Playing the Long Game: Why Merges on Both the Left and Right in Alberta are Ill-Advised

This past week the Wildrose Alliance surprised those that follow Alberta politics when 9 MLAs including leader Danielle Smith crossed the floor to join the governing Progressive Conservatives. While not technically a merger, this significantly reshapes Alberta politics with the Wildrose Alliance going from the official opposition to just one of a handful of small opposition parties with four or five MLAs. While grassroots supporters have indicated a desire to see the party continue, what will happen to it in future elections is unclear. On the left of Alberta politics discussions of a merger of the Liberals and NDP are reasonably common, though the idea has rarely received the support of many elites in either party. The decision to cross the floor made by the Wildrose Alliance seems like a mistake when on takes into account the how politics in Alberta may play out over the long term, as would a merger of the Liberals and the NDP. In the case of the Wildrose Alliance a merger with the Progressive Conservatives denies them an opportunity to become Alberta’s first non-Progressive Conservative in over 40 years. In the case of the Liberals and the NDP, the difficulty of winning government even as a single party mean that a merger carries little benefit.

Before the resignation of Allison Redford as Premier, the Wildrose Alliance looked like they were a very good position to replace the Progressive Conservatives in the 2016 election. Concerns about the way that Redford had spent public money had badly damaged the credibility of the PC government and right-wing Albertans appeared ready to turn to the Wildrose Alliance as a viable conservative alternative to the Redford government. Since coming to power, Jim Prentice has managed to significantly increase support for the PCs. He has the party back in the lead in the polls, and managed to win four by-elections. This may be a sign that the PCs have recovered from the depths of their unpopularity under Redford, but should not be taken as a signal that the Wildrose Alliance would have no chance in the 2016 election. A lot can happen in two years, and as previous Premiers Ed Stelmach and Allison Redford have demonstrated, initial surges in support for a new PC leader do not always hold over the course of that leader’s time in office.

There is a reason that governments do not last forever. In almost every government, scandals build up over time and eventually lead enough people to want to turf the government that an opposition party will be successful. It is rare that a party can govern for multiple terms without making mistakes and without facing at least some cases of government mismanagement. At the federal level the Trudeau, Mulroney, and Chretien/Martin governments certainly saw scandals pile up while they were in office, and it is no coincidence that in each case there was substantial dissatisfaction with the way each Prime Minister ran their government by the time that they left office. This gets worse when a party has been in power for over 40 years. The longer a party stays in power the more likely that the lines the distinguish where the party ends and the civil service begins can become less and less clear. Civil servants who believe that they will never serve a member of a different party are more likely see their own interests as aligned with that of the party in power. What actions are the purview of the civil service and which are the purview of party (and more importantly what money belongs to the government and what money belongs to the party) can start to be confused. Governments can end up starting to use decisions as not-so-subtle ways to attack the opposition. The longer a government is in power, the more likely these dynamics are to lead to scandals. Changing leaders may be able to limit the impact of these scandals in the short term, but over the long-term no government is scandal proof, and it is only so long before Alberta will stop believing that the problem is the PC leader and not the party itself.

One of the reasons the PCs have been able to survive in government for so long is because of the lack of a viable opposition party. The Liberals and the NDP in Alberta simply have not been close enough in ideology or policy to enough Alberta voters to be able to take advantage of frustration with PC governments. The Wildrose Alliance does not suffer from this problem. The party has strong conservative roots that make it an option many PC voters would consider. Given time to moderate its less palatable stances, it could make a strong case to replace the PCs as a party just as conservative but not tarnished by the scandals that have dogged recent PC governments. The fact that most of the grassroots support of the Wildrose Alliance opposes the merger suggests that there is room on Alberta’s political spectrum from more than one conservative party. Given enough time, Albertans may be ready to vote in a party that bills itself as a cleaner version of conservative government. It is unclear as to whether that would happen in 2016 or in a later election, but the record of the last two Conservative leaders who were brought in to “clean house” suggests that the resurgence in support for the PCs will not last forever. By crossing the floor Danielle Smith may have given up on a good shot at becoming Premier in either 2016 or 2020.

Paradoxically, while the potential for the Wildrose Alliance to win gives them an incentive not to merge, the minimal chance that either the Liberals or the NDP might win an election also suggests that they should not merge. The argument is often made that the Liberals and NDP tend to split the non-conservative vote and that, as a result, a merger is necessary in order to allow a party of the centre or left to challenge the PCs. The problem with this argument is that there are probably too many conservative voters in Alberta for even an alliance between the Liberals and NDP to consistently and effectively challenge for government. Not since 1993 has the combined Liberal and NDP vote share exceeded that of the PCs (or PCs/Wildrose Alliance). It is further not a safe assumption that all Liberal and NDP voters would vote for a merged party. Right-wing Liberals might be hesitant to vote for a party that includes New Democrat policies and members and would be substantially to the left of the current Liberal party. Looking at number of votes alone, it is not clear that Liberal/NDP merged party would be able to contest for government. On top of this, the single-member plurality electoral system would give a couple of advantages to the PCs over even a merged Liberal and NDP party. Geographic constraints on how large ridings tend to mean that rural ridings are slightly over-represented in SMP systems, which advantages the conservative parties that are strong in those ridings. In the extreme, Peace River, a riding in Northern Alberta, had just under 19000 eligible voters in the 2008 election while Calgary-West had just over 44000 in the same election. Most ridings are not this different in their popular representation (and Alberta is better than the federal government), but there is a significant discrepancy between the population of most rural ridings and the population of most urban ones. Further, Liberal and NDP support tends to be concentrated in the centre of Edmonton and Calgary. While this means that they are ensured a fair amount of support as small parties under SMP it also makes expansion difficult. A merged party that runs up the score in downtown Edmonton and Calgary would not lead a merged party to government in an SMP system. Overall the prospects of even a joint Liberal/NDP party winning government in Alberta are not good.

The result of these long odds is that a merger between the Liberals and NDP is probably not worth the concessions of some of their values that members of both parties would have to make. It may make sense for voters and for politicians to compromise some of their principles if doing so gives them a greater ability to affect policy change. It does make sense for voters or politicians to make such concessions if doing so only results in a larger and more unified opposition that nonetheless has a limited ability to challenge for government at the best of times. Members of the party and Albertans as a whole further benefit from the increase in the diversity of viewpoints that having independent Liberal and NDP parties allows for. There are substantial differences between the parties at both the elite and voter level and a merger party would be forced to try to hide these differences in the interests of maintaining its cohesion. When the Liberals and NDP remain separate parties they are able to present in much greater breadth the diversity of the opinions of non-conservative Albertans. The expression of this diversity might be something worth trading for an opportunity to govern, but its not worth trading simply for an enlarged opposition.

Mergers are often discussed in single-member plurality systems. Concerns about vote splitting on either side of the political spectrum often give rise to the discussion of mergers. In Alberta the large number of conservative voters makes mergers a mistake. On the right there are probably enough voters, with a diverse enough set of opinions, to make two parties viable. Given the scandal that follows most governments that have been in power half as long as the Alberta PCs, Danielle Smith may have cost herself a chance to be Premier by joining the PCs. On the left, the difficulty even a combined party would have in challenging for government means a merger is probably not worth the compromise in values that each party would have to make. If one is going to lose an election, it is probably worth losing fighting for one’s principles.