Co-operation or Bust

How Alberta's progressive political parties can stop being "beautiful losers"

By Alvin Finkel

At a workshop in the fall of 2008, my Athabasca University colleague Jay Smith conducted a revealing political experiment. Using 10 excerpts from Liberal, New Democrat and Green platforms from the provincial election earlier that year, Smith invited participants to identify the party that produced each statement. My score was 30 per cent, which was also the average for the 30 political wonks gathered on a Sunday to discuss a way forward for progressives in Alberta. That score is a bit worse than random guessing should have yielded. The three parties’ platforms, in other words, were indistinguishable.

Am I politically uninformed? No. I have taught Western Canadian history for almost four decades and have published volumes on the subject. I have been a member of both of Alberta’s largest progressive parties—parties with a primary emphasis on social and environmental programs, with taxation of wealth to make these possible, rather than the conservative focus on reinforcing corporate goals. Yet in none of the last three provincial elections have I detected substantial differences in the platforms of the competing left-of-Conservative parties.

The definition of insanity, according to Albert Einstein, is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. By this measure, Alberta’s progressive parties appear to be insane. Not only do they compete with each other despite nearly identical platforms, they have repeated this strategy over and over. And the strategy is clearly failing.

In the provincial elections of 2004 and 2008, two of every five Alberta voters opted for a Liberal, New Democrat or Green. But the combination of the first-past-the-post voting system and progressive vote-splitting in most constituencies turned that impressive support into 24 per cent of the seats in 2004 and a mere 13 per cent four years later. The first-past-the-post system is so prone to misrepresenting voter opinion that a 3 per cent drop in the progressive vote between 2004 and 2008 translated into the loss of 7 of 16 Liberal seats and 2 of 4 NDP seats.

After the 2008 election, the two largest progressive opposition parties, despite spirited performances in the legislature, seemed to have the word “losers” branded on their foreheads. Their long-declining memberships fell to 2,000–3,000 adults apiece by the 2012 provincial election, when few voters’ eyes turned to either party. The province’s right wing had split into two parties, with Wildrose accusing the Progressive Conservatives of being insufficiently conservative. Many moderate voters, repelled by the market fundamentalism of Danielle Smith, turned to the PCs as the party best able to keep Wildrose from taking power.

The selection of Alison Redford as PC leader after a campaign in which she made liberal-sounding noises had fed the illusion that the Ralph Klein wing of the PC party no longer dominated. But Redford’s supposed progressivism looked tenuous during the 2012 election, when she promised to expand public social, educational and environmental programs without increasing taxation at all. That this was fairy-tale-like did not deter voters who were terrified of a potential Wildrose takeover. Progressive parties, which now included the new Alberta Party and the revived Alberta Greens, won little more than one vote in five in 2012—a tumble to half their share from 2004.

Despite having deluded themselves in the past that each alone could defeat Ralph Klein and then Ed Stelmach, Alberta’s progressive political parties continue to see Alison Redford as easy prey. She’ll lose rural Alberta to the Wildrose and the cities to “us,” say both the NDP and the Liberals, as if Albertans regard either of them, on their own, as the alternative to the Tories.
The truth is, progressives in Alberta face a bleak political future. The one hope for Albertans who want a government that promotes better conditions for all citizens is that the NDP, Liberals, Alberta Party and Greens get taken over by people who have learned lessons from the political history not only of Alberta but of many other places in the world. Everywhere, the watchword for challenges to seemingly impregnable governments is C-O-O-P-E-R-A-T-I-O-N.

The one hope for progressive-thinking Albertans is that the four centre/left parties get taken over by people who have learned lessons from political history.

