On Oct. 6, the United Conservative Party (UCP) will have a new leader and Alberta a new premier. The Alberta ruling class is hoping that the result of the UCP leadership race will bring the political stability they sorely need to weather a turbulent economy and prepare the party for the May 2023 election. After the spectacularly tumultuous past several years under Jason Kenney, where the UCP trailed behind the NDP in polls, a new leader—anyone but Jason Kenney—must seem like a godsend for the ruling class and the right wing. It is true that there has been a reversal in the polls since Jason Kenney’s (non)resignation. But the leadership race shows anything but stability and unity in the party. Regardless of the Oct. 6 result, the UCP is in a precarious situation. Whoever wins the leadership race will have to navigate a very fractured party through the stormy sea of capitalist crisis. 

It wasn’t that long ago that the Tories were rejoicing at their newly found unity. The Progressive Conservatives (PCs) and the Wildrose Party ended their bitter rivalry and came together to form the UCP and unseat the Alberta NDP (ANDP) from power. Champagne glasses were overflowing. The UCP was supposed to usher in another decades-long Conservative dynasty. But the recent removal of Jason Kenney and the ensuing bitterly contested leadership race betray the old fissures in the conservative movement. There is the historic division between Red and Blue Tories, but as the crisis of capitalism continues to deepen this has really been transformed in the recent period into a growing rift between the more traditional, establishment conservatism and right populism. 

In fact, the old fissures have always been there, festering like old wounds and merely papered over with a thin veneer of wishful thinking. The victory over the NDP and the old comforts of power were enough at first to allow conservatives to look past any differences. But with the coming of the storm, in the form of economic crisis and the pandemic, the slightest gust of wind now exposes the old fissures for everyone to see. And what a spectacle! The UCP was in turmoil and mired in scandal after scandal. Jason Kenney was in freefall, dragging the whole party down with him. Internal revolt broke out in his caucus. Not even a surplus budget could save him.

Danielle Smith resurrected

Seven candidates in the UCP leadership race are now vying to be the next premier of Alberta. The race might look crowded, but in reality it is a race between the old establishment conservatives and the populist Wildrose wing. Travis Toews represents the former, while both Danielle Smith and Brian Jean represent the latter to one extent or another. The other campaigns have been largely irrelevant and the candidates seem to be mostly hoping for a miracle.

At the moment Danielle Smith is leading the pack. Her political comeback has been an improbable story, one that truly irks her fellow former Wildrose colleague Brian Jean. As the leader of the Wildrose Party in 2014, which was the official opposition at the time, Smith defected with the majority of her caucus to join Jim Prentice’s governing Progressive Conservatives. This was the first time in Canadian political history that a leader of the official opposition had crossed the floor to join the government. And it was Brian Jean who was left to pick up the pieces. He did just that, and much more. While Smith and her newly found political home in the Progressive Conservative party were reduced to nine seats in the 2015 election and handed the NDP the reins of power for the first time in history, Brian Jean’s Wildrose Party won 21 seats to become the official opposition. 

When the PCs and the Wildrose Party merged in 2017, it seemed perhaps obvious that the leader of the larger of the two parties should have become the leader. But Brian Jean was cheated out of his destiny to be the next premier when the much shrewder Jason Kenney swooped in from outside to take over the UCP. Kenney was parachuted in from the federal Conservative Party, bringing with him star power and solid conservative credentials. Demoralized by their historic loss to the NDP in the conservative heartland of the country, the conservatives in Alberta were desperate for a saviour. For a time, Kenney was able to play this role. 

With Kenney’s resignation, Jean confidently began to campaign to become the next premier as he returned to provincial politics winning a byelection. At first, he seemed to be the clear front-runner to replace Kenney. Just a few months later though and it seems that he will be denied his destiny again as Danielle Smith, seemingly against all odds, has emerged as the clear front runner. Jean has complained bitterly in relation to the emergence of the Smith campaign, saying that “I cleaned up Danielle’s mess last time. People are forgetting that, I think. I can hardly believe it.”

Danielle Smith is not only leading the race, but her campaign has received the most enthusiastic support amongst UCP members. The fact that all the other candidates are practically united in their attacks against Smith, along with the ANDP, truly shows who is the front runner in this race. But the more Smith is attacked by her enemies from all sides, the more resolute her supporters become, and the more popular she becomes.  

