Mar. 12, 2008 - Issue #647: Westward Ho
After a dismal election, what’s next for the NDP and the left?
The polls were barely closed on Mar 3, and the hand-wringing over the future of Alberta’s electoral left had already begun: pundits openly called for the resignation of Alberta New Democratic Party leader Brian Mason’s and the blogosphere bubbled over with half-formed opinions on uniting the defeated Liberals, NDP and Greens into one left-of-centre party that could compete with the Tories.
The day after the election, Albertans for Change, a campaign financed by
Alberta unions, dismantled its website and removed all traces of the more
than a million dollars it was estimated to have spent on anti-Conservative
The NDP lost two of its four seats on election day, and though their defeat was nowhere near as devastating as the routing the Liberals suffered in Edmonton, many progressive Albertans were left wondering: what did the NDP do wrong during the campaign? And how do they fix it?
It’s not as if the NDP hasn’t been here before—they lost
all of their seats in 1993, and have maintained only two seats in the
Legislature for eight of the last 11 years.
Their percentage of the vote hasn’t changed, either—since 1993,
they’ve enjoyed between eight per cent and 11 per cent popular
support in the province. In 2004, when the party had a small
“breakthrough” and won four seats in Edmonton, they still
received a mere 10 per cent of the province-wide popular vote. When taken
in context, 2004 was the anomaly, not 2008.
Throughout the campaign, opinion polls showed remarkable Conservative strength. That support was not just resilient under the pressure of the largest NDP campaign the party had run since 1993; in fact, Conservative support in Edmonton actually grew over the 28-day campaign.
University of Calgary political scientist Lisa Lambert, who studies the
electoral system, says that the NDP focussed too much energy on attacking
the Liberals, and thereby missed the strength of the Conservatives in their
“[Progressives] were just talking to each other. Not to Albertans.
And that’s why they had no idea what was going on with most voters.
They just convinced themselves that most people think like we
The NDP, explains Lambert, is a movement party—its history is
markedly different from the Conservatives and Liberals. Conservative and
Liberal parties are “cadre” parties—they broker together
a set of interests for the purposes of winning and retaining power. In
contrast, the NDP has its roots and its reason for being in social
movements outside of legislatures and parliaments.
Lambert argues that the NDP’s relationship to environmentalists, the women’s movement, trade unions and other oppositional groups ebbs and flows.
Sierra Club of Canada Prairie Chapter director Lindsay Telfer says her
group had a good relationship with former MLA David Eggen, but not with the
“Brian Mason has never met with us or done any significant outreach
to us. The Sierra Club has never been contacted by Rachel Notley or her
people, either,” says Telfer. “We now have a better
relationship with the Liberals than we do the NDP, and that is really sad,
seeing as the NDP is the party that is supposed to be connected to social
One long-time NDP member—who spoke on the condition of
anonymity—says that the relationship Eggen built with environmental
groups was “shattered” when leader Brian Mason
reversed—then softened—his party’s historical position
calling for hard caps on CO2 emissions.
“The trust was broken. There has to be accountability in the
party—our position during an election campaign has to be the same as
the grassroots enacts at conventions, and the same as what we say between
“Brian Mason could have said during the debate that the Conservatives
and the Liberals don’t have a tenable position on climate change, but
we do. But we couldn’t say that, because Mason weakened our position.
It left us with nothing.”
Telfer adds that the NDP’s “backstep” on climate change
let Ed Stelmach off the hook on the environment. “The Liberals and
NDP were busy criticizing each other, and it had the effect of leaving
Former NDP MLA David Eggen, who lost his Edmonton-Calder seat on Mar 3, was
the party’s environment critic. He says the central campaign
didn’t “lay it on the line clearly enough” on climate
“There’s an awareness building in the environmental movement that you can’t have environmental sustainability without equality and social justice. That means the NDP needs to be active on the environment, and give these people a political home,” Eggen argues. “The environment is an issue that brings young people into activism. By downplaying it you are doing a disservice to the next generation who will help to move and shake the future of this province. It is a big reason why I am not just going to fade away. I saw so many young people become active right before my very eyes. I won’t let that end.”
The NDP is historically considered the party of labour, but those relations
are strained these days.
One labour activist, who also insisted on remaining anonymous,
characterized the relationship between the NDP and the Alberta Federation
of Labour—the central labour body in the province, which claims 27
unions and 137 000 rank-and-file members—as “the lowest
they’ve ever been,” and “fraught with miscommunication
and mistrust—they seem to have a wedge driven between
In the days after the election, NDP leader Brian Mason told the Edmonton Journal that the money spent on the Albertans for Change campaign—even a fraction of it—could have gone to shoring up support for Eggen and Ray Martin, the other sitting NDP MLA who went down to defeat.
AFL President Gil McGowan says blaming the Albertans for Change campaign
for the loss of two NDP seats is “ridiculous.”