Co-operation among political parties has a long history in Alberta on both sides of the political spectrum. Indeed, the first co-operative venture in our province still has political reverberations across Canada. There might never have been a Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the predecessor of today’s NDP, if the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), having decided to run both provincially and federally in 1921, had not needed co-operation from labour in federal seats with an urban and rural mix. Parts of Edmonton and parts of Calgary were lumped in with otherwise rural ridings. The UFA wanted to bridge the gap between city and country voters by fielding just one progressive candidate per constituency to face old-line parties. Before nominating in such seats, the UFA talked with the Canadian Labour Party about possible candidates, and Labour exercised a de facto veto over many of the potential farmers representatives.

As a result many UFA MPs were pro-labour farmers, such as Robert Gardiner in Medicine Hat, D. M. Kennedy in Edmonton East and Ted Garland in Bow River. In turn the UFA insisted that preacher William Irvine, who had a long association with the farmers organization, receive Labour’s nod in Calgary East. After Irvine lost the seat in 1925, the UFA invited him to be their candidate in Wetaskiwin in the federal election of 1926.

The Alberta MPs elected because of co-operation between Farmers and Labour became natural allies of J. S. Woodsworth, the Winnipeg socialist first elected in 1921. Displeased with the conservatism of some farmers who had been elected under the UFA banner in seats where labour had no say, and with the so-called Progressive Party of farmers in other provinces, the Alberta UFA–Labour MPs first informally and eventually more formally worked with Labour MPs from other provinces over the next decade. They were dubbed the Ginger Group, a name that had also been applied to federal Conservative MPs who opposed their party’s conscription policy in 1917. The name applies to factions that add some spice to otherwise staid institutions. This group of MPs was largely responsible for calling the convention of progressives that met in Calgary on August 1, 1932, and started the CCF. The creation of a new national party of progressives might have been ignored by most of the media, except that 12 elected MPs affiliated with the new party immediately became its federal caucus. Eight of those MPs were from Alberta, and all of them were members who owed their seats to earlier co-operation between the UFA and the Labour party.

Provincially too there was co-operation between the UFA and Labour. The two parties rarely ran candidates against each other. When the UFA won an absolute majority in 1921, they invited a Labour member into cabinet. During the 1920s this coalition proved largely beneficial to urban workers, as the UFA government, responding to Labour demands, increased workers’ compensation rates, established minimum wages for most workers, improved widows’ pensions and offered extensive relief for the urban unemployed.

Unfortunately, both parties chose to respond to Depression conditions in the 1930s with conventional cost-cutting—the UFA as the government of the province, and the Labour Party as the sponsor of Edmonton’s mayor and the majority of its councillors. Disillusionment with their apparent sellout led plenty of the UFA’s former supporters to vote in 1935 for “Bible Bill” Aberhart and his Social Credit Party, which focused on monetary reform.

Alberta’s next chapter in co-operation came in the 1940 provincial election. The Liberals and Conservatives offered joint “Independent” candidates in every constituency. Their vote totals almost equalled Social Credit’s vote, though the overrepresentation of rural voters, who stayed loyal to Social Credit, guaranteed Aberhart’s re-election. In 1955 these two parties worked together by calling on their supporters to mark second choices on their ballots for each other rather than leave their second choices blank or give them to Social Credit. Social Credit’s majority was slashed and the opposition was big enough to persuade Ernest Manning to finally create a professional civil service to replace a patronage system that, for example, required Social Credit affiliation rather than a post-secondary degree for social workers.

Voters have every right to be skeptical. They are right to conclude that progressive party members are deluded regarding the extent of their differences.

The spirit of cross-party co-operation in Alberta largely disappeared after the 1950s, and memory of it soon dimmed. Small progressive parties, each with a modest professional staff and a set of dedicated volunteers, became social cliques that set up fortress walls against other parties that might have co-operated to supplant the PCs and implement a progressive agenda.

But both the NDP and the Liberals have, at various times, tried to bridge this divide. Before the 2001 election, the NDP, then led by Raj Pannu, approached Liberal leader Nancy MacBeth with the idea of an electoral pact. But MacBeth insisted that Liberal candidates should run for virtually all the seats, with the NDP restricted to just a few constituencies—an insult that still stings for proud NDP members.

