As has been widely reported this week, the Alberta New Democratic Party has purposely shifted the focus of their political material onto their greatest asset, Premier Rachel Notley. The NDP began replacing the NDP logo with a Rachel Notley logo on their social media images back in April 2018, but the party recently highlighted this focus with the launch of their new RachelNotley.ca campaign website.
The move has been attacked by critics of the NDP, who claim the party is nefariously attempting to distance itself from its unpopular federal cousins. The NDP are probably trying to distance itself from the Jagmeet Singh-led federal NDP, but there is nothing nefarious about it. Campaigns always try to play to their strengths and downplay their weaknesses. This is why the NDP campaign will put Rachel Notley front-and-centre and the UCP will not be featuring Jason Kenney logos on their election lawn signs.
Putting the focus on party leaders is nothing new in Alberta politics.
In 1971, much of the Progressive Conservative Party’s advertising and messaging revolved around Peter Lougheed. The “Lougheed Team” focused on the party’s young and dynamic leader and the impressive slate of candidates that surrounded him.
While Alberta politics have certainly changed since the 1970s, Notley frequently evokes the memory of popular Lougheed in her media statements and campaign speeches.
‘Ralph’s Team’ was a slogan the PC Party used in the 1990s, putting the focus on their popular party leader, Ralph Klein. And the federal Liberal Party attempted a similar move when they placed ‘Team Martin’ logos on their campaign signs and material during the 2004 election.
As Postmedia columnist Keith Gerein wrote last week, the two main party leaders have divergent popularity among their parties own supporters. While her party is behind in the polls, Notley remains wildly popular among NDP voters.
United Conservative Party has a massive lead in the polls, but party leader Jason Kenney is much less popular than the party he now leads, which which is why Albertans will probably not spot any “Team Kenney” logos when the election is called this spring.
Almost all NDP MLA’s should know they have Notley’s leadership to thank for their electoral fortunes in the 2015 election, the same might not be said of UCP candidates and their leader in 2019. If the UCP’s strong support holds, many of that party’s candidate could be elected despite their leader’s lower approval ratings.
Any leader who’s popularity falls below that of the party they lead inevitably becomes vulnerable to leadership challenges and caucus revolts, as Don Getty, Ed Stelmach, Alison Redford, and in the dying days of his premiership, Ralph Klein, discovered. Conservatives in Alberta have been ruthless with their party leadership and rarely tolerate weaknesses that could jeopardize electoral success.
It is yet to be seen whether Kenney will fall into this category, which will probably depend on what the UCP caucus looks like after Election Day. If the UCP caucus is large, Kenney’s leadership could be secure. But as Stelmach and Klein discovered, large caucuses are impressive but can be unruly and difficult to manage. If he does fall into the traps sprung by previous Conservative premiers, look to UCP MLAs Jason Nixon, Nathan Cooper, Leela Aheer and former Wildrose leader Brian Jean to be eyeing the Premier’s chair.
Rachel Notley on the other hand might not be as vulnerable, even if the NDP is defeated in 2019. If her party does better than expected in 2019, even electing 25 or 30 MLAs, the NDP caucus and members may come to the conclusion that Notley remains their strongest asset and could be their best bet at returning to government in 2023. They could encourage her to remain party leader.
As an opposition leader, Notley would be fierce and lead an actual government-in-waiting, not something Albertans are used to having. It would also signal whether the NDP will remain in its centre-leftish position or embrace a more aggressive progressive agenda advocated by some members.
While Notley remaining in the party leadership beyond a 2019 loss may go against some of the common popular opinion about former premiers, past NDP premiers Allan Blakeney of Saskatchewan and Dave Barrett in British Columbia both led their parties into elections following defeats. Barrett even went on to have a career in federal politics and nearly became leader of the federal NDP in 1989.
I am probably getting ahead of myself, as this year’s election has not even been officially called, but scenarios like these are certainly something that many political watchers are thinking about.