When Smith crossed the floor to join the PC government, it seemed like an unforgivable sin. In fact, Smith’s name was mud in conservative circles in Alberta, especially in the Wildrose camp but also among PC supporters. The same night that Jean won the Wildrose leadership in March 2015 to replace Smith, was the same night that Smith lost a PC nomination vote. People cheered louder for her loss than they did for Jean’s victory.

There is usually no coming back from such political betrayal and blunder. But we are living in unprecedented times. Didn’t the good Lord say, “For I will be merciful and gracious toward their wickedness, and I will remember their sins no more”? And thus, the very people who threw insults at her for her betrayal then are now the very people who shower her with much love and devotion. It now seems that the UCP has found their new saviour in their prodigal daughter, Danielle Smith. 

Smith had learned much from her mistake of moderating to the centre, and this informs her current policy. She is taking a page from the right-wing populist playbook of our current epoch, following in the footsteps of Trump and Poilievre. She is abandoning the so-called centre, which is rapidly disappearing, and skillfully cultivating the rapidly growing anti-establishment sentiments. In Alberta, this anti-establishment sentiment is expressed mainly through Western alienation. 

Alberta Sovereignty Act

Western alienation has been a fixture in Alberta politics. It is deep rooted in the history of how the Prairie provinces joined Confederation. In the past period, the Conservatives have been cynically using Western alienation to shift the focus from the crisis of Alberta capitalism away to the east, to the federal government. Through the distorted lens of Western alienation, the hardship that Alberta workers experience is portrayed as not being due to the crisis of capitalism in Alberta, but due to the unjust treatments imposed on them by Ottawa. This includes everything from equalization payments to the question of pipeline construction. According to this narrative, it is greedy bureaucrats in Ottawa and the lazy Quebecois who are siphoning the wealth of hard-working Albertans to pay for their generous social services, not the parasitic oil barons headquartered in Calgary who siphon wealth to pay for their luxurious yachts and opulent lifestyle. Western alienation has therefore been a convenient and effective tool of the ruling class to divide the Canadian working class and cut across the class struggle in Alberta. 

As a main plank of her campaign, Danielle Smith has proposed what she dubs the Alberta Sovereignty Act. In this proposal, she is advocating something that none of her fellow conservative politicians would ever dare: to openly defy the rule of law. The Act, if passed, would allow the Alberta government to refuse to enforce any federal law that it believes to be against the province’s interests. What she means of course are the interests of Alberta capitalists, primarily the oil barons. Even premier Jason Kenney has called it a “banana republic-style” proposal. Brian Jean has mocked it as a “fairy tale”. Travis Toews in his National Post op-ed decried it as “job-killing economic chaos” and “politically dangerous”.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, the tendency toward economic protectionism has been picking up pace as nations, and even jurisdictions within the same nation-state such as the Canadian provinces, seek to protect the interest of their own local capitalists at the expense of others. Trump’s “America First”, Brexit and various crises in the European Union, and the US-China trade war are but a few of the more glaring examples of this tendency. In Canada, the tensions between the provinces and the federal government, and between the provinces themselves, are becoming more and more unbearable. It reached a point where trade wars were fought between the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. 

With her Alberta Sovereignty Act, Danielle Smith is simply taking the Western alienation sentiment and the sharpening inter-provincial tensions to its logical, and absurd, conclusion. While her Conservative colleagues have been merely phrase-mongering about the oppression Albertans suffer under the domination of Ottawa and the East, she is showing to her base that she will not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk—constitutionality be damned. That is what worries the establishment. It is not so much the content of the Act itself that scares the establishment, but the spirit that it represents: an anti-establishment populist sentiment amongst the UCP voters, that encourages people to break any laws that are deemed unjust. “Politically dangerous,” said Toews of this proposal. But for Danielle Smith the Sovereignty Act is the only way she can draw a line of demarcation between her and the other leadership candidates, especially Brian Jean.

Recently, Alberta Justice Minister Tyler Shandro announced that he would not enforce the federal government’s firearms buyback program. This move has been applauded by conservatives of all stripes, including those who have been crying foul about Smith’s Act. Smith was quick to point out this inconsistency. “I had to do a bit of a double take. It sounded an awful lot like the Sovereignty Act,” quipped Smith. This goes to show that the establishment conservatives are not in principle against defying the federal government and its law. They just want to do it on their own terms, within the “proper” channels that they can control. But the populist anti-establishment current that is driving the Alberta Sovereignty Act is too unpredictable.

