The 2015 provincial election in Alberta was truly historic. Not only have the people of Alberta elected the first NDP government in the history of the province, but also the 44-year reign of the provincial Progressive Conservatives has - finally - come to an end. This represents a historic and seismic shift in the history of the province, and marks a new stage in the class struggle both provincially and nationally.
“History knows all sorts of metamorphoses” - V.I. Lenin
The Orange Crush came through in the end, despite what the Tories and other right wing pundits were saying on the eve of the election. The NDP won a majority government and saw its total number of seats rise from 4 to 53, a massive increase. The NDP’s popular vote rose from just below 10% in 2012 to just over 40% this year. Wildrose retained its spot as the opposition, with 21 seats, but actually lost 10% of its vote from 2012. And the Tories, the monolith of bourgeois power, collapsed from 70 seats to just 10. This was an historic drubbing and a clear vote for change.
The province of Alberta has long been regarded, in some ways rightly so, as the heartland of the right wing and the reactionary bastion of Canada. Superficially, Alberta seems like the last place in Canada that would ever have elected an NDP government. The workers of Alberta were long written off by the left for being backwards, too right-wing and reactionary. It was Alberta after all that gave us Ralph Klein, Preston Manning and eventually Stephen Harper. More recently Alberta saw the rise of the Wildrose Party, a political outfit that far better matches the outdated and clearly wrong stereotype of Albertans, inherited from the province’s past. But more than that, Alberta’s politics of sustained austerity, first launched under Klein in the early 1990s, became the inspiration and blueprint for right-wing governments across the land, from sea to shining sea.
The victory of the Progressive Conservative party in Alberta provincial elections had always been a given. For several consecutive elections it seemed like the Tory victory was guaranteed the very day the election was called. In fact, in the past one could not be faulted for having a difficult time finding something to say about election results in Alberta. It was the same thing over and over again, like a song set to repeat endlessly. For decades a Tory victory in Alberta provincial elections, and a Tory sweep of the province in federal elections, were a given. The Tory record in government, it goes without saying, was never clean. Yet despite economic crises and political scandals that would topple most other governments, the Tories not only survived and thrived, they continued to dominate utterly the provincial political scene.
Government has only changed hands in Alberta four times since the province was founded in 1905. The Tories, who first came to power in the province in 1971, had been the longest-serving government in Canadian history at just under 44 years. Many people in the province have known nothing but Tory governments, nothing but austerity. Politics in Alberta, at least on the surface, and at times against all reason, always appeared to be utterly stable, and utterly right wing.
All that has changed.
Wherefrom the NDP victory?
On the surface, the victory of the NDP is surprising, and utterly shocking. Surely, for the many leftists, radicals and activists who cut their political teeth fighting and organizing against the Tories in Alberta, election night this year seemed more like a dream than political reality. There were plenty of double takes and exclamations across social media of “is this real?” and many wondered aloud whether this was “actually happening”.
The reality is, that while the exact size, scope and meaning of the NDP victory should not be dismissed lightly, the titanic shift in Alberta was a long time coming, and should come as a surprise to no one. Furthermore, it was no accident that it was the NDP and not some other political party that finally toppled the Tory dynasty. This is the case despite the fact that the NDP had never come close to power in the province, never held more than 16 seats and never received more than 30% of the popular vote, both of which occurred in 1986).
The “stunning” NDP victory in Alberta is in fact a continuation and development of a process that the Marxists have long explained and highlighted - a process that is taking placing internationally, nationally and provincially, at all levels of society.
Capitalism, as a global system, has entered into a period of protracted crisis. It can no longer regain the economic and political equilibrium it enjoyed in the past. The Marxists have explained for years that the deepening of the economic crisis internationally and in Canada was resulting in an intensification in the divisions within classes and the tempo of the class struggle in general. We explained that given this instability - at all levels of society - that sharp and sudden changes should not only be expected, but that they would become the new political norm. It didn’t take very long for the economic crisis to find a political expression, as our increasingly polarized society was cleaved into its bourgeois and proletarian wings under the pressures of the economic crisis and intensifying class struggle.
