The UCP didn’t just win, the Alberta NDP lost. Again. Now what?

During the 2019 provincial election I did everything I could to try and keep Jason Kenney away from power.

The organization I work for raised money, hired organizers, trained volunteers, identified voters in Calgary via text and then got those voters to the polls. It was called the Stop Kenney campaign. We had a giant red wooden stop sign. We canvassed outside of Calgary Folk Fest. Me and our team were all-in. It didn’t matter. The NDP ran the campaign they ran and lost to Kenney. 

I knew that Kenney would be a disaster for our province, my neighbors and my loved ones and I was right. And with that extremely unhelpful bit of cold comfort we transitioned Progress Alberta from being a hybrid organization that did journalism and political organizing to holding politicians and powerful people accountable by becoming a full-time journalism operation.   

But in 2023 even though our focus had changed full-time to journalism we didn’t do much to cover the election. Part of that is burn-out and my colleague dealing with medical issues but a big part of it is that I just didn’t have anything nice to say about the Alberta NDP campaign. I could see what was coming. When I looked at the campaign that was being run I kept having flashbacks to the same disastrous, losing 2019 campaign. 

The Alberta NDP under Rachel Notley is an operation controlled by a handful of people loyal to Rachel Notley and this campaign was no exception. Familiar faces abounded at the senior levels of this campaign – Brian Topp, Nathan Rotman, Jeremy Nolais, Cheryl Oates, and Sandra Houston were all intimately involved both in the 2019 and the 2023 campaign. They all bear the responsibility for this catastrophic loss. 

Anyone associated with the losing campaign that is framing the result as some kind of moral victory for the ANDP is engaging in willful delusion.  In a two-party system there are no trophies for second place. The stakes of this loss are massive. 

And don’t torture yourself into thinking that there was a way for the ANDP to squeak out a win if only 1500 votes in seven ridings had gone the other way. The ANDP lost the popular vote by 8.5 points. If by some miracle they had squeaked out a scarily efficient 44 seat majority while still losing the popular vote by that number I doubt they’d be able to meaningfully govern. 

Danielle Smith is the Premier, she has a majority, and she and her caucus can now pass whatever laws they want. This will likely lead to generational damage to Alberta’s health care system, education system and social safety net. Danielle Smith really does want people to pay to visit the doctor, that old and gas wells should be repurposed into Bitcoin mines and that we should defund public education. The consequences of this electoral loss will be real and will be felt the hardest by Alberta’s most marginalized people. 

The campaign that the Alberta NDP ran was not a surprise. While you can fault the Alberta NDP for many things you have to give them full marks for consistency. Since 2015 they have tried to build power and expand their political base by moderating their message and trying to appeal to centrist and conservative voters in Calgary. They tailored their message and their politics to appeal to a relatively small number of swing voters in certain ridings rather than building a popular movement. 

The UCP campaigned on hiring 100 cops to “fix” downtown Calgary and Edmonton, the NDP were going to bring in 150 cops to fix it. The ANDP actually campaigned on getting rid of small business taxes entirely. And the ANDP’s proposed corporate tax hike, which is being branded as a campaign losing gambit by UCP senior staff and certain credulous, scabby columnists, was simply not the election swinging policy plank that it’s being made out to be. If all it took to lose was spooking a tiny amount of swing voters in Calgary who inexplicably believe that raising corporate tax rates is bad you were never going to win anyways.

A narrow loss was pretty much baked into the ANDP strategy from the beginning. By abandoning rural Alberta the ANDP were forced to walk a very narrow road to win. The ANDP had to sweep not only Edmonton, but the Edmonton donut (which they didn’t do), Calgary (where they did well but didn’t dominate) and a handful of other ridings (Lethbridge East, Lesser Slave Lake etc.) This failed to materialize. 

Instead of building real power and finding a message that would resonate across Alberta the campaign focused on appealing to a narrow band of centrists and conservatives in Calgary. This campaign  had no shortage of enthusiastic ex-Progressive Conservatives “lending their vote” to the Alberta NDP. These were the same people the ANDP defeated in 2015 and who were then run out of the UCP by Jason Kenney and his crew. Scoring their endorsements was not the coup they thought it was. 

