The United Conservative Party (UCP), led by Danielle Smith, won a majority government in Alberta in the 2023 provincial election. Polling indicated that the election would be a nailbiter, and in a certain sense, it was close, as a mere 1,500 more votes for the New Democratic Party (NDP) would have flipped the result. Ultimately, 52.6 per cent of the popular vote and 49 seats went to the UCP, with the NDP trailing at 44.0 per cent and the remaining 38 seats.
The result, although closer than any result in Alberta’s history, is a disappointment to all those who wanted to discard the UCP. Hatred for the party has been building since they first took power in 2019. A huge portion of the population was motivated to see the end of the UCP’s reign. In the end, the NDP failed to capitalize on this sentiment, and stand holding the silver medal in a two-horse race once again. This has posed the question “What now?” for everyone involved in the struggle against the UCP.
Lunatics in power
While the UCP has gotten a second mandate, the party is not the same as it was four years ago. Former leader Jason Kenney’s Cabinet from 2019, mostly made up of more professional, more sophisticated conservatives, is mostly gone. Now, the vast majority of elected representatives come from the old wildrose tradition, or even the “Take Back Alberta” faction, which is arguably more right-wing, amateurish, and reckless. In a recent scandal, in which Danielle Smith was attempting to interfere in the justice system around the prosecution of Covid law-breakers, Tyler Shandro, the former justice minister and member of Kenney’s inner circle, was the only figure to stand up to Smith and defend the sanctity of bourgeois justice. He lost his race by a mere 25 votes. Without these professional tories, there is no check on the new rabid MLAs from running loose in the asylum, inflicting their wrath on whoever they please. The attacks, privatizations, and scandals that have come from the party are sure to continue, if not worsen, under Smith.
The past four years of austerity, scandal, and corruption have shown what the UCP is. Smith in particular has made her views very clear in her years of lobbying and talk radio. She wants to privatize schools, hospitals, and other social services, threatening the futures of the working class of Alberta. She also has no problem raiding government budgets and assets to give to her former bosses who hired her as a lobbyist, as we’ve seen with the R-star $20 billion giveaway to the oil barons. The labour movement, and anyone willing to defend public healthcare and education should not, under any circumstances accept Danielle Smith’s mandate passively. The UCP should be resisted tooth and nail for every morsel they try to take from the public sector.
The NDP’s right-wing shift failed miserably
This defeat for the NDP did not prevent them from claiming a partial victory! NDP leader Rachel Notley wrote “Although we did not achieve the outcome we wanted, we took a major step toward it.” Notley also boasted about “The unprecedented growth of our party” citing the increased vote share and seat count. While this election was a better result than 2019, most polls projected an easy NDP victory only last year, when the UCP was enmeshed in crisis and internal strife. NDP figures who could not lie to themselves about the result took a more despondent approach to the results. While they recognize that it was a loss, they took to blaming. Blaming voter apathy, blaming the electorate, and blaming anyone but the NDP! In fact, this defeat was easily avoidable, and the responsibility for it lies with the NDP party brass, who championed the rightward shift of the party.
The election defeat proves what we at Fightback have argued about the NDP’s losing strategy of campaigning to the right, making their case as the most level headed managers of capitalism Shortly before the election we wrote:
“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.”
The fatal prognosis is what won out. The shift to the right did not inspire workers and youth to vote for the NDP in force. This is a bitter demonstration of the abject failure of reformists who accept the capitalist system. In Alberta, this means accepting the rule of the oil barons and their demands for handouts, low taxes, and austerity. If the NDP had a socialist perspective, if they refused to accept the limitations of the capitalist system, they would have promised a complete reversal of UCP austerity and prepared to expropriate the big capitalists that run the province. A large section of the NDP’s voter base would have been inspired by this and jumped on board. This could have closed the gap between the two parties. But instead, the NDP has been moving in the complete opposite direction.
