I took a leave from my regular job in the office of Brian Mason to work full-time on Ray Martin's campaign for the NDP in Edmonton East. Ray was running against incumbent Conservative MP Peter Goldring, one of the most obscure and absent (from Parliament and his own community) MPs on Parliament Hill. However, as Ray has said, whenever you decide to take on a Conservative in Alberta, you've got your hands full.
I was hoping my first post-election blog was going to detail the secrets of the NDP's stunning second success in Alberta. While it was a success in many ways - compared to 2008, we got almost 4,000 more votes, hundreds more sign locations, three times as many election day volunteers, and raised a lot more money - it was not in a success in the most crucial way; we didn't win. However, politics is not a short-term game. If you want to be effective in politics, you have to be in it for the long haul. Ray Martin knows that better than most. He was first elected to the Alberta Legislature in 1982. He remains the most successful Leader of Alberta's NDP to date, after he led our party to a 16-seat showing in the 1986 provincial election. He was out of politics from 1993 to 2001, when he was elected to the Edmonton Public School Board. He ran again in the 2004 Alberta election and won. In 2008, he ran for Parliament in Edmonton East and ran the 2nd-strongest NDP campaign in Alberta (next to Linda Duncan, of course).
The groundwork Ray laid for the NDP in Edmonton East in 2008, paired with Linda Duncan's win in Edmonton-Strathcona, set the stage for the riding to be a strong priority in the next election. In 2008, I was a Liberal. But I was living in Edmonton, and when I looked at the election results from 2006 and 2008, it appeared the Liberals were becoming less and less relevant, and my attempt to get involved with a Liberal campaign in 2008 did not happen due to the party's disorganization in its strongest riding in the province. Therefore, in the election aftermath, I began looking at the New Democrats to see who I could help win another non-Conservative seat in Alberta. That place was in Edmonton East.
I started getting to know Ray Martin about two years ago. I remember Ray saying in one of my first election planning meetings with him that he wouldn't be running if there was someone else who was ready to build on the strong showing he had in 2008 and really challenge the Conservatives in Edmonton East. He also told me that if he wasn't successful in his next run that this would be his lost try at it. He confirmed that on the night of May 2nd after the results came in. It is sad to see a fighter like Ray retire from politics, but I know he will still be around to help our team in Edmonton East build on his successes.
Though we didn't win in Edmonton East this election, I'd still like to tell the story that led to our successes in increasing the NDP's presence in every way in that area of Edmonton.
Ray is turning 70 years old this year, but he is still the strongest political fighter I know. He began knocking on doors to prepare for this past election about two years ago. He began his work by knocking on doors two or three days per week in the north end of the riding where the Conservatives get most of their support (in 2008, Ray won most of the areas in the souther half of the riding). Shortly thereafter, I started organizing teams of volunteers to drop leaflets in mailboxes. The issue the leaflets highlighted? Pensions. Not the most exciting issue for a 25-year-old student of international politics. However, over the next two years, I would learn that pensions are one of the most important issues to voters in Edmonton East, and in most, if not all, areas of the country. Our Canada Pension Plan (CPP) currently isn't enough for seniors to have a decent retirement. Instead Canadians are expected to come up with their own ways of saving money, at a time when most Canadians can't afford to or don't plan well enough to save anything (myself included). It's an issue I began hearing more about when it became my job to deal with the problems of marginalized Edmontonians in the provincial constituency of Edmonton Highlands-Norwood in the office of MLA Brian Mason. I also noticed when I started phoning voters in Edmonton East, that it was almost like a magic attention-grabber. When people on the other end of the phone asked what Ray Martin would do for them, I would tell them, "He is promising to strengthen your CPP." 90% of the time, that was exactly the kind of thing they wanted to hear. Political activists, particularly at the universities, like to talk about what we see as the huge issues of the day: Harper proroguing Parliament, the federal deficit at its largest in history, our country's foreign policy being taken so far where it was that the world is no longer interested in what Canada has to say. I include myself in those who like to focus on these issues. But the truth outside of the university bubble is that the large majority of voters don't care about any of those things, at least not to the extent that it would affect their vote. Rather, for most Canadians, the issues that determine their votes are health care, jobs, pensions, and crime.