For decades conservative politicians have been stoking the flames of Western alienation in the interest of the Alberta oil barons. But they sought to never let those flames get out of control. The establishment is now very concerned, as Smith is playing with a fire that they fear they will not be able to put out. The establishment conservatives are ready to exploit the anti-Ottawa sentiment, just enough to dupe the masses and win some concessions from Ottawa. However, decades of anti-Ottawa rhetoric have convinced many conservative voters that the problem lies with the federal government and their unjust rule of law, which is always to the detriment of Alberta and always in favour of Ontario and Quebec, and they are now looking for a leader who is not just posturing but ready to do whatever it takes, even if that means provoking a constitutional crisis and undermining the rule of law. This is the case of chickens coming home to roost. 

The chorus against Smith’s Sovereignty Act is deafening. Rachel Notley has also joined this chorus, but her condemnation does not separate her at all from the establishment conservatives. In fact, they all come from the same place: the so-called political centre. Notley is merely echoing the same argument that Smith’s Sovereignty Act will “chase away investment and job creation” and that it is unconstitutional and illegal. In other words, she is arguing from the point of view of capitalism and the establishment. As an alternative, Notley promises that when in power the NDP government will “stand up for the rights of Albertans within Confederation”. This is not fundamentally different from the mainstream conservative line. Travis Toews spoke of “strengthen[ing] Alberta within Canada” by proposing “a strategic, practical and, most importantly, achievable plan … to push back on federal intrusion”. Instead of explaining the root of the capitalist crisis, 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 problem is not where Alberta as a province stands within the Confederation. This federal-provincial jurisdictional wrangling only serves as a smokescreen for the capitalist contradictions that are at the root of the problems that the Alberta working class is facing today. Workers everywhere are now being asked to pay for the crisis. Instead of explaining the capitalist contradictions and putting forward a socialist program that can give answers to the genuine sentiments of Western alienation amongst the working class, Notley and her reformist colleagues are content to tinker with this or that aspect of capitalism.

Smith spoke of the need for Alberta to be granted the status of “a nation within a nation”. Like Quebec, she wants Alberta to collect its own taxes, have its own police forces, its own immigration protocol, and its own pension plan. The idea that is being peddled to the workers is that with more jurisdictional reach for the provincial government, Alberta workers will be more prosperous, that they can escape the brunt of capitalist crisis. However, as long as the capitalists and the oil barons are still in power and possess the main levers of the economy, the state apparatus and all its functions—taxation, police, immigration, pension plans, etc.—will be administered to suit their interests and will do little to help Alberta workers. The billions of dollars collected by Alberta’s own tax department will be used to bail out the capitalists. A new provincial police force, the Sûreté de l’Alberta, will be used to break up strikes and demonstrations. Alberta’s immigration policy will be used to bring in cheap labor, and just like in Quebec it will be used to stoke racism. An Alberta pension plan would be under constant attacks.  

Western alienation is real amongst the Alberta working class. There is a progressive content in it: a class-hatred against Bay Street, against the Toronto bankers and financiers who are amassing great wealth at the expense of Alberta’s natural resources, against sharp-suited, out-of-touch politicians in Ottawa who impose taxes and red tape. But without a socialist alternative, this genuine sentiment has been manipulated by the conservative politicians, and now by Danielle Smith. Socialists must reject the Alberta Sovereignty Act, but on our own terms. We reject it not because it is unconstitutional or that it will chase away investments, but because it distracts workers from the root of the problem: capitalism. 

Politics of Fear and Anger

Mainstream political pundits, the establishment media, and establishment conservative politicians are all united in admonishing Smith’s campaign as one which is fueled with rage, that her supporters are simply informed by anger. Many on the left have also tagged along in this attack, portraying Smith’s supporters as nothing more than angry privileged white males. But the crisis of capitalism is destroying an ever-greater number of lives each day. The oil crash, the pandemic, and run-away inflation are increasingly pushing workers into poverty. People who are losing their jobs and livelihoods are rightfully angry and filled with rage at the status quo. Smith is tapping into this sentiment successfully. 