This polarization, this intensification of the class struggle is reflected in the collapse of the “centre” and the shifting in the balance of power federally. Increasingly, the forces of capital have been gravitating around the Conservative Party while the working class, the poor and the most vulnerable layers of society have been coalescing around the NDP. This process has of course not proceeded smoothly or in a straight line, as we witnessed last night in Alberta. It has, by definition, an explosive and contradictory nature. It has moved forward, been pushed back and has borne witness to all sorts of strange and wonderful transformations throughout the land, but it has continued all the same.
The first sign of things to come, the first sign of major cracks in the Tory colossus, was in fact signaled in Alberta’s last election. Alberta’s 2012 election saw the rise of the Wildrose party and the first serious challenge to Tory rule. The rise of Wildrose was a significant development in the province. While in some respects it represented a blind protest vote against the Tories and a reaction to the economic crisis of 2008-2009, it also reflected the sharp divisions developing within the ruling class.
On the eve of the 2012 Alberta election, as it looked like Wildrose was about to topple the Tory dynasty, we wrote the following lines:
“Regardless of the outcome of the election later this month, instability and turbulence are on the horizon for Alberta. The split in the Alberta PCs reveals a significant split in the ruling class, reflecting the deep social crisis being prepared. The class struggle is having a profound impact on the political institutions of the ruling class. The intensity of the class struggle has torn asunder the very symbol of Alberta’s stability, the PC party, once a powerful, monolithic tool in the hands of the ruling class of the province. This split, like the initial crack in a dam, will open the floodgates for the political expression of other social and economic pressures and class forces. The workers and farmers of Alberta, under the crushing dominance of the oil industry, have yet to have their say or express their will. They must break free from the crushing domination of the bourgeois parties. Events in Alberta will transform the organizations of the working class from top to bottom, just as they are now transforming the organizations of the ruling class. As the bourgeois realigns itself politically, a process through which the people of Alberta will learn hard lessons, the working class too will begin to seek a political expression, and coalesce around its traditional mass organizations, providing the NDP with a real opportunity to become the voice of workers and farmers and galvanize the struggle against capitalism and the years of ‘oil before butter’.”
In the same article, just after the 2012 Alberta election, where we witnessed the Tories holding onto their majority despite the rise of Wildrose, we wrote the following lines:
“While the NDP lost support over the weekend across the board, in Edmonton and Calgary and rural areas, support in terms of the popular vote was up slightly. The NDP seems to have suffered as a result of the strategic voting that took place. Far more indicative of the polarization in the province was the collapse in the Liberal vote, which collapsed from just over 26% in 2008 to just under 10% in this election, dropping from 16 seats in 2004 to nine in 2008, and now finally to five. The old dichotomy of the ‘centre’ Liberals versus the ‘right’ Tories has collapsed, as the Tories have shifted to the ‘centre’ under the Red Tory leadership of Stelmach/Redford, and Wildrose has taken up the right.
“While the Tories have maintained their majority, the election result and the rise of Wildrose mark a significant development in provincial and national politics, as well as in the class struggle. The Tories will find it difficult to maintain their support. While they have until now managed to pull off their balancing act, under the pressure of events, their electoral support will split on class lines. Each concession to the unions, each victory gained by the working class, such as minor injections of cash into social spending, will be intolerable to the bourgeoisie and will increasing drive Tory support into the arms of Wildrose, waiting in the wings and all ready to march on the warpath against the working class.
“On the other hand, while the Tories grabbed support of those in the cities on the basis of defeating Wildrose, it is still a party of capital, and as such, a Tory government will be forced to attack the working class, especially in the event of instability in the price of oil. The workers and farmers of Alberta, in particular those who voted Tory even as they held their noses out of fear of Wildrose majority, will be increasing forced to seek class solutions in the face of Tory attacks. With the bourgeois and reactionary rural elements coalescing around Wildrose, the working class and rural labour elements will be forced to abandon the Tories too, driving them into the arms of the NDP.