The ANDP even dug up someone who was the attorney general under former premier Peter Lougheed to stump for them. His tenure in that position ended four years before I was born. I’m 40 years old. You can stop doing this now. There are approximately 79 people who are still pining for the golden days of Peter Lougheed’s reign. The rest are either dead or they’ve had their brains broken by the internet and voted UCP. 

The ANDP have built a model voter in their mind of a suburban Calgary based former Progressive Conservative voter that just needs to hear the right moderate messages from the NDP and they’ll change their mind. That isn’t how it works. 

The Alberta NDP will never be the natural successors to Peter Lougheed’s PCs and the fact that they thought they could win an election by marketing themselves as such would make Grant Notley turn over in his grave. Asking ostensibly erstwhile conservatives to “lend you their vote” is inherently weak and self defeating. You are not building the power necessary to win an election and govern when you beg for votes like that. Have some self respect. 

As Emma Jackson said, don’t believe the hype about complicated election strategy. Winning elections is actually pretty simple, you have to energize and expand your base to win. When you make your entire campaign about appealing to former PC’s, you write off a core part of your social democratic base. 

When you demotivate your base the result is that thousands of smart, effective, talented people who would otherwise be volunteering, donating and helping you win end up just sitting on their hands. Most will vote for you, grudgingly, but only because the alternative is so much worse. But a social democratic party needs people power to win elections. It needs to do mass politics. 

Rachel Notley or whoever wants to lead the ANDP into the next election must understand that they can’t win without a movement behind them. Even if the ANDP manage to win another provincial election in my lifetime they simply will not be able to stand up to Alberta’s oil and gas oligarchs and business tyrants without a mass movement behind them. The elite at the top of the ANDP ran the same campaign twice in a row and lost, for all our sakes I pray they don’t run it a third time. 

So what is to be done? I know people are scared want to direct their energy towards fighting back against the incoming austerity and brutality and I see three big streams where people should be directing their attention. 

The time of outsourcing our politics to an NDP elite is over. Regardless of whether Rachel Notley stays on until the next election in 2027, the people at the top of the NDP need to be replaced and fresh blood needs to be brought in who will embrace mass politics. 

If there are no consequences for failure you will continue to fail. Changing the NDP from within will be difficult – it is a private club run by people who wish to continue running it as they always have, but it needs to be done. 

But building political power doesn’t necessarily mean getting involved in electoral politics. While electoral politics are the most familiar form of “politics” there is a door that is open to everyone who works: the labour movement  

People usually don’t think about unions and the labour movements like this because most folks don’t have a personal connection to it. Union membership has declined year over year and unions as an institution are weaker than they’ve ever been. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A regular person in Red Deer with a regular bank balance has little chance of making much of a dent in electoral politics but when they’re a part of the labour movement they do have a way to turn their own labour power into political power. 

If you unionize your workplace you become part of a larger union with financial resources. That union can actually exercise power because it represents hundreds or thousands of motivated people who all do something that the bosses don’t – work for a living. You can democratically participate in your union in a way that is unlike nearly every other institution in your life. You can even run for an elected position in your union and become a political force to be reckoned with. And when you speak, you speak for your fellow workers who believe in you and will stand behind you.  

And the best part is the labour movement is open to you. If you and your coworkers organize where you work you gain entry into an actual place of real power. The solidarity you build with your coworkers and your ability to collectively withhold your labour gives you real political power that Danielle Smith can’t touch and that can improve your life and the lives of all working people. 

Social movements are another key way to protect yourself and your family and friends from the coming cruelty. I'd encourage you to get involved with mutual aid groups that are helping people directly, or groups that have a theory of change that involves organizing and direct action. If you need some suggestions or introductions please DM or email me. 

Regardless of which stream you pick it will require hard work. Power doesn’t give up anything without a fight so that is why we must fight. But you can’t despair, it’s up to us to have each other’s backs.