Braid: Notley tries to keep opposition united behind NDP as poll shows support falling

How the NDP can fare through a leadership campaign and then with a new, untried leader is a huge question for the party.

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The Alberta NDP faces a dangerous moment. Just as a leadership contest starts ramping up, public support is falling.

According to a new survey by Leger, 50 per cent of Albertans would vote for the UCP right now, and only 43 per cent for the NDP.

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The polling was done before Leader Rachel Notley announced she’ll quit when a new leader is chosen.

How the NDP can fare through a leadership campaign and then with a new, untried leader is a huge question for the party.

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Since the election last May, polling twists have shown instability in NDP support.

In September 2023, the UCP was 10 points ahead. A month later the parties were virtually tied in the mid-40 per cent range.

It was a specular gain for the NDP, likely caused by the UCP’s all-out campaign to sell its unpopular provincial pension plan.

Now the gap has widened again in favour of the UCP. Premier Danielle Smith’s government is close to the holy grail of majority support.

NDP support ebbs and flows with public views on specific issues, especially when Smith sends up one of her quirkier trial balloons.

But the polling trend for nearly three years has been NDP flatlining in the mid-40 range, while the UCP gradually rises.

The NDP has to stay strong and relevant without Notley. It may somehow do that with a leader picked from a cluster of relative unknowns, or a star candidate from outside. Any political surprise seems possible in this province.

Another possibility is that the NDP begins to fade, like many Alberta opposition parties that surge only to fall back again.

The provincial Liberals, who won 32 seats in 1993 and then gradually declined over later elections, are the classic example.

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Last year they got 0.2 per cent of the popular vote. Most Liberal sympathizers surely went to Notley’s party.

Rachel Notley
Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley addresses NDP senior members and delegates at the 2023 Provincial Council Meeting, in Edmonton Saturday Oct. 21, 2023. David Bloom/Postmedia file

If the NDP begins to founder, other small parties could rise again in opposition to the UCP. Conservatives love that fractured scenario.

We have to go back to 1971, when the PCs first won under Peter Lougheed, to find an example of an opposition party overturning a government (Social Credit in that case) and then winning again.

That fight was between a tired, ancient version of conservatism and a new, dynamic progressive brand. Within two elections, the PCs had wiped out Social Credit.

By claiming her party is solidly installed as Alberta’s government-in-waiting, Notley is defining her legacy, trying to convince her followers and hoping to keep opposition united within the NDP.

This seems more important to her than recalling the remarkable election victory of 2015.

She’s right, strategically. The NDP must be seen as the natural alternative. By the numbers, the party really is stronger than ever.

But entrenched weakness lurks in the background.

In 2015, the Progressive Conservatives under the late Jim Prentice ran their worst campaign ever.

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Notley’s campaign was flawless. Prentice’s attempt to absorb Wildrose proved a spectacular flop. The NDP managed to win a clear majority of seats with only 40 per cent of the popular vote.

Almost immediately, conservatives set about uniting. It was not pretty, but they did it.

Two elections since have shown the UCP can win even after bitter internal divisions, a leadership campaign dominated by Alberta sovereignty and Smith’s own peccadillos.

Now there’s stress within the NDP. Some people want a quick campaign with the usual interest groups wielding heavy influence. Others prefer a more open contest and widespread membership sales.

David Parker, the Take Back Alberta chief, promises trouble by urging his arch-conservative followers to buy NDP memberships and swamp the socialists.

He also wants everyone at Elections Alberta fired, alleging corruption, and says Smith isn’t doing enough to end electronic voting.

Those are just minor hints that, once again, the greatest risk to Alberta conservatives might come from Alberta conservatives.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

X: @DonBraid

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