After four catastrophic years of United Conservative Party (UCP) rule, many assumed that the NDP would be elected in a landslide. Indeed, last year, many polls showed just that. However, in a surprise to many, things have turned around and polling for the 2023 Alberta provincial election has the NDP in a dead heat with the UCP. But how is this possible? Could we be in store for another disastrous UCP government in Alberta?
Soon after getting elected, the UCP under premier Jason Kenney went to work carrying out a brutal austerity policy to make workers pay for the crisis of capitalism in Alberta. In the middle of the pandemic, the UCP privatized 11,000 health-care jobs, cut wages and compensation to health-care workers and carried out a three per cent wage roll back for nurses.
In response, the trade unions ran “Stand up to Kenney” and “Fire Kenney” campaigns. Doctors, teachers, even crown prosecutors held virtually unanimous votes of non-confidence in UCP ministers. In 2020, health-care workers went on a wildcat strike against the UCP plan to lay off workers and privatize their jobs. At a packed meeting of 1,500 people, hosted by the Alberta Federation of Labour, chants of “general strike” broke out. A general strike to bring down the government was a very real possibility. However this did not materialize.
Instead, labour leaders, in league with the NDP, adopted the strategy of waiting until the election. This seemed to make sense at the time as polling from the middle of the UCP’s reign in early 2021 had the New Democratic Party (NDP) at 51 per cent and the UCP at a paltry 30 per cent. All signs pointed to the NDP conquering an absolute majority. The UCP faced internal strife, factional breakdown, and scandal after scandal. On the other hand, the NDP were breaking fundraising records, looking like a government in waiting. But what happened?
A UCP comeback?
In April last year, we wrote:
“The perspective of the trade union leadership and the NDP has been seemingly to wait for the next provincial election. While it is true that the Alberta NDP is miles ahead in the polls, it would be an error to think that the defeat of the UCP in the May 2023 election is inevitable. If the UCP turf Kenney and successfully scapegoat him for all of the hated policies, the UCP could regain lost territory and win the election. This is especially the case with the economic recovery, which will allow the UCP with a new leader some much-needed breathing space.”
Sadly, this is exactly what has transpired. Shortly before Jason Kenney resigned as premier and UCP leader, he warned that “lunatics” were taking over the “asylum” in reference to his own party. Those lunatics organized themselves into “Take Back Alberta”, a far right faction in the UCP which promotes Alberta separatism, anti-vaccine theories, and plenty of other far-right conspiracies. They led the charge to turf Kenney and replace him with Danielle Smith, former leader of the Wild Rose party. Smith has close connections with Take Back Alberta, having attended leader David Parker’s wedding earlier this year.
This palace coup allowed the UCP to scapegoat Kenney for all of their ails and stop the bleeding of votes to the right. Similar to Donald Trump, Smith has been embroiled in scandal after scandal with only a minor impact on her popularity. After coming under fire in her first week as premier for saying that “[the unvaccinated] have been the most discriminated-against group that I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime,” a treasure trove of old clips has been unearthed, including a video where she details how she would privatize hospitals. Another video from two years ago shows Danielle explaining her refusal to wear a poppy, as according to her, life in Canada under COVID health restrictions is comparable to life in Nazi Germany. However despite Danielle’s gaffes, the UCP has not suffered a collapse. Indeed, Smith’s brand of prairie populism has turned the election into a race, rather than a landslide.
The truth is that Smith, and Take Back Alberta by extension, have been able to direct the anti-establishment anger towards Ottawa in their favour. She has done this by consistently criticizing the federal government for everything from gun control, to public health measures, vaccine mandates, and other instances of alleged “government overreach”. Distancing herself from her failed predecessor, Smith has also railed against the policies of the UCP under Kenney, especially health measures. Under Kenney the UCP was bleeding on its right, losing supporters to small separatist and single-issue parties. By capturing a certain anti-establishment mood, Smith has successfully stopped the bleeding and is now a contender in the election.
The NDP promises a safe pair of hands for capitalism
However, the revival of the UCP from a near certain electoral walloping was not a foregone conclusion. The key to understanding this situation lies in the mistaken strategy of the Alberta NDP.
