The Orange Wave...

Can the New Democrats win the next Alberta provincial election?

OK, crazy thought. I was only kidding… I think.

But let’s consider another crazy question that, nevertheless, is not quite so crazy: Can the Alberta New Democrats form the Opposition in the next provincial election, and maybe a government an election or two after that.

Impossible, you say? Maybe not if New Democrats can crawl out of the irrelevant protest-party box they’ve been sleeping in these past few years. No more impossible, at any rate, than New Democrats forming the government of Nova Scotia, or winning the hearts of well over 40 per cent of federal voters in Quebec.

Why shouldn’t Alberta New Democrats climb atop this Orange Wave and surf, if not to victory, then to somewhere better than where they are just now? And where the Alberta NDP is right now, you will recall, is chronic marginalization outside a very small number of Edmonton ridings.

Earlier this week, we looked at the summary of June poll results tracked by Éric Grenier at his Threehundredeight website. While there are not a lot of polls to draw from at this time, the results suggest that the Orange Surge phenomenon seen before and during the federal election in May persists, and moreover that federal New Democrat support in Alberta is at a level better than one in five voters.

Indeed, quite a bit better if you break out the June 23 and 24 on-line survey by Abacus Data, which indicated fully 25 per cent of decided Alberta voters support the federal NDP! (And, by the way, this is the lowest level of support in Canada’s regions found by the Abacus Data poll — which puts federal NDP support elsewhere in the West consistently at 33 per cent.)

Surely as the provincial party most like its federal counterpart in ideology and practice, Alberta New Democrats can capitalize (as it were) on this startling phenomenon. And let’s face it, in the advertising kaleidoscope in which we live, just having the same name and colours as the federal NDP offers profile and name recognition like no other party but the Tories.

Despite its small numbers, the Alberta NDP has long been the real opposition in the Alberta Legislature, or leastways, often the only effective opposition coming from the true perspective of most Albertans.

Moreover, polling from a variety of groups and sources show that while Albertans are tired of the Conservatives, and would like change, it’s not necessarily the sort of change offered by the far-right Wildrose Alliance, which with the help of its many open partisans in the media has successfully portrayed itself as the only government in waiting among the opposition parties.

Consider the recent Environics Research Group poll done for the Alberta Teachers Association that showed 71 per cent of Albertans believe the government is under-funding education. Or the private poll done by Innovative Research Group last year for the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party that showed 65 per cent of respondents believed the government should base its spending decisions on the need for social programs and services, not their affordability. Another 60 per cent said in the same poll the province should increase funding for such social programs as education and health care even if it meant running a deficit.

These polls sure as heck don’t reflect the vision of the Wildrose Alliance!

Naturally, supporters of the two other centrist Alberta opposition parties — the Liberals and the Alberta Party — will argue that they are the groups that should benefit from Albertans’ cautiously centrist tendencies.

Fair enough, one supposes, but in this regard, history has handed the Alberta New Democrats a unique opportunity — if they are brave enough and smart enough to take hold of it. For the Alberta Liberals are in a state of utter disorder verging on collapse, more the result of bad luck and weak recent leadership than anything else, but nevertheless serious enough that voters seem on the verge of abandoning them.

At the same moment, despite having chosen a capable new leader, the Alberta Party’s approach to building its political base is as slow as molasses in springtime. That means that group is unlikely to be in a position to successfully contest a provincial election any time in the next couple of years, let alone this fall or next spring as suggested by the government’s proclamation yesterday of its ill-thought-out legislation to suppress third-party election advertising.

But to achieve this goal, Alberta New Democrats must decide — now — that they’re not really happy being the marginalized fourth party in the provincial Legislature. That sounds self evident, but one suspects there are plenty of NDP supporters who in their hearts like things just they way they are.

New Democrats need to reach out to those successful Quebec MPs — many of whom have real star power — and get them out here to Alberta to energize young Albertans not just to vote, but to vote with the hearts and their heads!

In addition, as has been argued here before, the Alberta NDP needs to cast itself as the Urban Party of Alberta — that is, the party that will pay attention to urban issues like no other party.

Significant numbers of green, progressive, socially liberal, urban voters who are not necessarily social democrats or passionate about the old labour-NDP alliance would be attracted to a provincial New Democratic Party voter coalition that defined itself as the defender of Alberta’s urban voters instead of pursuing a doomed dream of capturing seats in the most conservative corners of the boonies. This is especially so at a moment in history when no other party can fulfill that role.

Finally, more than ever before, New Democrats need to find good candidates with roots in their communities who are prepared to treat their candidacies as more than just a dutiful walk through the motions.

The Alberta NDP has a historic opportunity. They can just do the same old same old and get to the same old place, or they can surf the Orange Wave!

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

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...