If progressive activists want to start electing more progressive politicians in places like Edmonton, we need to start speaking the language of the average voter. That doesn't mean we need to stop caring about the issues that are the most important to us. In fact, connecting with other voters on issues they care about can start to open up opportunities to speak with them on issues you care about. If nothing else, speaking the language of the average voter can (as is obviously the goal) make them want to support a progressive politician, who in turn is more likely to share your goals of protecting our democratic institutions, handling our federal budget in a pragmatically progressive way, and working to strengthen Canada's role in the world. Most students don't know much and don't care much about health care or pensions, but what I have found is that they become more interesting when I talk to voters who care about these issues and who these issues affect on a day-to-day basis. When I talk to seniors who can barely afford to live in their own homes because they are living on fixed incomes and their cost-of-living continues to go up, it makes me care about pensions. When I hear from a constituent that he is burning through his savings and is on the verge of having to sell his home because he needs hip surgery and can't physically work a job until he gets it, but he has been waiting for the surgery for years, it makes me care about health care. These are social justice issues that people in Canada experience every day, and although we may not study them when we do a Political Science degree (in fact, I've always been frustrated that the "Politics of Health Care" class is always restricted to Health Sciences students), they are what our average voters care about, and they are the issues we need to focus on if we're going to win election campaigns.
Anyway, that was a bit of a tangent. I think I've said pretty much all I really wanted to about Edmonton East anyway. So I'll move to a bit of the bigger picture.
On May 2nd, Canadians elected a majority Conservative government with the NDP as a strong Official Opposition (at least as strong as any opposition in a majority government can be). I was obviously happy that the NDP won over 100 seats and that the Liberals, who I now see as conservatives who imitate progressives, have been decimated across the country, and particularly here in Edmonton where the NDP placed ahead of them in every riding. Whose fault is it that we elected a Conservative majority? Well, we could talk about a few different answers to that question. The first answer would be that only 40% of Canadians who voted actually supported the Conservatives. Our system never gives us a Parliament that represents the political demographics of our country. That is true nationally, but is even more true regionally. Take, for example, my home province of Saskatchewan. The Conservatives won 93% of the seats there with only 56& of the vote. New Democrats won zero seats there with 32% of the vote. Although 1/3 of voters in SK voted for a New Democrat, Saskatchewan has no NDP voice in Ottawa. It's also true in Quebec, where New Democrats won 77% of the seats with only 43% of the vote. The Bloc Quebecois, love them or hate them, won only 5% of the seats there with 23% of the vote. Without going into any more examples, there are also regions of the country where Conservatives (Newfoundland) and Liberals (Ontario) are underrepresented. Regional representation is very important and is essential to keep voters engaged in our political system. When voters don't feel represented by their politicians, as the voters in these regions I named are not, I am positive they are more likely to feel disenchanted with our political process. Of course we will never be able to make everyone happy even in a democratic system. But we could certainly get a lot closer to having a Parliament that mirrored our population than we do now.
