*With apologies to W. P. Kinsella (for ‘borrowing’ and misquoting “If you build it, he will come”)
I’ve now heard or read a dozen plus politicians, former politicians, wannabe politicians, commentators and politically savvy folks of all stripes, note that the right outpolled the NDP, 52% to 41%. The right, of course, is the PC’s and the Wildrose combined. This point is made variously by those advocating that the right unite and by others who advance any case based on the point that the right remains bigger than the left in Alberta.
All of this, while entirely predictable, is entirely wrong. Life, and in this case voting, just isn’t that simple. And it’s not the math that’s hard here, as 28% and 24% do indeed add up to 52%, it’s just that 28% and 24% don’t add up to 52% at the polls. That’s because the PC’s and the Wildrose aren’t accurate proxies for “the right”.
The argument, even on its face, is preposterous. The “right” has spent 3 years, 6 years, longer than that really, telling anyone who would listen that the PC’s are not right wingers and, indeed, they’re really more like liberals. Suggesting, then, that the PC’s bring 28% worth of “the right” to the equation strikes me as, what’s the word . . . ? Wrong.
Look, let’s start with reality. The election we just lived through was extraordinary. While previous PC voters, in significant numbers, voted NDP, the bigger shocker is that a meaningful number of folks who voted Wildrose in 2012, voted NDP in 2015. That explains how ridings where the NDP base was 10%, went NDP at 50%. So does that mean that right wingers voted for socialism? That those Wildrose voters weren’t actually all that right wing in the first place? Or that they were right wing, but became socialists over the last three years? I suppose any of these scenarios are possible (though converting to socialism strikes me as least likely), but for the most part that’s not what happened.
Many, if not most, of those voters simply voted to get rid of the PC’s in 2015. And many of them were voting with exactly the same motivation in mind in 2012. That is, they aren’t NDP today and they weren’t Wildrose in 2012. They were anti-PC both times. The obvious implication is that ideology took a back seat – both times – to a basic belief that the PC’s had to go. The two unifying features were, first, that the PC’s had to go and, second, that voting Wildrose (in 2012) and NDP (in 2015) was the best way to get rid of them.
Now I’m not going to delve into why the PC’s had to go. The short answer is that “the reason” was different and varied for disparate groups of voters, but after 44 years tension builds up, mistakes get made, and remade, and people want a change.
The takeaway is that the ideology based premise is fundamentally flawed. The “right” didn’t get 52% because neither the PC’s nor even the Wildrose are proxies for the “right”. If you believe in a spectrum, be clear that voters span it in all parties. But in reality, most voters aren’t driven by ideology, whichever party they are in. While some are driven by ideology, I’d argue that larger numbers are tribal (meaning they vote for their party, regardless of the current platform) and that increasingly voters are going with their gut, their intuition, to vote for the party, and by that I really mean leader, with whom they feel the most comfortable.
There may be more ideological voters in the NDP and Wildrose than in the other parties, and the PC’s, liberals and NDP may have decades-old tribal followings, but increasingly that is not what drives voters. Voters decide based on which leader they perceive as being the best for them, their families, their community, right now. Who seems more genuine? More trustworthy? More competent? If it’s close, the tiebreak is ‘who is more likable’?
People vote based on who they perceive cares about the issues most important to them. Their job, healthcare, education. Not who promises to build more schools, but who they believe will make the right decisions to better educate their children. Does that mean more schools; more teachers? Perhaps those are proxies, but if they don’t believe you can get it done or, worse yet, that you don’t intend to get it done, you have no shot. Integrity and competence matter – and they should.
“Uniting the right” is appealing because it sounds easy. It avoids the hard work. But it can’t be done. Oh, you can try, if that’s what members in both parties decide to do, but I’d suggest that the results won’t be what people expect. However you slice it, combining the two parties doesn’t result in 52% — not by a long shot.
That’s why I don’t believe it will happen. In the end the PC’s will work to renew, rebuild and try to earn their way to power. As will the Wildrose. It won’t be easy, particularly for the PC’s. The NDP and the Wildrose will not agree on much, but they’ll almost certainly agree on changing campaign financing to benefit the NDP/Wildrose parties and disadvantage the PC’s. They’ll agree that the accumulated mistakes and misdeeds from 40+ years in power need to be exposed and condemned and they’ll agree that the PC’s are dead and should be buried. Rebuilding will be hard, so hard in fact that the outcome is far from certain.
But what I am sure of is that people want leadership. They want competence, vision, leading by actions, not words, and they want integrity. They want leadership. And not just by the Leader – by MLA’s, political staff, candidates, party officers, party staff and even volunteers.
The party that offers that – whether in government or from the opposition, will succeed. It starts with leadership, which draws others – compels others – to join the cause. Candidates, organizers, volunteers, fundraisers, all brought together by genuine leadership.
Peter Lougheed spent a couple years of his life crisscrossing the province, listening to people who knew what they were talking about, building support, recruiting candidates and preparing to govern. It came at a high personal cost – his kids were young – but he did it anyway. People had a sense that when the chips were down, Lougheed would do the right thing. He went from nothing to six seats, to a massive majority, in two elections. Now don’t get me wrong, Premier Lougheed wasn’t a saint. He wasn’t above politics – a notable example being that rather than engaging his Alberta opponents, he ran steadfastly against Trudeau, again and again, because it worked. But at base, Lougheed won repeatedly because he was a leader.
There are lessons there for all of us. Build a party worth supporting and the support will be there – and it really doesn’t matter whether it’s PC, Wildrose, NDP, Liberal, the Alberta Party or the next iteration of a Party to be named later. But build it right. No excuses, or half measures. On every issue, search for the solution to the problem. Go with what you find. Make every situation better. Tell the truth. Keep your promises. Don’t shy away from making a tough decision. And above all else, ignore what you think will be popular and what people want to hear. It might not work in the end, but it might, and wouldn’t it be fun to find out?
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