Brian Jean in his most recent interview said he feels Smith’s current support is driven by party members “who want to talk about blowing things up. They want things to happen even if they’re chaotic, even if they don’t work. That’s what worries me about what’s happening in this vote.” Jean was not entirely wrong in his observation. In today’s world, there are an increasing number of people who want to tear down the status quo, which has done nothing for them but inflict hardship. 

It is this rage against the status quo that catapulted the NDP to power in 2015. But under the pressure of bourgeois public opinion the NDP has abandoned this rage so they can appear “respectable”—respectable to the ruling class and the oil barons. Lacking a clear socialist alternative from the left, some of that rage is being channeled into right-wing populism. Working people are looking for a radical solution to their problems. Finding nothing on the left, some will swing to the right and fall for all sorts of conspiracy theories. When left activists are ridiculing these conspiracy theories, they are in reality ridiculing their own impotence to inspire the working class.

This is why Notley’s reformism is no match for Danielle Smith should she win this race. Smith is able to enthuse her base in a way that no other centre-right (establishment conservatives) or center-left (NDP) politicians could their own base. It was not long ago that the ANDP inspired the same enthusiasm by promising to raise oil royalties and make the oil barons pay. The party has since moderated its stance and moved to the centre, abandoning all talk of raising royalties.

Instability everywhere

A Smith-led UCP could lose the upcoming election in one of two ways. The first way: the establishment conservative wing could split away, especially if Smith pushes forward with her proposed Alberta Sovereignty Act. This would likely mean a repeat of the 2015 election, with the NDP winning the election because of the split conservative vote. The ruling class could be alarmed enough at the prospect of a right-wing populist, anti-establishment maverick that they have little control over, leading the province into uncharted waters that they would prefer to lose the election and have the more reliable social democrats in power. History has demonstrated time and time again, that having the social democrats in power during a crisis can be useful for the capitalists. Reformist social democrats can appease the working class and make austerity more palatable—or at least disorient the working class enough to allow austerity measures to be implemented with little opposition. Even if this is not possible, the social democrats will take the blame for the crisis and austerity, such as Bob Rae’s Ontario NDP government did in the 1990s. Besides, the oil barons in Alberta have learned from the experience of the previous NDP government that the social democrats are always ready to be subservient to their class interests. 

But this scenario is not without its own risks. The defeat of the much-hated UCP could boost working class confidence and spark a mass movement that not even the reformist leaders could control. Furthermore, if Smith was seen by her supporters to be sabotaged by the establishment conservatives, this could further entrench her hold over the wider conservative movement as it drifts towards an increasingly angry populism. The ruling class could completely lose control over their political machinery, much like what is happening now with the U.S. Republican Party with Trump practically controlling it. This could only prepare for a bigger political convulsion in the future.

This brings us to the second way that the Smith-led UCP can be genuinely defeated. It involves mass mobilization of the workers equipped with a socialist program. Alberta’s brand of Trumpism cannot be defeated with reformism or liberalism. It cannot be defeated by appealing to the status quo. As society becomes more polarized, the so-called political centre is rapidly losing ground. A labour movement that wages class war with a socialist program would erode Smith’s base. It would readily expose the hollowness of her right-wing demagogy. 

Danielle Smith’s victory in this leadership race is not a certainty yet. While she might command a lead on the first ballot, it is still possible that she loses on subsequent ballots because of the ranked balloting system. This is looking increasingly unlikely now that she is pulling far ahead of her competitors, but it remains a possibility. But even if Smith is defeated in this leadership race, and though this might provide some relief to the establishment wing, it does not remove the material basis for the rise of right-wing populism—which is the crisis of capitalism and the resulting polarization of society. It is capitalism itself, capitalism in crisis, that begets reactionary demagogues like Danielle Smith.

What is clear is that political and economic stability in Alberta is far from guaranteed after the leadership race. Regardless of who wins the race, they will inherit a very fractured party governing in a time of deep crisis. Even if the winner can patch up some unity to defeat the NDP in the upcoming election, this unity will unravel very quickly as it did under Jason Kenney. The UCP and the government will enter into another crisis. There is simply no more room for stability under capitalism today, and this is reflected in the instability of the preferred political party of the ruling class. Turbulence, and more turbulence, lies ahead. Take heed!