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Advice for Alberta New Democrats from Quebec: This time, make it easy for voters to support you

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Ray Guardia


Here's a tip for Alberta New Democrats from one of the principal architects of Jack Layton's historic 2011 Quebec campaign: don't tell voters they're stupid because they've been voting Tory for 43 years.

Ray Guardia was too diplomatic, of course, to put it quite like that in a panel discussion yesterday on winning progressive campaigns during the final session of the Broadbent Institute's 2014 Progress Summit in the nation's capital.

Anyway, he wasn't addressing the new political landscape now developing in Alberta when he made the comment during a much wider discussion moderated by Broadbent senior advisor and TV commentator Kathleen Monk at the Canadian centre-left's first response to the loony right Manning Institute’s annual Ottawa bunfest. 

But readers of this blog have to know that Alberta New Democrats have sounded very much like that through the 43 years the Progressive Conservatives have dominated Alberta. Or, if you want to get even more depressed about it, the 77 years Alberta social democrats have spent in the political wilderness since the day in 1935 the Social Credit League led by William Aberhart was elected.

And -- hey people! -- do you think there might be a connection?

Guardia, who ran the federal NDP’s campaign that resulted in the NDP's massive 2011 breakthrough in Quebec, spun it positively: you have to make it easy for voters who have backed another party for a long time to switch to your side.

He pointed out that the federal New Democrats under Layton, who died of cancer the same year he led the national party to the Opposition benches in Parliament, tried other strategies that flopped in Quebec in 2006 and 2008.

In 2006, Quebec New Democrats argued they were better social democrats than the Bloc Quebecois, a coalition with social democrat and nationalist elements. This was true, but it didn't excite Quebec voters who liked many things about the BQ. In 2008, they painted themselves as the alternative to Harper Hell. Which was true too -- but so was the BQ, sort of.

In 2011, Guardia said, they finally hit on the formula that worked -- getting the message to voters that the NDP and the BQ shared many social democratic values, and treating voters' past decisions with respect.

The strategy recognized Quebec voters had liked the Bloc and its leader for good reasons, and that those things hadn't really changed -- but asked, if they were going to remain part of Canada, why not elect a team that would work to make it a better country?

So the party offered this proposition to Quebec voters: "let us play some offence for you," he summarized.

"You have to make it easy for voters," Guardia explained. "You can't ask them to say they were wrong."

So what does Quebec have to do with Alberta, where we all gloomily assume that voters transition from Social Credit to Progressive Conservative to Wildrose to the next conservative thing in intergenerational lockstep?

Well, it doesn't have to be this way.

We know that Alberta voters, like Canadians everywhere, hold social democratic values even as they vote for conservatives for other reasons. As former NDP leader Ed Broadbent told the summit's opening session, polling consistently shows that when it comes to their values most Canadians are social democrats.

And we know that at the municipal level, Albertans support determinedly progressive candidates -- leastways, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi are powerful arguments for the truth of this proposition, observed high-profile environmental campaigner Tzeporah Berman in the same discussion.

And we know that large numbers of Albertans ran to Alison Redford in 2011 and 2012 because they thought she was a progressive -- and abandoned her and her party in droves when it became apparent she was something quite different, leading directly to the political drama now gripping Alberta.

And we know Albertans are ready to think about our environment and our economy. "People are anxious in Alberta for a conversation about the pace and scale of development," Berman said. "We're ready for that conversation to happen."

Indeed, that's why the Liberals came so close to knocking off Tory Joan Crockatt in the November 2012 by-election that saw her elected as MP for Calgary Centre -- a progressive victory thwarted by a strong vote for the Green Party's candidate.

And, finally, we can have no doubt that Albertans are desperate for change -- so desperate, in fact, that they're willing to consider holding their noses and voting for the Wildrose Party, which shares neither their values nor their dreams, to make it happen. This reality is what is driving the provincial PC Party's self-destructive behaviour now.

Yet the fundamental Wildrose beliefs that frightened voters in 2012 have not changed. It's just that voters' disappointment and disgust with Redford and the rest of her party has driven them to considering the Wildrose on the theory a change is as good as a rest. And Wildrose message discipline is vastly improved.

Progressive parties -- the NDP in particular, perennially in third or fourth place in the Alberta Legislature -- need to give voters a better reason for their support than asking them to admit they were wrong.

It's time to recognize that Albertans voted Progressive Conservative because that party provided competent leadership, occasionally espoused progressive values and sometimes even delivered on them.

Those days are gone. Thanks to Redford, the PCs have disappeared down a far-right rabbit hole from which it is highly unlikely they will ever emerge again.

This should give progressive Alberta political parties hope -- but they need to consider the possibility that what hasn't worked for three quarters of a century is unlikely to miraculously start working now.

So maybe it's time to take a leaf from Quebec's strategy start thinking about ways to make it easier for Albertans to vote NDP, as unlikely as it might seem right now that they'll respond.

But who in Alberta would have thought five years ago New Democrats were on the verge of a breakthrough in Quebec?

No, as someone is certain to point out, Alberta is not Quebec. But it may be a lot closer to it than it seems.

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

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