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There was a time not that long ago that progressives in Alberta wouldn’t dare criticize NDP Leader Rachel Notley, much less suggest her brand was an impediment to their political success. But after two consecutive election defeats, the last of which was pried from the jaws of potential victory, people are starting to ask some hard questions about the future of her party.
Brian Malkinson, a former Alberta New Democratic Party MLA and leader of a new group called Alberta’s Progressive Future, thinks it’s time for a conversation about changing the NDP’s name. His group commissioned a recent poll showing 12 per cent of respondents are open to voting for the Alberta NDP but don’t at this time, while another 12 per cent aren’t likely to support them but would vote for another centre or centre-left party. Given the recent election could have produced an NDP win with just a few thousand extra votes in Calgary shifting its way, these are consequential numbers.
There’s no question the NDP brand is a drag on the party’s prospects in more conservative places like Calgary or that the federal party’s choices hurt the Alberta wing’s political interests far more often than they help. The national convention held in Edmonton in 2016, when Thomas Mulcair was turfed as leader and the so-called “Leap Manifesto” became a huge flashpoint for debate and controversy, is a case in point on that front.
But said federal party also has a constitution that stipulates “each province of Canada shall have a fully autonomous provincial party, provided its constitution and principles are not in conflict with those of the federal party.” Many NDP members would instinctively resist any attempt to move away from their brand, a group that could easily include Notley (especially in light of her own family's storied connection with the name) and other current party stalwarts. And because the decision about who does and doesn’t qualify as a provincial wing of the party falls to the NDP’s federal council, it’s not hard to see a rebrand leading almost immediately to the re-creation of another “Alberta NDP” — and a huge split in the progressive vote.
Malkinson’s group isn’t proposing a formal severing of ties with the federal party because “there is value in sharing resources such as IT staff and tech infrastructure, plus all involved do have similar political and social views.” But this is like separatists in Alberta or Quebec pretending they get all the benefits from leaving Confederation without any of the attendant costs. In reality, it just doesn’t work that way.
And then, of course, there are the disastrous results of the former BC Liberal Party’s own rebranding exercise, one that sought to disassociate it from its own unpopular federal party. Instead, the new “BC United” party plunged in the polls, saw MLAs cross the floor to an upstart competitor and now finds itself on even footing with the resurgent BC Conservative Party. It's a useful reminder to anyone in Alberta that these sorts of exercises aren’t without risks.
That includes me. In the past I’ve argued a merger of Alberta’s various progressive parties was a good idea and assembling their voters under a new political brand would be a useful exercise. But that’s effectively what happened in the last election, when whatever was left of the Alberta Liberal Party vote all but disappeared and the Alberta Party faded even further into irrelevance. With the latter’s leader having just resigned, it seems clear the fight to unite the non-right has already been won. Engaging in a long conversation about a new political brand would effectively be a rearguard battle that could ultimately divide progressive voters.
Instead, the Alberta NDP must focus all of its attention on finding the right new leader. Notley’s tenure has been a success in many important ways, but the last election showed she isn’t going to be the person to defeat a united conservative movement in Alberta. To do that, the party needs a new leader who’s as comfortable in front of business crowds in Calgary as labour rallies in Edmonton. It needs a leader who can champion the NDP’s accomplishments as a government without being personally associated with the mistakes it made over those four years. And it needs a leader who can grow its appeal and popularity rather than simply reinforcing its existing bases of support.
If Alberta’s Progressive Future wants to help the party win the next provincial election, it should drop the idea of a new name and focus on ensuring the race to select the next leader is as fair and open as possible. It should open the door to as many new voters as possible rather than closing ranks around existing membership. It should press the party for a ballot structure and campaign duration that maximizes deliberation and debate, giving members the best possible opportunity to fully consider their choices.
Is it time for the Alberta NDP to change its name? That's what one former MLA is asking, and it has people talking. But does that conversation miss the political forest for the trees — and avoid the real matter at hand?
Focusing on a new party name misses the forest for the trees here — and risks distracting NDP supporters from the real conversation they need to be having.