Faced with this situation, the NDP leadership tacked to the right in order to prove to the capitalists that they would be more responsible managers of capitalism. As capitalism slumps deeper into crisis, millions of people are finding it difficult to make ends meet while the big businesses find themselves bailed out every time they face hardship. Indeed, the rich are getting richer while regular working class people struggle to get by. The approach of the NDP to this dire situation is to appeal against “anger and division”. Last year Notley tweeted “I don’t want to divide us. I want to bring us together. Alberta’s future is far too important for petty political fights. Alberta’s greatest asset is its people — and we’re strongest when we work WITH each other, not against.” Earlier this year she said: “I’m running for Alberta’s NDP because the politics of fear, anger, and division is holding us back.”
But if people are angry and divided it is because capitalism is driving their lives into the ground and making them angry. Anger at the rich and the elites is very much a progressive sentiment; therefore appealing against anger and division is tantamount to appealing for unity with the capitalists. Politically this takes the form of trying to be a government for “all Albertans”—which is not saying anything substantive at all. In practice, whenever a politician says they want to govern for “all people” it means papering over class antagonisms and catering to the needs of the ruling class.
Indeed, Rachel Notley’s NDP has spent the majority of its election campaign so far trying to convince the ruling class it is fit to govern. The campaign was unofficially launched at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce when the party presented a platform focused entirely on stability, investment, and fiscal responsibility. The NDP has even recruited former Alberta Treasury board (ATB) Chief Economist Todd Hirsch to lay out their financial strategy for the province. This strategy proposes balanced budgets and a regulated revenue scheme to make fossil fuel royalty income more predictable.
The NDP is not proposing any significant reforms for working people and has instead focused on getting back to “stable government” and ensuring fiscal discipline. All of these things focus entirely on the needs of the ruling class. The ruling class wants a government which is stable, and fiscally responsible—that is, willing to carry out austerity measures when revenue decreases. All of this is in an effort to maximize investment and facilitate the making of profit. For the NDP to explicitly prioritize the needs of the ruling class over their traditional working class base is precisely what happens when reformists in power do not see beyond the limits of capitalism—they end up trying to preserve the current system because they can’t imagine anything else.
In October, 2022, we wrote:
“Notley and the reformist leaders of the NDP are presenting themselves as the better and more level-headed negotiators with the federal government on behalf of the Alberta oil and gas companies. This is the role that the reformists have taken for themselves, to be the better and more efficient managers of Alberta capitalism.”
The NDP shift has gone so far that many people are comparing her to former Conservative premier Peter Lougheed. None other than Danielle Smith herself wrote that “Notley is, without question, the inheritor of the Lougheed tradition. That’s not to say he was a full-on socialist, but Notley isn’t either. I think most Albertans have been shocked to see how pragmatic she has governed, particularly as it concerns natural resources.”
This so-called pragmatism has seen Notley fail to support a wildcat strike of health-care support staff against Kenney’s healthcare cuts in October 2020, stating, “The wildcat strikes occurring across Alberta are deeply concerning. Like all Albertans, our Caucus believes patient safety must always be the top priority.” More recently, when protesters interrupted a UCP meeting to protest the party’s healthcare privatization plans, the NDP, rather than using the opportunity to expose the UCP’s plans, used Twitter to criticize the protesters, stating, “What happened today during a press conference with Danielle Smith was unacceptable and we strongly condemn the actions taken by the protesters involved.” This is what the “pragmatic” approach of attempting to stand for “all Albertans” means in reality.
A failed strategy that fails to inspire
Connected to this, the NDP has not committed to reverse the hated cuts carried out during the last four years of UCP government. All sorts of costs have skyrocketed in the recent period thanks to UCP austerity, or regulation cuts. Insurance, for example, has jumped by up to 30 per cent for some drivers, and power companies have increased their profits by 500 per cent! The NDP campaign promises not to reduce, but only to cap utility rates, and freeze insurance premiums as well as university tuition. But is wholly insufficient and is unlikely to inspire workers who have essentially been punched in the gut economically by Kenney’s policies. This does nothing to reverse the absurd profiteering that many companies have engaged in, like power companies who have double or even tripled bills.
