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Monday, March 10, 2008

unite the left a fancy idea, but...

Like every election post-mortem period in Alberta, the talk of a unite-the-left move has reemerged. I was interested to read an op-ed piece in today's Edmonton Journal in which Athabasca University Professor Alvin Finkle advocates in favour of a merger between the Alberta Liberals, New Democrats, and Greens. Now, I'm completely in favour of tearing down Alberta's traditional party structures and attitudes, but I don't believe it's really as straight-forward as Finkle proposes. Here are six thoughts on a "united left" in Alberta...

1. Bad blood. There's a ton of animosity and moral high-horsery going on between the Alberta Liberals and New Democrats. Party archetypes in both camps really need to put aside their biases and prejudices and take a serious and objective look at why their parties are not connecting with Albertans. With Kevin Taft and Brian Mason taking shots at each other during the campaign, both sides are guilty of creating the animosity, but both owe it to Albertans to look at the bigger picture and at least seriously look at the idea of a "united left."

2. It's aiming at the wrong target. I'm not sure that a merger between the parties is a silver bullet. With voter turnout at 41%, I'd be willing to suggest that all the parties are scrapping the bottom of their support-levels and need to look at the 59% of non-voting Albertans for growth.

3. Pass the vote. This argument assumes that support between parties will automatically carry over to a merged party. I'm not convinced that both parties cover the same spot on the political spectrum and this could leave a lot of Albertans without a party to vote for.

4. Greens on the left? I'm also not totally sure that the Alberta Greens could be considered part of "the left." In fact, I'm not really sure where they are, but I'm sure that the 22% of Joe Anglin Green voters in Lacombe-Ponoka wouldn't consider themselves as part of "the left."

5. Different aims. The merger argument also assumes that both parties have the same target in mind? It's clear that the Alberta Liberals are in it to form government, but I'm not sure that's the same goal of the New Democrats. I'd be willing to bet that most New Democrats would feel a lot more comfortable staying in opposition than taking the reigns of power.

6. First-past-the-post. It seems that a bigger problem is the first-part-the-post electoral system that creates results that don't result in a fair reflection of how Albertans voted. Change the system to STV or PR and I'm not sure we'd be having this conversation.

All of this said, a little pragmatism and give-and-take between the two parties probably wouldn't hurt.

Is a merger a totally bad idea? No.

Is it feasible? That's a completely different question.


Mark Greenan said...

Good post Dave.

It's all about #6, there's your answer to the problem.

Heck, you could probably even get the Wild Rose Alliance interested in that one!

Could there be a temporary alliance between those parties to bring in PR?

What am I thinking? That's likely an impossible dream.

Anonymous said...

One more thing to add to your question about feasibility: I'm not sure the federal branch of the NDs would look to kindly on the AB party even thinking about a merger. Surely, they would intervene to try and squash any effort.

I think you're right to suggest the most important thing is both leaders taking a long hard look at why they aren't connecting with voters. However, I do think that progressives in Alberta need to work together more often and all in all, my hope would be for the AB Libs to change their name and their image (think New Labour or the oft-cited Sask Party), and then pick up whichever pragmatic ND and Green supporters would be willing to go along. Whatever happens, I second your call for party elites to open up and at least start a discussion about what has to happen.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if people actually even understand what a PR system is, or if they just drink the kool-aid because they know for sure that they don't like the FPTP system. For those of us who have studied PR systems before, people should be careful what they wish for.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

I agree with your conclusion (although I'd state it a lot more strongly than "not a totally bad idea"), but not with most of the reasons for it.

Here's how I look at it: the only reason to ever merge parties is when there are negligible, if any, differences between them (the Wild Rose Party and the Alberta Alliance spring to mind). It's never a good idea to merge parties when the party memberships have very different opinions about all sorts of things, and trust me, there is a world of difference between the Liberals, the NDP, and the Greens. Trying to unify such diverse groups under one big tent, even if it were to work, would marginalize a whole big whack of somebodies. We can't let that kind of kludge fix be our response to a real problem.

