Lessons from the Alberta vote

All right, so, now that the scenario that some (apparently many) of us feared, and that all pollsters comfortably, self-assuredly and wrongly predicted, has thankfully failed to materialize, let us see if there are some general lessons that can be learned from the recent provincial election in Alberta, which may be of relevance beyond the immediate impact of the consultation on those who happen to live there.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Alberta is a conservative province; the conservative party has been in power uninterruptedly since 1971. Thus, any shift in public opinion (real or perceived) taking place here, acquires a particular significance, especially to those trying to understand, even at an amateur level, how political consensus is built, retained, and lost.
The comparison with the outcome of the 2008 provincial election pretty much tells the whole story, so significant is the difference between the results of that vote (closely aligned with those of the previous thirty-plus years) and those of last Monday — even though, superficially, one might think that the status quo has been reaffirmed.
In fact, a new course has been taken, and for the traditionally ruling Progressive Conservative (PC) party, it very likely is a path of no return (of course, it is Alberta and therefore one would hardly ever speak of “tsunami”, or anything like that — not yet, anyway).

As usual, the starting point are the raw numbers.
The source is, of course, Wikipedia, specifically here and here.

Party Votes (2012) % (2012) Seats (2012) Votes (2008) % (2008) Seats (2008)
Conservative 567,060 44.0 61 501,063 52.7 72
Wild Rose 442,429 34.3 17 64,407 6.8 0
Liberal Party 127,645 9.9 5 251,158 26.4 9
NDP 126,752 9.8 4 80,578 8.5 2
Others 26,337 2.2 0 53,157 5.6 0
Total 1,290,323 100.0 87 950,363 100.0 83

Now, looking at the seats, one might superficially conclude that this was just another ho-hum Alberta election. After all, what can be surprising about yet another conservative sweep of the legislature, in a conservative province ? But a closer look tells another story [0].
The first, obvious observation is the large increase in the number of Albertans who elected to exercise their democratic right. Voter turnout went from 41% in 2008, to a stunning 57% in 2012. It is clear that this election elicited much more interest among eligible voters than had been seen in decades. Evidently, there must have been a widespread sense that this could be pivotal, that the province could conceivably be at a turning point.
(Incidentally, the unexpectedly high turnout is probably the main reason why all polls were wildly off, as suggested by a commenter in my previous post).

My impression is that most of the almost 350,000 “awakened voters” are politically moderate, slightly right of the centre; a fraction thereof may be newcomers to the province, but for the majority one may wonder why they did not bother to vote before. And the answer is simple — what for ?
The outcome of the election was always all but certain. These voters might have had some reservations with the PC, but generally approved of the overall direction in which the province was headed; maybe they are not very interested in politics, possibly they were not even familiar with the candidates in their riding… eh, why bother, let people who care make the decision.
But on election day, this time, a lot of Albertans felt the need to take the time to head to the polling station, and make the most official possible statement of support for the current, progressive-yet-conservative premier, while distancing themselves from the most radical aspects of conservatism represented by the Wild Rose party — now the official home of those “hard core” Alberta conservatives dissatisfied with the drift toward the centre of the PC.

So, my sense is that most of those who voted on April 23, who had not voted before, voted for the Conservatives. The bulk of the Wild Rose vote is represented by voters who already voted before (for the PC).
I say, the votes of the most conservative part of the Alberta electorate are lost for good, for the PC, as long as the Wild Rose remains in existence.
Alison Redford’s PC is now the home of an emergent majority in Alberta of voters who are centrist, fiscally prudent but maybe not always “conservative”, and socially liberal.
In other words, the PC in Alberta is now what in other provinces, in fact even other countries, may be called Liberal party.

The collapse of the consensus of the Liberal Party is consistent with the above, and mimics what is observed at the national level as well. It is a party going through a deep identity crisis, widely perceived as a formation in the process of being marginalized; its place in the Canadian political landscape is increasingly being occupied by others, both to its left as well as to its right. In this respect, particularly significant in a province like Alberta, is the relatively good showing of the NDP, which has considerably increased its votes.
In fact, while many commenters opined, on the eve of the election, that a lot of “strategic voting” would take place, as moderates would coalesce behind the PC for the sole purpose of preventing the Wild Rose from rising to power, in fact there seems to have been little or none of that. People voted largely based on their conscience; it seems hardly surprising that a lot of liberal Albertans opted to support Alison Redford’s PC, instead of voting for a Liberal Party led by a former PC… [1].

I shall end with two considerations. The first, is that Alberta is not as conservative as it is often portrayed. This election has shown that, while a third of the electorate certainly supports an uncompromisingly conservative approach to government, the majority of the province holds more pragmatic, moderate views. Contrary to popular belief, and official pronouncements from provincial leaders notwithstanding, these views are not systematically excluded from government policies; this is because the province as a whole is a much more complex and interesting animal than an outsider might think [2].
The second remark is the following: this election reminds all of us once again that there is no such a thing as a two-party system — a move to the centre costs votes. The leader of a political party contemplating such a move, in hope of attracting the votes of the centrist electorate, had better do her math right and be sure that votes from the centrist part of the electorate compensate for the inevitable loss of votes from the disenfranchised core constituency.
It is a gamble that paid off for Alison Redford, who lost almost three hundred thousand votes (a quarter of the electorate) to the Wild Rose, but still managed to pull off a win anyway. Then again, this is Alberta, a province with a large basin of voters right-of-centre.
Would the same gamble pay off for, say, the new federal NDP leader, if he tried to do the same ? After all, in order for things to do badly, there need not be a new leftist party challenging an overly centrist NDP — all that it takes is for many dissatisfied NDP voters to stay home on election date.

Notes

[0] Of course, I cannot forget my pet peeve: the 61 seats assigned to the conservatives are the usual aberration of the winner-take-all electoral system. In a fair world, one in which the number of seats won is proportional to the overall percentage of votes garnered across the province, the PC would have something like 38 seats, six short of the majority.
This would be enough to form a minority government, but the premier would simply have to seek each time the support of either the Wild Rose (which should rightfully be assigned 30 seats) or the Liberals (which really deserve 8-9 seats). And that would be perfectly fair — why should Alison Redford, like her federal counterpart, count on a comfortable majority in the legislative assembly, when her party does not enjoy such a majority across the province ?

[1] The crisis of the Liberal Party, a crisis which in my opinion is truly ideological, cannot simply be ascribed to the lack of an effective leader. If anything, the fact that the Liberal leader in Alberta is a former conservative, while the leader at the national level is a former NDP, is symptomatic of a worrisome lack of ideas. It is a crisis that worries a left-leaning individual like me, because it provides a strong incentive to the left-wing opposition (the NDP) to move to the centre, essentially co-opting the Liberals. I have already expounded in previous posts (this one is the most recent) why I would not be happy with that evolution, and so I shall not repeat myself here.

[2] My favorite reference is Against the Grain, by Catherine Ford.

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