The second argument about who is to blame for the Conservative majority focuses on how the progressive vote was split between the Liberals, the NDP and the Greens. I could go through the arguments about how I don't see the Liberals and Greens as progressive, but that's not really the point I'm trying to make. Rather, the point I would make is that nobody splits any vote. It's a fallacy. Some candidates win and many others lose. There is not one type of Canadian voter who votes for the Conservatives and a completely different type of voter who chooses between the other three. I talked to way to many former Conservative voters this election who decided to vote NDP to believe that. The decisions of voters, in the general sense, are complex. We can't expect voters to follow the rules we would like to set for them. Parties do set priorities. It isn't often that three parties decide to make the same riding a priority. However, it does happen. In Edmonton Centre, I wouldn't be surprised if the Conservatives, Liberals, and New Democrats all spent close to the maximum legal amount on this past election campaign. However, there are many Liberals who would vote Conservative before they would ever vote NDP, and there are actually many Conservatives (especially in Alberta) who would vote NDP before they would ever vote Liberal. These types of voters, who are not uncommon, defy the theory that a New Democrat and a Liberal running in the same riding are "splitting" the progressive vote. The anti-Conservative "strategic voting" sites have been a massive failure. Alice Funke of punditsguide.ca (my favourite political geek site) detailed why in a blog post called "Why the Conservatives Love the 'Strategic' Voting Sites" (http://www.punditsguide.ca/2011/04/why-the-conservatives-love-the-strategic-voting-sites/). What I got out of her post is that the "anti" vote is much softer than the "pro" vote, meaning Canadians who have strong political opinions, rather than actually committing to what they believe in, largely stand back from the political process other than telling people to vote a certain way. They then focus on what one party has done wrong, rather than what another party may be doing right. It distorts the way our system was actually made to work. You vote for, and work to elect, the person you believe to be the best candidate. Furthermore, on election night the strategic voting sites got it all wrong. The first problem is that they don't have a lot of actual sway for most voters. The second problem is that they do sway some voters, and they can often sway them the wrong way for people who are actually looking to unseat Conservatives. We need look no further than Edmonton Centre to see why. I already mentioned how all three major parties ran strong campaigns in that riding. It used to be the Liberals' only real stronghold in the province (though Anne McLellan often won it by a slim margin). However, the Liberals in Edmonton have been trending downward in popularity for a few elections now, and the NDP has been trending upwards. The NDP also ran a candidate in Lewis Cardinal who already had a higher profile among people in that riding (especially since he ran a strong municipal campaign that overlapped much of the riding in 2007 that almost won him a seat on Edmonton City Council). All of the strategic voting sites told people to vote Liberal, primarily because of the results in the 2006 and 2008 elections, both of which went without a high-resource NDP competition. On May 2nd, Lewis Cardinal received almost 2,000 more votes than his Liberal competitor. I wonder how many people who actually lean more progressive voted Liberal to try to prevent Laurie Hawn from winning? Likely not enough to have changed the winner. However, I have no doubt that the election day results represent a somewhat distorted view of who the voters in Edmonton Centre believed their best candidate was. That may be particularly relevant if Lewis Cardinal decides to be the NDP candidate again. People who may have normally been supporters were identified as Liberal voters, lawns that may have otherwise taken Lewis Cardinal signs were dotted with Liberal signs, and volunteers who may have normally been in Lewis Cardinal's office were instead working on a Liberal campaign.
Understand this. Partisans will always use any argument they can to convince you to vote their way, no matter what. From that, I don't exempt myself. It is no secret that there is such thing as "the anti-Conservative vote" in all regions of our country. However, it is not as widespread as the strategic voting sites would have you think. I was working on the Ray Martin campaign this past election, where we could point to the 2008 results and say, "Hey, in 2008 this was a two-way race between the Conservatives and the NDP, and with us running the same strong candidate with a wealth of experience in this part of town, it is going to be a close two-way fight this time." We tried that line on every Green and every Liberal we found (to put it in context, the 2008 results were CPC 51%, NDP 32%, LPC 11%, GPC 6%). Sometimes it worked. It would have been difficult for the Liberal or the Green candidate to spin another way, so we found it effective. However, that sort of technique can be added to a long list of spin tactics that every political party uses to get more votes. It is not exceptional.
In this election, our team in Edmonton East did everything we could to win. It didn't happen. Yet. But we now have an even more cohesive team of progressive individuals who are committed to making change happen in that part of town. Many of us have already started talking about what the gameplan will be for 2015. A Conservative majority government is a scary thing. But it's a short-term thing. Four years does seem like a long time. And I won't disagree with those who say our country will undergo some terrible changes in that time. However, we are in that situation now, and we can't change it, so we have to deal with it. And we also have to make as much opportunity out of it as we can. The opportunity is in the fact that we now have four years to organize for the next election. Progressives no longer need to decide whether a "centrist" party is close enough to being progressive to earn their support. Every race in Edmonton had the New Democrats and Conservatives in first and second place (with the exception of Sherwood Park where there were two conservative candidates). So I'm going to spend the next four years (assuming I'm still in Edmonton) getting ready to take on Stephen Harper and the Conservatives again. And we'll be more ready than ever next time. I hope you'll join me.