The only long-term, non-kludge fix is electoral reform. I know you agree with that, but the problem is that you always step in with a 'but' when the only thing that can follow it is a full stop. Electoral reform is the only thing that's going to make our legislature look like what we actually vote for. Shoehorning in a kludge fix when there's a legitimately available real fix is like tying your car's engine together with twine.

On the other hand, since electoral reform isn't going to happen tomorrow, the short-term solution to making our legislature look a lot more like what Albertans want to vote for isn't fewer parties on the left, but more parties on the right. Yes, yes, it's cringeworthy for people like you and me to think of a right-wing party with real clout, but right now, the PCs stand for very little other than keeping themselves in power, and they're such a big tent that the actual right feels completely alienated. The right deserves to have a party they can really support, and the playing field of first-past-the-post would be a lot more level if there were more choices on that end of the spectrum too. It wouldn't be perfect, but it would be more representative. I bet we'd see the voter turnout go up, too--on the right and on the left.

Wheatsheaf said...

Forget about uniting the left - the NDP would no go for it. What the Liberals need is a re-branding and new leadership. The only way to take power is not with the traditional parties, but with a new party.

What the Alberta Liberal Party should do is approach Jim Dinning and his group of supporters to merge into a new party (e.g. the Alberta Party). Dinning is often rumoured to be more of a Liberal, he has credibility as a former Tory, and the Liberal brand (for whatever dumb reason) is forever tarnished in Alberta.

In short:
1) Get Dinning and Supporters;
2) Form new party;
3) Form government in 2012

Anonymous said...

I don't think a merger is likely or desirable. But Finkel's op-ed piece does not call for a merger but an electoral coalition that would lead to a governing coalition.

In response to your specific points:

1. Yes, there is bad blood. But the name calling that goes on during campaigns is largely the result of playing politics by the standard partisan rules. It should be abundantly clear to both the Liberals and the NDP that playing by those rules has led to a dead end.

2. Yes, we need to appeal to the non-voters. But as Finkel points out, it's the continued irrelevance of the opposition parties (at least in the eyes of those non-voters) that is encouraging them to tune out.

3. I'm also concerned that some people will feel their party has abandoned them. But I'm more concerned about the much larger group (I suspect) who want the opposition parties to work together for common goals.

4. Are the Greens on the left? Are the Liberals on the left? Whatever the answer is, there is enough common ground for these parties to co-operate.

5. C'mon Dave, of course the NDP wants power. The question is are any of these people willing to share power.

6. Yes, the voting system must change. But, as Finkel points out, what are the chances of doing that as long as the Tories are in power? (And please note that STV is a form of PR.)

I, as a Dipper, have for years preached against any sort of merger or electoral coalition with the Liberals. On election night, someone asked me about it and I gave them my traditional response. As I was saying it, I realised how hollow it sounds. I am now in favour of an electoral coalition.

Anonymous said...

This debate is greatly amusing to me, it's almost pathetic to watch Liberals and dippers actually believe they are entitled to govern if they just merged and were able to share support. They are so busy plotting how to get power that they completely miss out on why the PC's are so successful.

Why does the Left wing feel that their policies are so superior and that it can't be the reason they continually face defeat. Canadians, and Albertas more specifically are a centre-right group most of the time, so why do left wing parties believe their policies will lead them to any victory?

I would still bet on a PC Majority, even if we had a 2 party state where it was PC versus Liberal+ND+everyone else.

wake up people, it's not the party name, it's not the electoral system, it's not bad feelings, it's people like you who blame everything but yourselves for what is wrong.

My advice, break everything, and start from scratch, stop trying to appease the vocal minority special interest groups, and work towards what people actually want.

Of course, most of you are too arrogant to even contemplate such an idea that you're the problem. This is why you fail, constantly.

Anonymous said...


However an alliance known as the Alberta United Left may be needed for 2012-2013. Both the Grits and the NDP need to commit themselves to electoral reform as a central tenet in a campaign. The Alberta Liberals scoring 26 per cent and 9 seats means it will need at least two elections become a credible challenge.