The desire for a coalition shifted to the Liberals after the 2008 election. Infuriated by the results of that election, I had joined Edmonton community activist Leo Campos to found the Democratic Renewal Project (DRP), a public campaign to achieve what party activists had failed to enact in party backrooms: an electoral coalition of progressive parties. Prodded by the DRP, most left-leaning Liberal MLAs, seeing little in the way of policy differences between themselves and the NDP or Greens, were willing to cooperate with other progressive parties rather than run a full Liberal slate. Kevin Taft, a progressive recruited by both the NDP and the Liberals before deciding to run for the latter in 2001, was never comfortable with partisan politics. As leader, however, he was persuaded by lifelong Liberals that their party would be fatally divided if he attempted a coalition. After the second defeat of his party under his leadership in 2008, he was open to new approaches.

That was even more the case with his successor, Dr. David Swann, a gentle soul who, like Taft, gave the lie to the idea that politicians are all megalomaniacs and manipulators. His party, not without serious emotional divisions, gave Swann the green light to approach other parties to co-operate in the 2012 provincial election. But his efforts went nowhere, and Swann lacked the finesse to unilaterally make himself the statesman and his party the party of co-operation by standing down in ridings where the NDP had a better chance of winning. Instead, he quit his leadership after little more than a year in the job; his replacement, former Tory Dr. Raj Sherman, is largely uninterested in co-operation.

During the Swann period, Calgary MLA Kent Hehr was among those who resisted cross-party co-operation. But after the 2012 provincial election—and the federal Calgary-Centre byelection in which progressives won 63 per cent of the vote, but handed the constituency to a Tory who won 37 per cent—Hehr had a huge change of heart. He called for a merger of the two parties and noted that he had run on a party platform that year which coincided with about 90 per cent of the NDP platform. He said he never disagreed with a word of what NDP MLA Rachel Notley said in the legislature and saw no reason why these two parties should not simply bury the hatchet and merge. Unsurprisingly, many members of his party were hurt by Hehr’s comments, and the overall sense in the diminished Liberal Party was that even talk of co-operation made no sense, because there was no dance partner.

I learned through sad personal experience that they were right. I had been a member of the NDP since 1969 when I first signed up in Manitoba, and had joined the Alberta NDP in 1982, leaving the party briefly for Swann’s Liberals in 2010. I worked in every election and contributed financially to both the federal and the provincial parties. But my efforts, with others, to persuade the NDP to work with the Liberals and other progressives failed in the face of stern opposition from Notley and party leader Brian Mason.

The DRP, confronted with the NDP’s unwillingness to co-operate with the Liberals in 2012, formed an online strategic voting operation that we termed Change Alberta. We closely analyzed campaigns in 42 somewhat winnable ridings for progressives and indicated which party’s candidate had the best chance of winning. Various NDP, Liberal and Alberta Party campaigns lobbied for us to choose them. We were correct in 39 of our 42 “endorsements” (93 per cent). Two of the winning NDP campaigns expressed their gratitude for our endorsement in seats that proved closer contests with the Tories than some had predicted. But in the eyes of the party’s hardliners, I was a traitor for encouraging citizens to vote Liberal or Alberta Party in constituencies where the NDP had no chance of winning. In April of last year I was formally refused membership in the NDP by the party’s provincial council.

Asked by Notley to guarantee that Change Alberta would only endorse NDP candidates in the next provincial election, I pointed out the obvious fact that such an organization would be useless if it were the front for a political party rather than an objective group. I noted as well that many NDP members want co-operation with other progressive parties and have been active in either or both the DRP and Change Alberta. But I was the public face of Change Alberta, and so I was excommunicated from the party.

