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New Alberta Party leader's challenge is to turn a New Age blip into lasting political phenomenon

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Alberta Party Leader Glenn Taylor

In the end, the Alberta Party's leadership vote yesterday came down to a choice between old-style plebeian NDP politics and old-style patrician Liberal politics.

It wasn't much of a contest. The New Democratic Party approach won easily in a well-organized slam-dunk, and three-time Hinton Mayor Glenn Taylor became leader of the new political party without the need to resort to a second ballot. It helped that Taylor appears to have had the backing of the new party's principal movers and shakers.

Taylor, who obviously honed his campaign-organization skills when he was an NDP candidate back in 1997 in his mill and mining town home, ran a professional campaign and mopped the floor with his three rivals. He won better than 55 per cent of the 1,200 ballots cast over the Internet, by telephone and in person at the two-day conference attended by more than 250 Alberta Party supporters in Edmonton's Shaw Conference Centre. In all, the party has about 2,000 members.

Taylor's closest challenger, Calgary businessman Randy Royer, who was once a rare federal Liberal supporter from Alberta's conservative deep south, didn't even come close despite a polished and professional campaign. He captured only 287 ballots, or 24 per cent of the vote.

Taylor's election is, quite literally, a defining moment in the history of the fledgling party that has up to now defined itself as the one that "does politics differently" than all those others.

The Alberta Party now has a leader with an identifiable style that may not appeal to everyone, and a practical political need to develop policies that could turn off many current adherents. In other words, the Alberta Party's days as a New Age political experiment are over, whether its leaders and adherents like it or not.

Until yesterday, the party was more of a social movement among Alberta's chattering classes than a real political phenomenon. It has one member in the Alberta Legislature -- Calgary-Currie MLA Dave Taylor (no relation) -- but more by happenstance than design. The disaffected former Alberta Liberal switched to the Alberta Party in January after quitting the Liberals and sitting for nine months as an Independent.

The party as we now know it (the name's been around for a while in various ideological guises) was pulled together in 2010 by a group of disaffected Red Tories, Blue Liberals and small-c conservative Greens. For the better part of 2010 and early 2011, its supporters have met in kitchens and living rooms talking (and talking) about their vision for Alberta politics, an exercise they dubbed The Big Listen.

The question, of course, is whether anyone not at these coffee parties was listening -- and the consensus is that they were not. At least, recent public opinion polls show the Alberta Party has barely registered with rank and file Alberta voters.

Its most enthusiastic supporters nowadays seem to define their mission as listening to everyone, or, as one member put it during a discussion Friday night, being "a party that is over the full spectrum of the political spectrum." The problem with this, pretty obviously, is that by trying to be everything to everyone, the party has ended up not really representing very much of anything to anyone.

So, after all this talk and warm feeling, the practical step that confronted the party was choosing a leader who could turn it into a real political force without turning off the many enthusiasts who liked the fact their party dreamed of practicing politics as they have not been practiced before.

The big question confronting Glenn Taylor is whether he can be that politician.

It's not at all clear he can persuade the party's current membership to trade their idealistic notions about New Age politics for the old-school, nitty-gritty, NDP techniques he used in his campaign and which pretty obviously work.

It's equally unclear if a former New Democrat from a working-class town can continue to appeal to a group who are mostly disaffected former Alberta Liberals and disgruntled centrist Tories. For that matter, it's unclear if such unhappy Liberals and Conservatives will stay unhappy now that Liberal leader David Swann and Premier Ed Stelmach, the joint causes of most of their grief, are on the way out.

If the party only manages to further fragment the centre and centre-left vote in Alberta, it could well end up electing no MLAs in the melee that is sure to be the next Alberta general election. Taylor himself vows to run in his West Yellowhead riding -- now held by former trade unionist turned Tory Robin Campbell, who won overwhelmingly in 2008. With no MLAs, it is said here the Alberta Party will quickly fall apart.

On the other hand, the Alberta Liberals are now in a state of advanced decay, a situation from which the Alberta Party could benefit. Taylor may be the right leader with the right political skills to exploit this possibility.

But that will depend a lot on whom the Liberals choose as their leader -- a decision that won't be made until fall.

Taylor's job now is to turn a New Age blip into a lasting political phenomenon. Good luck!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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