The lack of commitment to reverse the worst of the UCP cuts is discouraging for the workers and youth who make up the NDP’s traditional base of support. University students paying 44 per cent higher tuition rates would be far more likely to support the NDP, if they committed to fully reversing the disastrous austerity of the last four years. Equally, as the province is faced with massive out-of-control fires, the NDP has yet to commit to reversing the UCP cuts to the firefighting budget.
By adopting this strategy, it is true that the NDP have won some people over, but not the folks who are usually in their corner. Former Conservative MLAs—Allan Warrack, Ron Ghitter and Peter Lougheed’s chief of staff Lee Richardson—have all endorsed Rachel Notley. While this would have been unthinkable in the past, it demonstrates the rightward trajectory of the NDP. After all, the PCs loved to talk about balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility. Most notable of the former conservative establishment that the NDP has won over is former deputy premier under Allison Redford, Thomas Lukaszuk. Not only is Lukaszuk publicly endorsing Notley and posing for pictures with her, he is knocking on doors! In his time in office, Lukaszuk, minister of education in 2013, presided over a vicious 7.2 per cent cut to secondary education which crippled universities and forced them to lay off staff and close programs.
While NDP leaders probably think this makes them look responsible and non-partisan, cozying up to the conservative establishment and adopting its politics is a losing strategy. It should be noted that the old-guard Progressive Conservatives are part of the discredited establishment tradition which has not won anything provincially since 2012. These people represent a bygone age of economic and political stability in Alberta which has collapsed as society polarized to the left and the right. Retired PC MLAs represent no one, certainly not the base which won the NDP its majority government in 2015.
The people who brought the NDP to power were the workers and youth of Alberta. They were inspired to vote NDP when Notley said “We reject the politics of austerity”. They were tired of all the wealth in the province going to the oil barons, while healthcare, education, and public services generally degraded. The message the NDP ran with in the 2015 campaign of “getting Albertans their fair share of the oil wealth” resonated with politically conscious working class people, and especially young people, who came out in droves to vote.
Not only is this strategy bad because it won’t help working class people if the NDP are elected, but it is precisely this approach which has allowed the UCP to save itself. The NDP’s courtship of the conservative establishment and attempts to prove that they will be a safe pair of hands for capitalism has done nothing to gain any support from the population. Instead, it has simply demoralized workers and youth and has allowed Danielle Smith to play her populist game. This has cost the NDP, according to poll predictions. It could be fatal come the election, as many people may not be inspired enough to vote NDP. As it stands now, “balanced budgets” have inspired precisely no one.
Whoever is elected—the working class will need to fight
If the UCP is re-elected, the labour movement must prepare for an all-out battle. Smith and her ilk, similarly to Kenney, won’t listen to reasoned debate. Their privatizations and attacks on the labour movement and working class people cannot be allowed to pass unopposed. If the last four years teach us anything, it is that words must be followed up with deeds. There was a lot of talk about fighting back and talk about striking against the government but in the end this did not transpire. Kenney was therefore able to get away with murder. We need to show Danielle Smith that if she attempts similar policies, the labour movement will shut down the province.
But an NDP victory is still possible, and in this event, many would breathe a sigh of relief. However, an NDP victory will not mean an end to the problems facing working class people.
The NDP in power would be faced with the same challenges they faced in 2015, just in a more acute way. The past four years of UCP rule—all of the austerity, privatization, and damage to the province—will have to be reckoned with, all with an economically uncertain future. A Notley government, in league with the conservative establishment and determined to be the most responsible manager of capitalism, would set the NDP on a collision course with the public-sector workers and youth.
Indeed, while the NDP weren’t nearly as bad as the Conservatives when in power, they still capped public sector wages and bailed out oil companies. Public sector workers have felt the bite of high inflation, as those years of zero-increase contracts brought in by the NDP drove living conditions into the dirt. This time around it is unlikely that workers tolerate similar “budgetary constraints.” And nor should they. The working class, especially the public sector unions, will need to prepare for class struggle.
More than ever we need to fight for a militant socialist policy for the labour movement. We should not accept what capitalism has to offer. We should not accept NDP-sponsored cutbacks. The working class in Alberta is large and strong and, if organized, no government could stand in its way. Whether it’s a rightwing UCP government hellbent on forcing workers to pay for the crisis of capitalism or an NDP government bending to the interests of the capitalists, the labour movement is going to need to prepare for battle.