After a very tense month, the much-awaited result of Jason Kenney’s leadership review came in with a 51.4 per cent approval. With such a dismal result, Kenney resigned despite having defiantly said before that he would hold on to his leadership position with anything above 50 per cent. A lot of Kenney’s detractors might have let out a big sigh of relief, but the ruling United Conservative Party (UCP) of Alberta did not come out of this leadership review unscathed. The party is still painfully divided. The almost-35-thousand counted ballots did remove Kenney, but the roots of the crisis in the UCP have not been removed.
Even before the ballots were counted, those who wanted to oust Kenney had already made it clear that they cared little for the result. “The results of tomorrow don’t matter. Our minds are made up, and I am sorry, but they don’t involve you,” warned one UCP constituency official to the premier’s office. Since the leadership review process began, it had been destined to be a lose-lose-lose scenario for Kenney.
Had he received less than 50 per cent, an automatic leadership election would have been triggered within the UCP. Had he won a handsome majority, he would have been accused of foul play, and rightfully so given his reputation. Kenney is still under RCPM investigation for the 2017 UCP leadership race. In fact, his arch-foe Brian Jean filed a complaint with Elections Alberta after his team discovered eight credit cards were used to purchase more than 4500 memberships, which would be able to represent 4500 votes in the leadership review. For a great many Albertans, there was every reason to be cynical toward the result.
Having won a slim majority, Kenney is clearly lacking the moral authority to carry on as party leader. There was simply no scenario where Kenney could come out on top.
Throughout the review, Jason Kenney was adamant that he would hold on to his leadership position even if he only received 50 per cent plus one of the votes. “People who are saying (I have) to get, say, 90 per cent or something (similar) really aren’t appreciating the different context of this … (that) thousands of people signed up (to vote in the review) … (are) largely driven by anger over things like (COVID-19) vaccines,” he defended.
But it is exactly Jason Kenney who isn’t appreciating the context of the whole situation: that the Alberta oil barons cannot risk losing their political power once again to the NDP, and that he has become a serious liability. The ruling class simply cannot afford to navigate the Sturm und Drang of the capitalist crisis with a leaky ship whose captain cannot command the trust of his mutinous crew. The current high oil prices might restore profitability for the oil companies, but not political stability for Alberta. It definitely does not bring back any “Alberta Advantage” jobs. In fact, the high oil prices are exacerbating the scourge of inflation that has been voraciously eating up workers’ wages, and that is a recipe for an intensifying class struggle.
The polls do not lie either. A few days into the start of the leadership review, Kenney’s approval rating had fallen below 30 per cent. A recent poll showed that only 12 per cent of voters say they are more likely to vote UCP with Kenney at the helm. In contrast, under a new leader, 39 per cent of voters say they are more likely to cast their vote for the UCP. The once steadfast leader, who had united Alberta’s Conservative movement and brought it back to power, became a source of its turmoil.
In the latest poll, the UCP trails the NDP by 12 per cent. With 46 per cent of the votes, the poll result would have the NDP forming a majority government. When Kenney was hoisted to power in 2019, the UCP was ahead of the NDP by more than 20 per cent. What an astounding reversal of fortune! This rapid reversal took place around November last year, right after the conclusion of the UCP convention, where internal opposition to Kenney in the party started to crystallize. Writing about the convention at that time, we said that it was “a dress rehearsal for his downfall” and “the end is near for him”. The 57 per cent vote that he received at that November 2021 convention for his resolution to increase the special general meeting threshold was in essence an informal confidence vote. Six months later, even after moving every chess piece at his disposal—even ones that are not supposed to be on the chess board—he could not avoid the inevitable. The end has finally arrived for him. He went out on a whimper, unable to even call his own bluff to stay on as the leader with a slim majority.
Alberta capitalism has been in crisis for more than a decade now. Kenney’s promise of renewing the Alberta Advantage has collided bitterly with a reality not too kind to such wishful thinking. There is simply no longer an economic basis for the good old Alberta of budget surpluses, zero debt, “Ralph bucks”, low unemployment, and fat paychecks. The “end” of the pandemic did not bring the promised “Best Summer Ever mark 2”, but rather record inflation and the spectre of global recession. Therein lies the problem faced by the UCP: it is governing through a period of crisis. Jason Kenney had been accused by his detractors of being arrogant, out of touch, and incompetent—and rightfully so—but he could not behave otherwise given the crisis of capitalism and the division in his party. Every decision he made, or didn’t make, always ended up upsetting someone, whether it was the Progressive Conservative wing of his party, the Wildrose types, or more often, the working class.
In his attempt to fulfill his campaign promise to be the champion of oil and gas, his government invested $1.3 billion in the now-defunct Keystone XL oil pipeline project. This investment was at first applauded by many Albertans, who see their livelihoods connected to the fate of this pipeline project. But when the project collapsed, he ended up looking very incompetent for making a bad gamble. The creation of the Alberta Energy “war room” was also received with much fanfare in the beginning by his supporters. But it quickly turned into a PR nightmare for the premier. In his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, as he tried to placate both those opposed to public-health measures and those wanting stronger measures, he ended up offending everyone. He is perceived to be too cautious by those protesting lockdowns, yet too reckless by those wanting serious Covid-19 policies. His last attempt to curry favour with the anti-lockdown wing of his party by cheering on the Freedom Convoy failed miserably. When the Coutts blockade went out of control and started to harm the bottom lines of many companies, he was forced to condemn it. In the end, he won favour from no one in the Freedom Convoy. From Kenney’s perspective there is simply no good decision to be made under the current crisis.
