While most (if not all) progressives are federalists, they should be advocating that a significant portion of the Alberta electorate utilize the opportunity to share their views on separation and independence. This is where the new Wildrose Party, now the Wildrose Independence Party, will get traction.

Much like the old PC Party of the 2000s, there are some very distinct camps within the conservative movement. The initial rise of the Wildrose Party stemmed from activists within the party getting upset with spending and cronyism. They broke away from what they deemed a false conservative party – ie a coalition of progressives and conservatives.

The superficial overtures of independence and unabashed cronyism on display by the UCP government is a breeding ground for a similar uprising.

This is how progressives, and centrists, could make an impact with the 2023 election… by partnering with activists from the new Wildrose Party. Again, going to same vote manipulation as before, the results start to look different:

  • With WIPA pulling 20% of the UCP from one wing and the Alberta Party pulling 20% off the other wing, we would have a 44 UCP/42 NDP/1 AP government
  • Under the same scenario but at 25% being lost on each wing, the government structure would be 38 UCP/47 NDP/2 AP
  • However, as noted above, a strengthened centre would also draw support from the NDP as well. Assuming the UCP losing 25% to each wing while the NDP loses 10% to the Alberta Party, the government would be 37 UCP/44 NDP/6 AP
  • Finally, if the centre’s strength was sufficient to also pull 25% from the NDP and the UCP each, the government distribution would be 33 UCP/25 NDP/29 AP

Now we see that it will take a considerable impact by two different factions of the conservative movement to dramatically shift the electoral probabilities in 2023. The stronger both the Alberta Party and Wildrose Party are, the less likely the UCP will form government.

So why would the separatist wing want to play with progressives? This is not a natural alliance in either direction. Conservative historians will recall that the first iteration of the Wildrose started with a leadership race and a small band of floor crossers.

Within 3 years, they elected a team of 17 which grew to 22 by the next election – they tapped into conservative angst.

While the numbers above “predict” zero seats for the new Wildrose, the activists in this wing understand organizing and fundraising – they could definitely position themselves to have a stake in a minority government, reducing the UCP numbers even further.

However, in order to encourage collaboration, progressives would have to campaign on proportional representation, and ensure their “devil” – the separatists – will always have a seat in the Legislature.

But the real problem of a progressive alliance (with anyone) who then goes their own way on election day also comes to light: the majority of self-identifying conservatives are more than willing to cut off their noses before they risk handing the NDP another chance to form government – and then they will blame the NDP for spending so much on knives when they were in power.

The NDP benefits from a redistributed electoral outcome if their numbers remain. Even if they lose votes to the Alberta Party, they remain strong enough to form government based on 2019’s numbers.

The possibility of an NDP government will help keep the flanks of the UCP together more than losing jobs, homes, or families – because the UCP messaging was absolutely perfect for anyone looking for a villain: the problems while the NDP was in government were the fault of the NDP; the problems today are the NDP’s fault, and; the problems facing Alberta’s future are – everybody now – the fault of a one-term NDP government.

Like the Trudeau legacy in Alberta, the NDP will wear the economic problems of this province for generations in the minds of conservative voters.

Perhaps you might think I’m being too harsh. Maybe you think the NDP can turn it around. Maybe you think that the homophobes and racists aren’t so bad if they champion good fiscal policy. You see the problem – no?

The support does not exist, on either side, for the other.

The NDP would have to go through a complete rebrand, sever ties with the federal party, and most of their progressive-favourable media in order to have a chance – or pray for another conservative party split.

But remember, leopards don’t change their spots unless they send out a press release on a Conservative Party letterhead.

Progressives know this is what they’re dealing with – ignoring these facts will ensure they never see a responsive government again.

Of course, none of this takes into account factors like strength of the local candidate, fundraising on both a local and provincial level, the migration of volunteers with various splits, recovery of the Alberta economy, etc. All these can impact the vote in 3 years.

In conclusion, a lot will need to change in the next year if the various activists want to see some significant impact in the 2023 election. The NDP really needs to evaluate their brand honestly. The Alberta Party will have to decide it really wants a spot at the big kids’ table. The Wildrose will need to take steps to gain legitimacy.

But, if activists in those camps can take the time to improve their own operations and keep their attack efforts focused on the UCP, they may just get what they are hoping for… a change election in 2023.

This post contains opinion.

We are a team of independent writers and podcasters – support our work by becoming a patron.

Mark Taylor is a former political executive director and engineer who loves using facts to destroy arguments.

Deirdre Mitchell-MacLean is a political analyst who got into this biz to challenge political rhetoric and spread joy with witty AF observations.

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