Ten Reasons Kenney Could Lose
There’s an awful lot of schadenfreude flowing around conservative circles in Alberta these days. Jason Kenney making his big win to lead the United Conservative Party in the next election seems to have many conservatives thinking the game is already over. Polls show a landslide win for the UCP and with 1.5 years (more likely 2.5 years) until the next election, Jason will have plenty of time to organize and strategize.
For the record, I’m a conservative. If you haven’t read my work here before you might dismiss this piece as a typical “Red Tory” drive-by that encourages people to win by becoming more liberal.
That’s not what this is.
I’m just shooting some cool water on the hubris of another new party looking to claim the mantle of Alberta’s conservative torch.
1. Alberta is not conservative
It’s taken me 10 years to finally realize this...which was painful and difficult since I moved to Alberta in 2004 seeking the Alberta Advantage and the Ralph Klein conservatism that I believed enabled it all. I immediately joined the PC party of Alberta and wrote my MLA Harvey Cenaiko telling him how happy I was to be able to join the party...a real conservative party!
I received a cold, plain response.
I quickly realized that the party of “Ralph!” was basically a brokerage party of yes-men and hangers-on looking for government positions. When Ralph stepped down and Ted Morton stepped up, I thought this was the moment the PC Party could get back on track. This was my first introduction to the “two-minute-Tory” phenomenon in which liberals were buying memberships to vote for the most liberal leader they could and then immediately tearing up their membership on the way out the door.
We ended up with Ed Stelmach as a result.
This accident of democracy was again recreated with the advent of Alison Redford a few years later. Remember when she was referred to as “Alberta’s first NDP Premier”?
I thought the Wildrose Party would resonate with what I believed was Alberta’s true nature: a right-wing conservative party that had principles and values that revolved around common-sense and decency. Unfortunately, we saw how the human component of that shook out and those former MLA’s paid the price.
Finally we ended up with Jim Prentice. The consensus candidate. The guy who was conservative enough to be everything to everyone. I remember around the time of the election or shortly thereafter, I read an insiders take on the polling that the PC’s were doing in order to craft their platform. This insider revealed that, “We’re doing all this polling and Albertans don’t realize it, but they’re actually New Democrats!”
Albertans realized it in 2015 and went all in on everything that I moved to Alberta in order to escape from.
We can’t keep pretending that Alberta is conservative. Albertans love money...yes, but that isn’t all conservatism is supposed to be about. The fact is, Albertans aren’t conservative and Alberta isn’t a conservative province, so thinking that a united right is the answer is a mistake.
It will not be enough.
2. The NDP will entrench their presence with their incumbency
The PC party coasted on fumes for years due to voter habit and vested interests. The NDP is building their own base of vested interests and it’s only going to get worse. Bolstering an army of unions and NGOs and any allied leftist with a need for cash and an active base is the top priority. They’ll do this with either borrowed money or—increasingly—oil money. (Currently over $57.00 a barrel and rising)
Don’t underestimate the power of incumbency. Lot’s of people just want access to power...they don’t care who has the power, they just want access to it.
Voters are complacent and vested interests are vested. Jason and his UCP will not be worth the risk to many in Alberta in 2019.
3. The NDP has more money
The power of incumbency is already apparent. The NDP is the top political fundraiser in the province. This will probably change now that Kenney is in the driver’s seat of the UCP— but really, once your political party starts bringing in the millions, you are competitive.
Alberta conservatives aren’t accustomed to NDP brass knuckles. I grew up in Saskatchewan and saw first hand how fantastically filthy the NDP are willing to go. They will scorch the earth and dig up the dead in a way that palooka conservatives couldn’t imagine. Jason Kenney’s federal experience will help him greatly with this, but nevertheless...watch Notley bring in the big guns for the fear and smear when the election nears. NDP hardcore campaigning is shrugged off when they are a third or fourth rate party, but when they get power as we’ve seen in British Columbia, Saskatchewan or Manitoba...they are a force to be reckoned with.
4. The political dynamic of Alberta has been permanently altered
Another thing Albertans don’t get is that the NDP are now here to stay. They are the proven vehicle for progressives to rally around. Just like EVERY OTHER WESTERN PROVINCE, we now have a dynamic of left versus right and the NDP versus the anti-NDP.
