Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Alberta NDP in better shape as Mason resigns, but far from glory days

There are now two leadership races taking place in the province of Alberta. While Jim Prentice's apparent intention to run for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party has made national headlines, Brian Mason's resignation yesterday as leader of the Alberta New Democrats was somewhat quieter. Both leadership vacancies are for parties who have seen better days, but unlike the case of the Tories, Mason is handing the party over to his successor in better shape than it was when he took over.

The chart below shows the electoral results of the Alberta New Democrats going back to their first election in the province under that name. It shows that Brian Mason has been the most successful of the post-1993 leaders of the New Democrats, but was never able to get the party into the same position that Grant Notley and Ray Martin had placed it in the 1980s.

Under the party's first leader, Neil Reimer, the NDP took 9.5% of the vote but was kept out of the legislature in 1963. The NDP's vote share increased to 16% in 1967, but the number of seats won by the party remained at zero.

Grant Notley was not able to improve upon Reimer's 1967 performance in terms of vote share until his fourth and final election in 1982, when he captured 18.8% of the vote and won two seats. Nevertheless, his tenure saw constant improvement for the party. Notley passed away in 1984 in a plane crash (Into the Abyss, by Carol Shaben, gives a good account of the crash and the story of survival of some of its passengers, including PC MLA Larry Shaben, the author's father).

The Alberta New Democrats hit their peak in 1986, when under Ray Martin the NDP captured 29.2% of the vote, won 16 seats, and formed the Official Opposition. Though his vote share dropped to 26.3% in 1989, the NDP did retain their 16 seats and their role in the legislature.

But the results of the 1993 election foreshadowed the pasting that the NDP would receive in the federal election held later that year, as the NDP was shutout of the Legislative Assembly and reduced to just 11% of the vote. The Liberals formed the Official Opposition, coming to within five points of the PCs. Despite the disastrous showing of the NDP, however, that 11% has yet to be surpassed by subsequent leaders Pam Barrett, Raj Pannu, and Brian Mason.

Barret and Pannu were able to win two seats for the party in 1997 and 2001, but in both cases the NDP remained at under 9% support.

Brian Mason's first election in 2004 was the best performance for the party since 1993 in terms of votes and since 1989 in terms of seats. The NDP captured 10.2% of the vote and won four seats. This would be Mason's best performance as leader, however, as the party dipped to 8.5% and two seats in 2008 before improving to 9.9% and four seats in the last election in 2012.

Ranking Mason in the pantheon of Alberta NDP leaders is tricky. Of the six, he ranks fourth in terms of average vote share in elections under his leadership. Martin places first with an average of 22.2%, followed by Notley at 14.7% and Reimer at 12.8%. Mason averaged 9.5%, better than either Barrett's or Pannu's one and only showings.

But in terms of average seat wins, Mason actually ranks second with an average of 3.3 seats per election. That is far behind Martin's average of 10.7 seats, but puts him ahead of Pannu and Barrett at two each, Notley at 1.3, and Reimer at zero. Overall, that would seem to rank Mason as the Alberta NDP's second or third best leader of the last 50 years.

Looking forward, the polls since the 2012 election (while the polls did miss the PC/Wildrose swing, they did measure NDP support accurately) have been better for the New Democrats.

Since the election, the NDP has never registered less than double-digits in any poll, and have generally recorded between 12% and 15% support (on average, the NDP has been at 13.7% in polls carried out since the last election). While this is far from the Martin glory days, it puts the New Democrats back to where they were under Notley in the 1970s.

The New Democrats still have their pocket of support in Edmonton, where the party tends to poll in second or third place. Since the 2012 vote, the party has averaged 21.2% support in the city. This compares quite favourably to the 9.2% support averaged in Calgary and the 12% in the rest of the province.

So the next leader of the Alberta New Democrats should have reasonable hopes to put up the party's best numbers since 1989 in the next election. If the campaign goes well, and Prentice (or whoever takes over the Alberta PCs) fails to turn the governing party around, the NDP could also reasonably hope to win more seats in Edmonton and potentially elsewhere. Some scenarios when Alison Redford was polling at her lowest even suggest the NDP could form the Official Opposition to a Wildrose government.