By then both Kevin Taft and Brian Mason will become smaller players. Of course, the United Left will not score 34 per cent (the combined votes of the Grits and the NDP) with leakage to the Greens inevitable (making the assumption they will reap some benefits for rejecting this alliance).

Then there is the Rachel Notley factor. The Alberta NDP now has a spokesperson who represents a change from previous leaders (Pannu, Mason etc). A technocrat in the Dave Barrett, Roy Romanow role who can articulate what it means to be a Western Canadian social democrat. So I am not really that supportive of Alberta New Democrats not interested in forming government. At least, Rachel is not going to be happy sitting in a caucus of two.

Thus, an electoral alliance for 2012-2013 with electoral reform as a key platform is certainly doable. This is based on the notion that the Alberta Left has almost hit rock bottom and that the old political message no longer work.

Wheatsheaf, the problem with your idea is that the Nancy MacBeth-Betkowski trip has been tried before. Ain't gonna work.

Wheatsheaf said...

Anon 2 - that is the height of arrogance. What gives you the right to decide who the people are and what they want? 59% of voters stayed home, and a substantial percent of those who did vote, did not vote for Stelmach. This suggests that voters are not interested enough to vote for their government. Thus, what is wrong with wanting to provide relevant alternatives to a government that has been stumbling from decision to decision.

Mushroom - It was tried against Ralph Klein with the Liberal banner. Try it with a new party against Ed Stelmach. The situation has completely changed.

Anonymous said...

Wheatsheaf, 59% didn't vote, the problem comes from your "relevant alternatives" comment. Call me arrogant all you want, but i stood at the doors and secretly smiled every time i heard a resident of this great province tell me that Taft and Mason have no clue what Albertans want, they only know what they want for themselves and they try to force others to get in line with them. That's not how you win elections, that's how you lose. Unfortunately for the Libs and ND's it's the extremists who control your parties because you are in the need to learn to control those special interests in your parties whose goals are only for themselves. The PC's don't survive because they covet power, they survive because they know how to compromise.

I'll even agree with you that I am arrogant, fine. But don't let that be a way for you to justify me as being wrong.

You'd think someone would have learned something from the butt kicking Taft took, but it's almost as if it was a secret monster called "electoral system" and now he must be slayed at all costs.

Brett said...

Uniting the Liberals and NDPs may be a good idea, but I don't think the Green party belongs in the merger. They're their own thing unto themselves. Nevertheless, there's gotta be SOMETHING that should stop the Tories. What we have right now is ridiculous.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I usually think you make a lot of sense, but with a lot of this "united left" rhetoric, you're really giving away the fact that you've never actually met Rachel Notley.

Unknown said...

I'd like to second IP's relatively long post. Then add a bit of myself...

Look at both the parties [Lib/NDP] as a kind of "bell curve" of ideas. A left-wing dipper would, I think, not be represented, or want to be a part of, the same party/movement/whatever, a right-leaning liberal would.

Or maybe that's just me.

Party of One said...

While there is merit to many of the ideas expressed here, these are all strategies to win power, not win reliable and consistant support.

The conservatives win in Alberta because they're deeply imbedded in all the social networks, whether it be the Co-op, the John Deere dealership, the community leagues, the small and large oil and gas companies, the Treasury Branch, and on and on.

Everybody votes for good ol' Joe when he runs 'coz hey, they know him, and although he can be a real Richard when he gets drunk, he's not a bad guy overall.

The way to power for ANY other party is to develop similar networks, or even co-opt the existing ones. It's not a job for the elites, it's a job for the membership. It's not about defining yourself as a "liberal" or an "ND" or "Green", etcetera, it's about networking with people, yes, even people with radically different ideas from you, and getting them to see YOU as a decent enough guy (or girl, needless to say) so that you can no longer be demonized by references to the Trudeau Liberals and the NEP (or the godless communist socialist pinko NDP who should all go to Russia if that's what they want).

Hey, that's not my point of view, but it could be the point of view of the older set...who are most likely to vote, and financially support candidates, and influence the young 'uns.

