The ascent of the NDP in this election is something to be celebrated by all progressives in Alberta rather than simply NDP partisans. There have been few elections in Alberta in recent history when a party running on a progressive platform seemed to be making major gains. It happened for the NDP in 1986 under Ray Martin and the Liberals under Kevin Taft in 2004. In both cases, the leading progressive party had just short of 30 percent of the popular vote but the domination of the right by the Progressive Conservatives translated that huge vote into only 16 seats on both occasions. This time the right appears to be almost equally divided between the Tories and Wildrose and so the NDP’s projected 27 or 28 percent of the vote could translate into as many as a third of all the legislative seats.
Some NDP partisans, thrilled by their party’s gains in public confidence, are advocating that “strategic voting” by progressives should mean voting for the NDP by all progressives in all seats. In fact, such advocacy does not help the NDP cause. If there is a slim chance of an NDP-led majority or minority government after the election, it won’t be dependent on the NDP’s total vote as much as on the NDP’s ability to muster support from a sufficient number of MLAs, NDP and otherwise, in the legislature, to be able to claim the right to govern. Liberal and Alberta Party MLAs will be crucial to the count needed to make Rachel Notley the new premier.
Why? Well, quite simply, though the NDP puts on a brave face about it, the truth is that the party, though better funded than in any election to date, simply cannot afford to run real campaigns in every seat across the province. Indeed they are not running real campaigns in a majority of seats. Even in its stronghold in Edmonton, there are a few seats where the nominated NDP candidate has no campaign organization, no funds, and no plans to campaign. In some of those seats across the province, of course, the truth is that only the Right has strength and there is no progressive candidate with any hope of winning the race. But in others, particularly in Calgary and Edmonton, the Liberals have historic strength and a continuing organization. They will lead the progressive vote but will lose the seat to the Tories or perhaps WR if more than a few percent of voters who normally do not vote NDP choose to do so because, not thinking about which constituency they are in, they think that they are voting strategically as Albertans when they cast their vote for the NDP. In a first-past-the-post system, that’s simply not going to work for them.
Normally, it must be admitted that the NDP is quite relieved when a Tory defeats a Liberal in a seat where the NDP is simply not competitive. The two parties dislike each other during elections because they appeal to many of the same people and have similar policies; each feels that the other is an interloper on its territory. But this time, those who are thinking of voting for the NDP in seats where they are clearly not campaigning, should think of Jack Layton. Layton might have become prime minister briefly before his death (and then Thomas Mulcair afterwards) if the “Orange Crush” had extended only to seats where the NDP had a real shot at winning rather than also extending to seats, especially in southern Ontario, where the NDP was not in contention but took enough votes from the Liberals at the last minute to allow the Tories to slip down the middle. Every polling organization was predicting that the result of the 2012 election could be an NDP-led government, supported by the Liberals, because the Tories were supposed to be denied the majority that they needed to stay in office after both major opposition parties vowed not to work with them in the event that they failed to win a majority. The polls proved wrong and the Tories were able to stay in power with 39 percent of the vote because the funny distribution of the vote gave them a majority of seats. The policies that govern us today at the federal level could have been very different if strategic voters had recognized that the “Orange Crush” actually needed the Reds in Retreat to hold onto seats where the NDP was simply not in a position to make a breakthrough.
In short, Alberta voters, yes, it is the NDP that will be the smart strategic choice in many, many seats. But not everywhere! Using Change Alberta’s advice and perhaps your own intensive research rather than purely your personal preference or your analysis of province-wide trends, you can figure out which progressive candidate–NDP, Liberal, Alberta Party, or Green–is likely to be leading in your constituency. Supporting that candidate creates the best chance of electing a huge number of progressive MLAs on election day, and perhaps giving Alberta the most progressive regime in its history as a province.
Alvin Finkel is the chair of Change Alberta.