The NDP brass have maintained that campaigning too far to the left would alienate the “moderate conservatives”. During the campaign, some in the NDP argued that Notley was the true inheritor of the Progressive Conservative (PC) legacy. The PCs were a ruling class party, the party of Ralph Klein, the hated ex-premier who viciously slashed and gutted the public sector. What is the point of winning on a right-wing basis? It would be better for the NDP to lose fighting for good things, than to win fighting for bad things, or worse in this case, lose fighting for bad things.
The defeat of the NDP is also a condemnation, and hopefully a wake-up call to the labour leaders, who adopted the strategy of “waiting until the election” to deal with the attacks of the UCP. This demonstrates clearly that the working class needs to actively oppose the attacks of the ruling class and right-wing governments immediately. Not tomorrow, not next year, and definitely not in four years in the next election. Waiting passively did nothing for the workers whose jobs were cut or privatized, nothing for the students whose class sizes have only gotten larger, and nothing for the patients who died needlessly in waiting areas of understaffed, underfunded hospitals.
How to fight the UCP and actually win
Despite the majority government of the UCP, their agenda is not inevitable. Working people in Alberta have the ability to alter the course of events and deal this government a defeat.
Anticipating attacks from the UCP, Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) president Gil McGowan wrote, “I expect more of the same nonsense from Smith … so you can expect more of the same constructive and pragmatic lobbying from us.” We must say the truth—this approach is a road to defeat. Thus far, “constructive and pragmatic lobbying” has done nothing to counter the UCP’s attacks. Neither have the legal challenges against UCP legislation the AFL have pushed. The UCP have continued to privatize hospital services piecemeal, and increase the intake of private schools while starving the public sector. Nowhere have we seen unions lobbying a right-wing capitalist government into helping the workers. The only language they will understand is mass action by the workers—demonstrations and picket lines. The coming attacks must be fought with class struggle methods.
The boring, conciliatory politics of the NDP earned them a defeat. The same is true of the “constructive and pragmatic lobbying” of the AFL. If any struggle against the UCP takes the same approach, they should expect the same result. The struggle against the UCP must take to the streets to disrupt the government and prevent them from ruining the province further. Every attack must be met with a proportional response. If public sector workers are threatened with layoffs or wage cuts, they should fight back with strikes, occupations, and mass demonstrations to defend themselves. If the government continues to attack the working class and oppressed, as they have said they would, and as they have been doing for four years now, the labour movement must build to a general strike to bring down the government.
We’ve seen elsewhere in the country that the potential is there for such action. In November of last year, the Doug Ford government used the notwithstanding clause to force a terrible contract on education workers organized with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). In response, CUPE defied back-to-work legislation and went on an illegal strike, and the rest of the rest of the labour movement rallied in support, threatening a general strike. This was enough for Doug Ford to swallow his notwithstanding clause and back-to-work legislation, and return to the bargaining table. Initially, the workers were threatened with absurdly high fines for breaking the law. But once victory had been secured, the threats of fines evaporated. This is a great example of the power of the working class to beat back the attacks of right-wing governments, when this power is not held back by the labour leadership.
Even in Alberta, a general strike against the UCP was on the table in late 2019. The austerity budgets put forward by the UCP pushed the labour movement into action, and at one demonstration, thousands of trade unionists broke out in chants of “General strike! General strike!” Then in the fall of 2020, wildcat strikes broke out in the healthcare sector. This mood of anger has not gone away, and it will need to be focused and mobilized to organize the fight back against this government.
Alberta is in a similar position as it was in 2019. The UCP is preparing to dismantle social services in the province. But the next period will not be the same as the previous. The economic breathing space which fell in Danielle Smith’s lap, thanks to higher oil prices and royalty revenues, is quickly eroding. This will present them with the prospect of serious revenue shortfalls, especially considering the massive tax cuts they’ve given to corporations. But on top of that, the Albertan workers of today are not the same as they were four years ago. They have lived through the UCP’s cuts, and can see the results with their own eyes. There has been a strong desire to fight the UCP which has built up, and not found an outlet. More attacks will fuel this desire, and we will have opportunities to defeat this government on the streets.