The next leader of the NDP will need to build a higher profile than Mason, however. Despite leading the party for a decade, Mason still averaged 32% "unsures" on approval rating questions, slightly higher than relative newcomer Raj Sherman of the Liberals (30%) and significantly higher than either Danielle Smith (17%) or Alison Redford (10%). And of those who did have an opinion of him, that opinion was split: 34% approval to 33% disapproval, on average, since the 2012 vote. A new leader who can build more personal popularity may, then, be able to make some significant gains.

The scale and stakes of the job are certainly smaller than the one Jim Prentice is targeting. But the next leader of the NDP can come to the role with optimism. That is a far cry from the difficult task facing the next leader of the Alberta PCs, whether it be a saviour like Prentice or not.

29 comments:

  1. I can't agree that the number of seats won is the fairest way to determine the "best leader" of the NDP (or any other party) - even when limiting the parameters of the discussion to statistics. Reimer's vote share was significantly better than Mason's but it's surely not his fault that (with FPTP) those results didn't convert to any seats.

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    1. That is why I mentioned both vote share and seats. One might argue that a leader that gets a higher vote share but doesn't take steps to maximize the potential to win seats has made an error in leadership.

      FPTP is an odd system, but the results aren't exactly accidental. The Greens won their first seat in 2011 because they stopped trying to run a national campaign. May took less of the vote in 2011 than Jim Harris did in 2006, but no one would argue that Harris was a better leader than May.

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    2. fair points...

      your comment suggests another possible disadvantage of FPTP, which is that it encourages a regional or local focus to the detriment of national - one possible result being increased fragmentation of the nation rather than unity

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    3. FPTP and Parliament are designed for local representation. The "national" aspect to both only occurs when Parliament assembles.

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  2. ""but doesn't take steps to maximize the potential to win seats has made an error "

    have to agree Eric. The first and foremost task of any political leader has to be to gain seats. Because with our Parliamentary system that becomes the absolute necessity.

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    1. ... if your intention is (merely) to (someday) win an election, but another approach is to think of the polital/election process as a way to promote policies, in which case the first and foremost task of a political leader should be to agitate on a national level for those policies, rather than for the narrower goal of gaining seats.

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    2. Well that is the philosophy of the NDP and it is cold comfort and not much consolation for a party that has only won election in four provinces and then only sporadically (even in Saskatchewan).

      Parties contest elections to win seats and gain power so they can implement their policies. Parties that are not consistently competitive will see their implement policies removed. Hence, the Agricultural Land Reserve in BC is being eroded or the Long Gun Registry repealed. In short their legislative achievements are soon repealed.

      Of course political parties to be successful need both short and long-term strategies but, if a party or leader's main goal is to promote a policy without winning election they have already lost. Governments implement policies opposition parties except in rare circumstances do not.

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    3. The NDP has won in 5 provinces.

      Saskatchewan
      Manitoba
      B.C.
      Ontario
      Nova Scotia

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    4. Carbonear (NF?) Pete, It's not cold comfort if the policies you wish to implement are implemented regardless of your party's never attaining power - which has quite famously been the case with such CCF/NDP policies as unemployment insurance, medicare (on a national level), etc.

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    5. Knownothingsk, Right you are.

      chirumenga,

      If that's what you believe and it makes you happy then so be it. To me it does not make sense because if all the NDP wants to do is influence governing elites why are they a political party instead of strictly a social movement or lobby group?

      Secondly, from what I remember from University the beginnings of UI or EI began just after WWI long before the CCF came into being and EI itself began under Liberal majority governments of the 1940's. I understand they support EI but, I don't think the NDP can take credit for it politically.

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    6. chirumenga,

      Medicare was implemented by the St-Laurent, Diefenbaker and Pearson governments. Other than in Saskatchewan where the CCF was government the CCF played a very minor role in universal medical coverage in this country. They didn't even come up with the idea, medicare in Saskatchewan was modeled on the NHS.

      Frankly, the NDP should stop beating this dead horse, you don't see provincial autonomists taking credit for freedom of the press in Canada though undoubtedly Joe Howe was an anti-confederate at the time he won his libel trial.