“The fact is that most of the money spent on that campaign
wouldn’t have been spent at all if it had gone to a political
NDP campaign director Lou Arab says the party benefited from generous
support from individual unions, but the multi-million dollar Albertans for
Change campaign—sponsored by the Alberta Federation of Labour and the
Alberta Building Trades Council and also funded to the tune of $300 000 by
the Alberta Union of Public Employees—was “not
“We were not consulted on the themes or content of the
campaign,” says Arab.
Many labour activists were left scratching their heads over the content of
the Albertans for Change ads. “They were negative attack ads, and
those don’t work in Alberta,” said one labour activist, who
also requested anonymity.
“They used the same ad firm—with strong ties to the Ontario
Liberals—as the building trades unions used against the Conservatives
in Ontario. And guess what? Politics are different in Alberta,” adds
the union source. “Many union members are going to be asking some
very serious questions about how their money was spent on this
Former MLA Eggen says that the personal attacks on Stelmach “made it
easier for the Conservatives to get out their vote. The ‘time for a
change’ theme was too vague ... this is not like changing your socks.
Campaigns should target specific issues that matter to people.
“And the ‘no plan’ message,” Eggen continues,
“just simply didn’t work at all! Because there is a plan! That
plan is to privatize, compromise the public interest and pave the way for
unrestrained resource development. They have a plan, and it’s not
NDP spokesperson Lou Arab says that regardless of the content,
labour’s current strategy of funding parallel campaigns during
elections doesn’t activate union members and doesn’t move
“Third-party campaigns don’t really work,” Arab says
bluntly. “If labour wants to get people elected, what works is
releasing people [to work on campaigns] and financial resources. My view is
these campaigns where unions spend money advertising on select issues
don’t lead to the kind of change labour unions say they
McGowan, who did communications for the 1997 and 2001 NDP campaigns,
counters that the Federation “had to try something new this election.
[Labour unions] can’t just tell their members to vote NDP.
We’ve tried that, and it doesn’t work.”
But Arab disputes McGowan’s characterization of past labour efforts. “I don’t think Gil McGowan has ever told his members to vote NDP,” he says.
The long-running chatter about “uniting the left”—either
under the banner of one new party or by trading off some seats, where the
Liberals agree not to run a candidate in ridings where the NDP is strong
and vice versa to eliminate vote-splitting that allows a Tory to come up
the middle—had dissipated when the Liberals appeared to be a
contender for power, but it’s come back with a vengeance in the
blogosphere, opinion pages and in coffee shops across Alberta.
Even McGowan, a long-time New Democrat, believes “all options should
be on the table ... including a new centre-left party, name changes and
cooperation between the parties.”
But Eggen says the “unite the left” trial balloons typically
come from the Liberals, not the NDP.
“It always comes up from self-proclaimed progressives on the Liberal
side. And it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about what a political
party is for. It isn’t just for power—you join these entities
because they have a coherent set of principles that you think should govern
Eggen, for his part, isn’t blaming the Liberals or even the Greens
for his defeat in Calder. “I do not engage in these sour-grapes
notions. People who lost, they lost for a number of reasons.”
The U of C’s Lisa Lambert says that even if all of the anti-Conservative votes—from all parties on the right and left—were tallied up for one party instead of spread across the four main opposition contenders, only 23 more opposition seats would have emerged from the contest, leaving the Conservative majority unscathed. In other words, the problem isn’t a split on the left, it’s the Tory juggernaut.
Most people believe that rebuilding the NDP is going to require a more
concerted effort to engage the grassroots. David Eggen argues the party
hasn’t been aggressive enough in reaching out to its “natural
constituents ... working people, wage earners, people who are losing their
One NDP member who also spoke anonymously says the leadership is “cut
off” from its membership and that Mason does not understand how to do
politics with “real people”—preferring instead to stay
under the Legislature dome.
There have been grumblings about Brian Mason’s leadership, even
coming from Mason himself. The day after the election he told the Edmonton
Journal that he was ready to retire if someone else wanted to replace him.
He pointed out that leading the Alberta NDP is not a job that anyone really
covets, saying, “It’s often the person who draws the short
straw that has to be the leader.”
Mason’s comments left some NDP members wondering whether he even
really wants the job. The party elects its leader at every convention, the
next of which is slated for June.
For this article, many people would not speak “on the record”—most are afraid of doing harm to a fragile party and a labour movement with little provincial clout. Five people approached for this article declined to speak about the future of the NDP in any way. Others insisted upon total anonymity, saying they didn’t want to upset colleagues or friends, harm their own chances of advancement within the party or the labour movement or further weaken the NDP. Such self-enforced silence means less healthy democratic debate about the future of the electoral left—perhaps just the thing the NDP needs. V
Shannon Phillips worked for the Alberta NDP from 2003 - 2006.
More stories in front »
New comments for this entry have been turned off and any existing ones are hidden. We apologize for any inconvenience.