Brian Jean, who is currently the likeliest candidate to replace Jason Kenney, would be wise to learn that “heavy is the head that wears the crown”, particularly of a kingdom in crisis. He might be the rallying point for every grievance against Kenney, but Jean has yet to show how he would govern differently than him. His only program so far is that he will not be Jason Kenney. Jean, just like Kenney, would govern for the oil barons and shift the burdens of the crisis onto the shoulders of the working class. He would also head an unstable government, rocked by simmering discontent from the masses.
On the horizon is a sharpening class struggle, and the capitalist class needs a united party. This unity was clearly something beyond Kenney, but might be afforded by Brian Jean as the head of the party. The question is: how long can Brian Jean hold the UCP together should he become the new leader? The ground in Alberta’s conservative movement has shifted very far since the UCP founding conference in 2017. Establishment conservatism in Alberta, personified by Jason Kenney, is being pushed to the side further and further by forces of right-wing populism. There is a deep hatred of everything that is status quo, particularly a deep rural distrust of the well-connected political elites in Edmonton and Calgary who are calling the shots at their expense. These sentiments are being played out now in the UCP. In a leaked recording of a meeting with his caucus staff, Kenney rallied his staff to save the mainstream conservative party from the “lunatics [who] are trying to take over the asylum”, from the “kooky people” who seek to seize control of the party and bring in “extreme, hateful, intolerant, bigoted and crazy views”. It was these “lunatics” in Alberta who launched the Freedom Convoy which catapulted Pierre Poilievre and his brand of right-wing populism to fame. Poilievre is now the voice of Canadian Trumpism, hell bent on uprooting the establishment conservatism. The future of Alberta conservatism seems to be heading in the same direction as its federal counterpart.
The capitalist class, even the wing that supports Jason Kenney, is clearly rejoicing that a serious political liability in their political party has been removed. The UCP simply cannot win against the NDP with Kenney at its head. The math just doesn’t add up. But they are now facing a deeply uncertain future. They are hoping for a reliable leader to come out of the upcoming leadership race, but the current political landscape might bring forth something else altogether. They might be in for a surprise, because the lunatics have just removed the previous warden. Emboldened by this, they might take over the asylum. A populist maverick is the last thing that the capitalist class needs right now.
Workers cheer Kenney’s demise: Where is the labour leadership?
It is understandable to see Alberta workers celebrating at the sight of a defeated Jason Kenney. The rule of this most hated figure has been disastrous for the lives of many workers. But the leadership of the labour movement cannot take too much credit. They played no role at all in the defeat of Jason Kenney, despite having many chances to do so. The Kenney regime was extremely weak and hated by all. It was attacking public sector workers, teachers, nurses, doctors, and every worker in sight. A major strike was in the making several times, which could have dislodged this regime. Yet, at every step of the way, the trade union bureaucracy managed to put a lid on the simmering discontent of the masses and their desire to engage in a militant mass action against the regime.
A Jason Kenney defeated by the working class would have built up the confidence of the latter. It would have severely weakened the UCP and won over layers of rural working class to the labour movement, thus undermining the traditional base of the Tories. But instead, we are seeing right-wing populist wings in the conservative movement playing the central role in removing Jason Kenney. They are the ones gaining confidence and momentum now. As a result, we may see a more reactionary leader replacing Jason Kenney, one who is adept at utilizing populist rhetoric, cynically capturing the discontent of the masses, and more vicious in attacking the workers.
The NDP might seem to be the main beneficiary of this crisis in the UCP. But the so-called political center is collapsing very rapidly. If the NDP is still playing the game of being the better manager of capitalism, of being the professional, polite establishment party albeit with policies slightly to the left, it risks being outflanked by right-wing populist forces that could capture the mass anger that is currently sharpening as the polarization of society deepens. What is needed now is a bold socialist program that can serve as the alternative to the dying capitalist system and enthuse the workers to militant action.
The short-lived reign of Jason Kenney in Alberta shows one thing; that sudden and rapid changes are implicit in a revolutionary epoch. Anyone still wishing to return to the golden era of capitalism will get a rude awakening. We have entered into a new period of organic crisis of capitalism. We are no longer living through a regular boom-and-bust cycle, where a short-lived crisis is usually followed by a prolonged boom. Instead, we have before us a protracted crisis punctuated by ephemeral booms and short periods of fragile stability. This new reality dictates the fortune of many political parties, including the UCP and the NDP. Woe to those who still turn toward the past and not the future. The capitalist party cannot not turn toward the past, for they no longer have any future. But the party of the working class must turn toward the future, toward socialism, if it seeks to lead the workers out of the unending horror of capitalism.
Finally, Jason Kenney might be out but the UCP is still in power. As the saying goes, “The king is dead, long live the king.” This capitalist government will continue to attack the workers, with or without Kenney. It has no answers for inflation. In fact, it will be on the side of the bosses whenever workers struggle to win wage increases against the inflation. It needs to be defeated now with a mass working class mobilization, and not in the May 2023 election. The workers are ready to fight, and we just need a leadership courageous and forward-looking enough to provide that lead.