      What have the NDP done lately? Not much because they're never in government!

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  3. The NDP used to be the CCF, and the CCF was founded by oodles of Farmers (the political party) so in effect the NDP has been in government.

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    1. The UFA was in government in Alberta not the CCF or NDP. There was some cross-over from the UFA to the CCF in terms of people and policy but, I think it a stretch to conclude the UFA was the predecessor of the NDP or CCF. The CCF was in favour of nationalization of many things including farms, farmers by and large were not in favour of their land or a portion thereof expropriated by the state even with appropriate compensation.

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    2. AFAIK every sitting farmer*, federally and provincially, in Alberta, who ran for re-election after the CCF was founded, ran for the CCF.

      * the party, not the occupation.

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    3. The New Teddy,

      Provincially that is not possible. The Alberta CCF did not run candidates until 1940 but, the UFA was left without any seats after the 1935 election.

      Federally 8/ 9 UFA M.P.s joined the CCF and ran for re-election, in 1935-all eight were defeated. The ninth UFA M.P. ran for the Tories in 1935 and was also defeated by the Socred landslide.

      Yes some UFA members and supporters helped to found the CCF but, so did Socialist party, Labour party and members of the Progressive party and others such as followers of the social gospel movement. As I said cross-over certainly occurred. I think it a stretch however, to say a political party formed government in Alberta 11 years before it was established. It is akin to claiming Abraham Lincoln was a Canadian Liberal party supporter. Lincoln may well have agreed with certain Liberal policies, but, in the end it is a ridiculous analogy.

      Perhaps some New Democrats want to promote this linkage in the hope of establishing their "legitimacy" to govern Alberta. I don't think this hypothesis stands up to scrutiny. They are both distinct parties.

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    4. I am a New Democrat and I want nothing to do with the UFA since they were the party that introduced sexual sterilization of people with disabilities.

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    5. Nothing to worry about. The NDP just shot themselves in Ont. by not supporting the budget.

      They are for the jump !!

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    6. Knownothingsk,

      Don't be too quick to judge those were very different times. On a positive note the UFA also passed the Metis Betterment Act that established Alberta's 8 Metis Settlements in 1938. As far as I am aware this is the first example of Aboriginal self-government in Canada.

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  4. The NDP has occupied an interesting place in Alberta politics over the past few decades. I remember in 2001 how Ralph Klein was actively trying to drive votes to Raj Pannu in an effort to kill the Liberals (he intensely disliked Liberal leader Nancy MacBeth).

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  5. I don't feel Mason did much to improve the position of the Alberta NDP. The two new seats he picked up in the last election were the result of vote splitting on the right. And I'm not sure why the "success" of a major party is measured by a couple points or one or two seats picked up in the first place. Success is victory. As a major third or fourth party, forming the official opposition, if we must.

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    1. Success for minor parties such as the Alberta NDP is keeping them alive. The NDP could very easily have disappeared during Mason's leadership.

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  6. As an aside I have heard rumours over the last couple weeks that the PCs are preparing for an early election possibly as early as this Fall. There has also been talk of some PC MLAs jumping to Wildrose either before or after the leadership election. Apparently fundraising has not and is not going well for the governing party.

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    1. They were rumoured to be losing about a third of their caucus had Redford not repaid that money (and then later resigned).

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  7. How many seats would the NDP have picked up based on the last Alberta poll? I was DYING to see how that would have translated seat-wise, but it came out right curing the Quebec election and noone really picked up on it :c

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    1. The last poll I saw had the NDP at 15%, WR at 46%, PC 19% and Liberals 16%.

      Depends how the vote distribution works out but the NDP would probably win 2-6 seats. If I were a betting man I would pick the NDP to win 5 seats which is pretty generous since Mason will probably not re-offer.

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  8. Éric, do you know where I can find the latest CROP Quebec poll?

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    1. This link was making the rounds on Twitter:

      http://static.lpcdn.ca/fichiers/html/1867/14-8256_-_politique_quebec_et_canada_avril_2014_.pdf

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  9. Did you catch this new Insights West poll from the 30th?

    http://www.insightswest.com/news/alberta/opposition-wildrose-party-riding-high-in-alberta/

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