Albertans are used to populist movements like Social Credit and the Lougheed PC’s. The idea was that a new party shows up and includes everybody...and they win in landslides, thus truly reflecting the will of the people. The more traditional notion of multiple competitive parties vying for interests and carving up the electorate is not what Alberta has traditionally participated in. Even the notion of an official opposition was looked upon with disdain. Ernest Manning said, “You don’t hire a man to do a job and then hire another man to try to stop him from doing the job!”
Or as Ralph Klein put it when they opposition boycotted question period in protest of something or another…”Good, less time spent in there the better”. (Not an exact quote)
You get the idea. Alberta is all about populism, but that has changed. Alberta has changed. The people have changed. The political climate is now more fragmented and polarized. The common ground isn’t so common.
Even if the UCP wins, things won’t be like they were before. The NDP will have proven themselves legitimate and viable. They’ll be waiting. Preparing.
5. Henry and Martha are dead
As mentioned above, the people of Alberta have changed. The Henry and Martha motif that Ralph Klein used to point to as being standard-bearers of “severely normal” Albertans is gone. They haven’t been relevant since Ralph Klein died in 2013.
Oh sure, there are still plenty of “Henrys and Marthas” around and they’re more inclined to vote, but their power has waned to the point of irrelevancy in Alberta. Almost 1 million more people are in Alberta today compared to the later-era of Ralph Klein. This number isn’t driven by Henrys and Marthas moving here from Manitoba.
Alberta is the youngest province in the country with an average age of 36 years old. (Now granted younger people are more atomized and disengaged from politics so the Henry and Martha crowd still have weight, but a few hundred grand spent on commercials about how Jason Kenney hates gays and abortion and they’ll be activated) If Jason Kenney tries to simply appeal to the same crowd that Ralph Klein did in the 90’s he’s going to be sadly schooled about what mainstream Alberta has become.
6. Alberta is becoming more urban
We always hear this from leftists and the implication is that sophisticated people live in cities and do sophisticated things, thus, they’re liberals! It’s only cow-shit shovellers out there in the boonies that cling to their guns and bibles and vote conservative.
This isn’t why conservatism suffers in urban areas though.
The nature of urban living requires many concessions that at first glance appear antithetical to conservative principles. The idea of self-reliance for example might make more sense when you live in the forest and your problem is not enough firewood. Self-reliance isn’t as useful when dealing with a neighbour above you in your apartment building that won’t stop playing Ride The Lightning after 9pm.
Urban living necessitates cooperation, order, central planning, curbing personal liberty and micro-managing the masses. Rural living necessitates personal responsibility, prudent planning, individual initiative, self-reliance.
Obviously it’s not that black and white, but cities pull people to the left naturally and rural living moves people to the right naturally. Calgary and Edmonton had about 37% of Alberta’s population in 1996 during the Klein heyday. Today, Calgary and Edmonton have about 60% of Alberta’s population. Only 19% of Alberta is considered “rural” anymore.
The leftward drift will continue.
7. Decline of Religion
Want to know why Notley and her crew are setting up GSA wedge issues? Because they’ll win. Jason Kenney and his intellectual Catholicism isn’t going to win the culture war against the NDP. Notley knows that real Catholics aren’t her constituency anyway and mainstream Alberta will veer towards protecting gay kids over whatever objection real Catholics voice.
It’s lake of fire. That lesson was learned and learned well.
The reason it works so well is because religion is in radical decline and with it...conservatism. The two don’t need one another, but it helps. Conservatism devoid of religion or at least the respect of religion tends to get whittled down to just liberalism that wants to make more money. This is actually what Ernest Manning predicted when the PC Party came to power in the 70’s. He accurately saw the party as a materialistic vessel devoid of values and suggested that if Albertans vote PC then an NDP government will be next.
Anyway...conservative parties have usually been the most welcoming parties of religion, but as religion declines so too does the fortunes for conservative parties.
8. Politics is fringe
It’s not just the decline of religion that has whittled down conservatism. It’s a variety of factors, but one thing political junkies don’t recognize is that whatever the reason, politics in Canada is becoming increasingly fringe.
Jason Kenney won the UCP leadership with about 35,000 votes. That’s roughly half what Ed Stelmach got ten years ago. Ten years ago...when there were a million fewer people in Alberta. The aging newspaper pundits follow the political theatre in this province like it’s the most important thing in the world and then wonder why their newspapers have collapsing readership.