If Liberals and NDs and Greens just got to work providing services to their communities, integrating themselves within the social fabric without necessarily carrying their party affiliation as a torch, I suspect that they would get a lot more support when it DID come to election time.

I'm NOT saying that some people don't already do this, they do. But a lot more people have to do it before any other party has a hope in hell of dislodging the Tories.

Anonymous said...

"you're really giving away the fact that you've never actually met Rachel Notley."

How could I? I am 2000 miles away from Edmonton. A check of her cv shows that she has potential, comes from a political family, and is much better than Kevin Taft.

Still, if there is a place where the Grits and the NDP needs to unite is in Alberta. The Liberals doing less than 30 per cent means something needs to be done for 2012or 2013.

kenlister1 said...

1. bad blood, sure, but differences have to be put aside and focus has to be on similarities. Heck, both parties wanna raise the minimum wage...more money for schools and hospitals.
2. 59% didnt vote cause they didnt like any leader. nonetheless, everyone is loyal to the pc brand. keep attacking stelmach or ralphy, or getty all you want. you gotta go after the brand Conservative.
3. pass the vote wont totally happen, correct, but it would have added more seats surely in the past few elections, no matter how you wanna determine votes being passed after a merger.
4. i agree on the greens
5. i think the ndp would be split on adopting it between the realists and dreamers, but i think the realists might actually squeak it out.
6. PR and STV are years off on the provincial scene, if not decades. no point dreaming on that.

7. combining money from the 2 parties in a campaign would be a notch closer to evening out the huge spending advantage the tories have.
8. combining candidates and core volunteers could lead to better organizations and stronger candidates. each party have 2 good organizers with experience per riding is no match for 10 tories per riding, but 2+2 is a lot stronger.
9. look at the conservative winning candidates...A Filipino in edmonton millwoods, a hindu in ellerslie and meadowlark, a sikh in calgary montrose, an oriental guy in mcclung, a chinese lady in calgary too. This is a huge problem for the ALP and telltale of the over all problems. Imagine in the next federal election if the CONS could get the Filipinos, Sikhs, Hindus, and Chinese to vote for them! These groups should be targetted somehow to swing, along with newfies and newcomers from sask. how, i am not sure, but these are the fed liberals target surely, and the ALP is blind to keep missing these groups without much more than a shot in the dark at a policy or two.

Anonymous said...

It's unfortunate, but bad blood between these parties is deeply off-putting to outsiders on the fringe of involvement in party politics. What purpose can I see in devoting my time to party A when (on top of all the internal political bull) party A's leadership seems to be hellbent on scoring petty "soundbyte" points against fellow opposition party B rather than focusing on exposing the poor government and false populism of party C?

Party of one's point on networking WITH people is highly salient, but in my view it would require an attitude change on the part of many seasoned politicos in this province.

Anonymous said...

Talk of merging the opposition parties in Alberta reminds me of an op-ed I read years ago by Preston Manning. He pointed out that in most (all?) of the changes of party in the Alberta government it hasn't been the official opposition that took over . . . it was some minor party that came out of nowhere.

Similarly, all the talk of Liberal toxicity and rebranding reminds me of a line in Chretien's recent book. It was something like (paraphrased): "Albertans seem to have forgotten that Peter Lougheed clinked champagne glasses with me over the NEP."

Anonymous said...

Great post, Dave.

TSA: Peter Lougheed was leader of the Official Opposition before he became Premier.

And since the last change in government before that happened in 1935 I don't really think any solid conclusions from that.

Anonymous said...

OK, I may have inadvertently exaggerated Manning's point. Sorry about that.

Let me fix that: Manning pointed out that Alberta's governing parties have all come out of nowhere. Even in the Lougheed counter example, the PCs didn't become the official opposition until 1967, just a few years before they took over the government. Someone in 1960 would have had an impossible time predicting which party would take over, just as modern-day Albertans might be inclined to make some bad assumptions.

I thought it was an interesting theory, at any rate.

