You can be forgiven if you missed it. Hundreds of Liberals from across Alberta gathered in Edmonton last weekend for the biennial meeting of the Liberal Party of Canada in Alberta.
Speakers and guests at the weekend conference included interim Liberal leader Bob Rae, Scarborough-Agincourt MP Jim Karygiannis, and Senators Grant Mitchell, Art Eggleton, and James Cowan. One of the main guest speakers was Donna Clare, the Edmonton-based architect who designed the new Royal Alberta Museum.
Electing only two MPs in the three prairie provinces, the west was a wasteland for the federal Liberal Party in the 2011 election. Only in Manitoba, where the party earned 16% of the vote did they place above 10% (they earned 9% in Alberta and 8% in Saskatchewan). While the west has not been a bastion of Liberal support for at least two generations, this level of support is far below the average support earned over the 1990s and 2000s.
The decline in support can also be seen at the provincial level.
With 5 MLAs and 10% support in this year’s provincial election, the Alberta Liberals are the strongest of any prairie Liberal Parties. In the November 2011 election, the Saskatchewan Liberals failed to elect any MLAs for the third election in a row and only earned 0.5% of the popular vote. In Manitoba’s election, held in October 2011, the Liberals fell from 2 MLAs to 1 MLA and earned only 7% of the province-wide vote.
Leadership was undoubtably a topic of discussion over the weekend conference. Next year, the federal Liberal Party will be choosing its seventh leader in ten years. Interim-leader Mr. Rae, who entered the role after Michael Ignatieff‘s resignation in 2011 election, recently announced that he decided to stand by his previous commitment not to seek the permanent leadership.
The rate at which Justin Trudeau is being touted as a leadership contender makes his candidacy feel almost inevitable. Long-shot candidate George Takach was in attendance at the weekend convention and constitutional expert Deborah Coyne entered the race today. Liberals activists I have spoken with over the past few days have named New Brunswick MP Dominic Leblanc, Quebec MP Marc Garneau, former Quebec MP Martin Cauchon, and past Ontario candidate David Bertschi all as possible candidates for the Liberal Party leadership.
Meanwhile, in Saskatchewan…
A little further to the east, supporters of the provincial NDP gathered in Saskatchewan for their annual conference and passed a resolution calling for a strategy to grow their party in the three prairie provinces. The conference included speeches from federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, who has not endeared himself to some Conservative leaders in the prairie provinces.
The popularity of conservative Saskatchewan Party Premier Brad Wall led to the provincial NDP being nearly wiped off the electoral map during last year’s Saskatchewan election. Currently without a permanent leader, the Saskachewan NDP have scheduled a leadership vote to be held in March 2013.
The decline of NDP support in Saskatchewan is not limited to the provincial level. Once a stronghold for prairie social democrats, federal NDP support in Saskatchewan took a sharp decline in the 1990s and the party no longer has any MPs from that province represented in Ottawa.
Over time, support for the NDP has shifted away from rural areas and to the cities. This concentrated urban support has not helped the NDP in Saskatchewan, where urban federal ridings were redrawn to include large rural areas outside the cities, where the Conservatives hold strong support. Despite leading his party to huge gains across the country, I am sure that former leader Jack Layton‘s address in central Toronto did not help grow his party’s support in rural Saskatchewan. It will be interesting to see whether the NDP under Mr. Mulcair, another big city politician, will be able to regain a toe-hold in Saskatchewan in the next election.
Across the prairies, the NDP remains strong only in Manitoba, where dominance over the northern regions and the city of Winnipeg ensures the continued election of NDP majority governments in that province. In Alberta, NDP support has long been limited to a handful of constituencies in Edmonton, where the party has 4 MLAs. Federally, the NDP placed well in a few Edmonton ridings, and Edmonton-Strathcona MP Linda Duncanwas re-elected in 2011.
A creed known as the Lethbridge Declaration is gaining attention in some NDP circles by those who recognize the need to reconnect with voters in the prairie provinces. It is not completely clear how they will accomplish this, but looking to the declaration’s name-sake gives long-toiling social democrats a glimpse of hope in the Conservative Party’s prairie stronghold.
The NDP experienced significant growth in support in Lethbridge in the recent federal and provincial elections. It may seem like the most unlikeliest of places, but federal candidate Mark Sandilands earned 27% of the vote, nearly doubling his vote from the 2008 election (the Conservative vote dropped 10% from 2008).
In the recent provincial election, Shannon Phillips tripled her party’s support in Lethbridge-West, coming within 7% of defeating incumbent Progressive Conservative MLA Greg Weadick.