As politics becomes more fringe the people remaining become more fringy. I remember when Danielle Smith stood on stage at a Wildrose Party convention just before she bailed and talked about how the party needed to become more fun in order to get the message out. She wasn’t wrong, but people thought she was flippant at the time. Dour faced seniors raging about taxes or gay stuff isn’t really appealing to most normal people. As a result most normal people have completely checked out. (To be fair, society’s atomization and self-absorption plays a part too. Many “normal people” probably wouldn’t have anything to offer even if they were forced to participate in the political process as they are too disengaged and ignorant to be of any use. Increasingly people can’t even be bothered to vote, so I am not surprised political parties are suffering.)
What does this have to do with the NDP winning another term?
Jason Kenney’s UCP victory means almost nothing because it is so fringe. The mainstream don’t even know who Jason Kenney is, so predicting an election victory is beyond hubris.
9. Conservatism has not reinvented itself
90s style conservatism came to a final crescendo with Harper’s majority government. The big names of Canadian conservatism were Ralph Klein, Mike Harris, Preston Manning, Stockwell Day, Stephen Harper and a laundry list of other notables that have been around since forever.
Today, every province in Canada is now governed by a non-conservative party with the exception of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In both these cases they are lead by 90’s conservatives just wrapping things up. The country is governed by the wokest woke liberal we’ve ever seen. Our cities and towns are dominated by Nenshis and Ivesons and Robertsons. Even Toronto’s John Tory has to be a liberal to hang onto power.
And in comes Jason Kenney selling referendums on equalization payments and talk of sticking it to Ottawa! The same old Lougheed/Klein rhetoric we’ve heard before. Since we know politics is fringe and the conservatives left over in these parties are even fringier, I can’t imagine what the policy convention next year will be like when the UCP decides what it stands for. If it stands for balanced budgets, and paying down debt and lowering corporate tax and privatizing public services and western alienation...then it’s dead in the water.
90s conservatism is over. It needs to be reinvented, but it probably won’t be.
10. Jason Kenney personally
Warren Kinsella famously wrote, “What was Jason Kenney’s wife’s name again?” on his blog when some commenters were dredging up conspiracy theories. How this will play out I don’t know, but a fat, middle-aged white guy with a “confirmed bachelor” status leading a conservative party filled with leftover Henrys and Marthas angry about GSAs, is going to make for some easy shots should the NDP decide to go there. (They will)
The high road would be to say that it doesn’t matter. Maybe it doesn’t. It didn’t matter for Kathleen Wynne and Nenshi has successfully avoided the issue for years. These are both liberals, however, and the same rules don’t apply for conservatives.
Anecdotally, on two separate occasions, when talking with women about Jason Kenney, the first thing they brought up was that he’s a virgin. I suspect both will vote for Notley when the time comes.
If you lose the female vote, the gay vote and the urban vote, you’re going to lose the election.
Conclusion: I write all this with a spirit of constructive criticism. I’d prefer to see a UCP government in power, but if these issues aren’t addressed we’ll simply be looking at the end of something, rather than the beginning of something new. I foresee three outcomes…
#1. Jason Kenney can’t win with his 90’s approach in the new Alberta. The fear and smear of the NDP and their allies drives out the progressive vote and allows Notley to squeak out another win.
#2. Jason Kenney wins a majority by reclaiming seats lost in rural areas and cities like Red Deer and Medicine Hat and takes it as a mandate to go full on 90’s conservative. Austerity ensues and the NDP and their permanent army raise hell over every cut and every decision and every action. After 4-8 years of non-stop anti-Kenney drumbeats we end up with another NDP government and Kenney becomes a Mike Harris figure. Successful at the time, but leaving a smouldering damaged brand in his wake. The UCP is damaged for a generation as the leadership cycles through the Eves/Tory/Hudak/Brown scenario.
#3. Jason Kenney reinvents conservatism and sells this vision to the people of Alberta winning a landslide in the process. This won’t come from a fringy policy convention. The convention needs to function as theatre and a team of tapped-in sophisticated conservatives with good data need to craft the platform. This doesn’t mean “move to the left”, but a concise, new, easy to understand vision that rebrands conservatism for the next twenty years is needed. If this happens then a rebirth can take place and the rest of Canada will take note. Time is running out, however, and if it’s going to happen, it needs to happen in the next election. Anything other than a solid win will leave Kenney as Prentice 2.0 and the UCP as rightward rump.
Which of these is most likely? It’s too early to tell, but right now I’d say scenario #1 is most likely.
Time to get to work, UCP.