Was the halving of Alberta’s progressive vote between 2004 and 2012 inevitable? No. In November 2010, when Ed Stelmach was still premier, the DRP commissioned a Leger Marketing poll to determine the possible impact of a progressive coalition on the upcoming provincial election. Surveyed individuals were first asked which party they would support if an election were called that day. Decided voters gave the PCs 39 per cent of their support, a large plurality over all other parties, but 40 per cent gave their nod to one of the left-of-Tory challengers. The second question asked who the survey respondents would prefer in a contest in which all four progressive parties united behind one candidate in each constituency. Tory support dropped to 29 per cent and support for progressives jumped to 48 per cent.

Many undecided voters and some PC supporters switched their voting preference when provided with the second-question scenario. They were not asked why—but as a long-time canvasser for the NDP, I think I know. Voters want to choose among potential winners, and so they eliminate perceived also-rans from their calculations. For many, that even means rejecting a progressive candidate who has a shot at winning a seat, because their focus is on the whole province rather than on the constituency they live in (which most big-city voters cannot even identify). A coalition of formerly “loser” parties looks like a winner to many Albertans who otherwise dismiss all of them as out of contention for forming government.

Many members of progressive parties regard such voter pragmatism as irresponsible. But what if it is the party decision-makers, and not the mass of voters, who are the irresponsible ones? The refusal to accept eligible voters as they are helps no one. Throughout Western democracies, it is increasingly common for few people to trust politicians of any stripe. Few citizens find time in their lives to follow politics, or have the wherewithal to figure out which party promises what and which might keep their word if elected. As an historian of federal and provincial parties, I think voters have every right to be skeptical. In Alberta they are right to conclude that the progressive party members are the deluded ones regarding the extent of their differences.

No doubt the progressive parties would do democracy a favour if elected. But none of them, on their own, has any chance of forming government in Alberta.

All progressive parties in Alberta claim they would revisit the voting system if they came to power, and they call on the PCs to make changes before the next election. That won’t happen. The PCs would have to be insane to abandon a system that repeatedly gives them far more seats than their percentage of the vote merits. Or they would have to be extraordinarily public minded. They are neither. It seems nearly impossible to arouse ordinary voters to press for a new voting system, as the small membership of Fair Vote Canada demonstrates. People who still bother to vote focus on bread-and-butter issues, not on voting systems. No doubt the progressive parties would do democracy in Alberta a favour if they were to change the electoral system to proportional representation or even restore the preferential ballot (Alberta had preferential voting in every election from 1926 to 1955). But they would have to be elected to make these changes, and none of these parties, on their own, has any chance of ever forming a government in Alberta.

Thousands of Albertans have left the provincial Liberals and the NDP, disillusioned with these parties’ failure to make electoral gains. They have been turned off by internal cliques and practices inconsistent with democracy and participation, and by the refusal to co-operate with other progressive forces. But the truth is that if supporters of co-operation were to join these two parties in massive numbers and insist on making joint candidacies a reality, the parties would have no choice but to relent and to follow the lead of the provincial Greens, currently the only party actively supporting co-operation.

Their current controlling groups are fiercely partisan and can behave rather nastily at times. But their numbers are tiny. Changing the party cultures would mean joining local constituency associations and participating actively, and attending provincial conventions where policies are set. At times it would mean challenging manoeuvres by the MLAs and others in the party leadership to manipulate convention and constituency agendas. But a critical mass of determined progressive Albertans could turn these two “beautiful loser” parties into a potentially winning coalition that might finally rid the province of interminable right-wing rule. All other alternatives have been demonstrated not to work.

I challenge progressives who believe that a coalition of progressive forces could defeat or at least tame the right wing in Alberta to buy a party card and work at all levels of your chosen party to ensure that co-operation with other progressives becomes the top item on their agenda. It’s an Alberta tradition that needs to be revived.#

Alvin Finkel has taught history at Athabasca University since 1978, publishes extensively and is coordinator of changealberta.ca.

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