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of what you said, Dave. I can't speak to what Liberals want but I don't think a merger would serve NDs well and would alienate much of the party's support. I think most NDs would probably still begrudgingly support whatever mess came out of a Liberal/NDP merger, for lack of an alternative (there's no such thing as a left-wing splinter party in Alberta for them to go to), but it would be an unstable coalition of support that would inevitably lose credibility due to in-fighting, and I wouldn't want to see NDs robbed of a credible voice for their beliefs. In fact, it would probably be a matter of time before a number of them splintered off and started their own party. And that's only if, as someone mentioned above, the federal NDP didn't intervene to prevent the merger.

That said, it's not totally insane to believe that some form of co-operation between the Liberals and NDP would be desirable and even feasible. It would certainly be nice if we could all band together to advocate electoral reform, for example. And one idea I heard that wasn't totally crazy was for each party to agree not to run candidates in ridings where the other tends to do better. I'm very hesitant about that one, because both parties would be running far from a full slate and could lose credibility in the eyes of undecided voters. If we use that strategy once, though, and it helps us build a larger and more effective opposition, we might be in more of a position to fight it out amongst each other the next time.

Dirk Buchholz said...

Mergers bah humbug.
But I do agree with the idea that the NDP should be looking to and directing a lot of their energies at the 59% of Albertans that do not vote,or do so very rarely.
I fact I would recommend that all NDP ,prov and federal wings,look at this idea.

Feynman and Coulter's Love Child said...

Greens on the left? I'm also not totally sure that the Alberta Greens could be considered part of "the left." In fact, I'm not really sure where they are, but I'm sure that the 22% of Joe Anglin Green voters in Lacombe-Ponoka wouldn't consider themselves as part of "the left."

Joe Anglin supports the CWB, abortion, homosexuality, gun control, public healthcare, severe restrictions on the oilsands, and huge government farm subsidies to keep his business afloat. Joe Anglin opposes the death penalty, Albertan soverignty, unilingualism, home schooling, and free trade.

Do a quick mental survey of his riding, and see if perhaps Anglin's support came not from his violently opposed personal opinions, but rather on his sincere desire to represent the riding (and on his one-trick pony issue of the government forcing a power line on the farm he just finished getting subsidized for).

From what I've heard from actual residents of the riding (which I visted last weekend) Anglin's success was solely as a protest against the personally unpopular local PC MLA (and Dinning supporter in a riding where Morton destroyed in his second ballot campaign) Ray Prins, and the incompetant oaf that Wild Rose was able to recruit.

[As an aside, a relatively well-known local politician apparently was asked by non-party members to run under the Alliance banner pre-merger and refused].

Feynman and Coulter's Love Child said...

6. First-past-the-post. It seems that a bigger problem is the first-part-the-post electoral system that creates results that don't result in a fair reflection of how Albertans voted. Change the system to STV or PR and I'm not sure we'd be having this conversation.

You wouldn't be having this conversation: the SoCred/Alliance/AIP/AlbertaFirst coalition dynasty would have been dominating the political scene since 1997 to such an extent that people by now would have forgotten the Liberals and NDP even existed

Feynman and Coulter's Love Child said...

the Liberal brand (for whatever dumb reason) is forever tarnished in Alberta.

Methinks it has something to do with the undesirable actions of those Lieberals themelves. You urbane cocaine-and-transvestite-party attending Edmontonians forget that in huge swaths of this glorious Albertan Republic "NEP" is a swear word more vile than all others.

Anonymous said...

I think there are probably many Liberal voters who wouldn't consider themselves as part of the left. It's most likely that the majority of Liberal support comes from moderates, which most people tend to be.

As much as we like to pundificate about how right-wing Albertans are, I don't really think this is totally the case as Albertans may self-identify as conservatives but mostly hold moderate views and values. The PC party is a centrist catch all party in the tradition of the Liberal Party of Canada.

I think Ed Stelmach is more Louis St. Laurent than Harry Strom.

Anonymous said...

It appears the SMP electoral system is here to stay until the cons are out so why not let the electoral system work for the lib/ndp/green. Split the right wing vote and unite the left, then change the system and disband.

I would call it, "the other alberta" influenced by putin's russia.