“This will drive the continued realignment of Alberta politics as it has driven a realignment federally, leaving the NDP with an enormous opportunity to make serious gains in the ‘belly of the beast’.”
While the exact nature and rapidity of the changes in Alberta could not have been predicted by anyone, the above lines show that the broad strokes of the NDP victory, and the reasons for it, were visible even years ago. On the basis of a Marxist analysis of the class struggle in Canada and Alberta, we were able to predict broadly the developments now taking place in Alberta, and correctly identified that the NDP, despite its results in the last election, was actually in a position to create waves across the province and the whole of the country.
Protest vote? It’s the class struggle, stupid!
By the time the Tories in Alberta had gone down ignobly in the flames of defeat, the writing was clearly written on the wall for all to see. There are a myriad of immediate, “practical” reasons the Tory dynasty collapsed, as was highlighted in an article appearing in the National Post on election day and edited the day after the election (How to shake a dynasty in 10 easy steps: The Alberta election and why it all went wrong for the Progressive Conservatives).
Allison Redford, who at the 11th hour had saved the Tories from what looked like a certain defeat in the 2012 election and who was supposed to renew and save the image of the Party, was an unmitigated disaster for the Tories. The backroom deals and swindles and the constant stream of corruption scandals revealed a government with an incredible sense of entitlement and arrogance that angered and alienated many Albertans. But more than that, it began to expose the rottenness not only of the Party, not only of the Party and its relationship with the oil barons, but of the entire capitalist system itself.
Because the Tory party had ruled on its own for over 40 years, it was inevitable that splits and divisions in the ruling class would first appear in the Tory party itself. There simply was no other channel for opposition and divisions to be expressed. Redford had lost the confidence and support of the oil barons and corporations, who were gravitating towards Wildrose, a party more prepared to jettison all talk of “civil society” and rule more directly in the name of big oil. Both Stelmach and Redford represented a wing of the Tories that recognized that a very small portion of oil wealth needed to be used for tiny increases in infrastructure and public spending. But in the main, the capitalists are no longer interested in investing. In the period of the senile decline of capitalism, the capitalist class no longer has confidence in society. Long ago in the past, the bourgeoisie played a relatively progressive role in society in that they re-invested profits in the productive forces. However, from investing in society and developing the means of production, the capitalists are now a reactionary parasitic force, plundering state resources and profiting from robbing society blind of its resources. Never mind 100 years ago or more, even 40 or 50 years ago the bourgeois were more willing to invest. Nowadays, there is no investing, planning or saving for the future, because there is no confidence in the future. Thus, it’s spend now and pursue immediate profits; it’s oil before butter.
By the time she had become Premier, Redford had been all but abandoned by the oil barons and corporations in the energy sector. She was unceremoniously dumped as part of a nasty campaign orchestrated by Tory insiders and politicians, the oil and gas sector, and their allies in the corporate media.
It was Prentice who it was believed would set things right for big oil. With his rise in the Tory party to Premier the oil bosses believed they had found their man, a man who would return the Tories to governing in the interests of the oil barons and corporations alone. This played no small role in the returning of Danielle Smith to the Tory fold, and represented a “coming home” of sorts for the oil barons.
The collapse of the Wildrose opposition late last year, as nine Wildrose MLA’s opportunistically and underhandedly crossed the floor to join the governing Tories, provided further evidence of the rottenness of the system and of the right-wing parties. Against the backdrop of a growing economic crisis triggered by a severe collapse in the price of oil, the people of Alberta had zero confidence that the Tories would provide any real solutions to their problems. Prentice thought that by absorbing Danielle Smith and her vociferous opposition, this would make governing and electioneering easier. It brought big oil and the energy sector corporations back into the fold. It would pave the way for continued Tory dominance. It was clear that, as the political executive of the oil barons, the Tories would clearly govern in their favour and to the benefit of their interests alone. When the opposition all but collapsed, the workers and farmers of Alberta were forced to seek other points of opposition. It was clear to all the Wildrose and The Progressive Conservatives were one and the same. It became clear that on a class basis, the Wildrose and Tories were identical, and offered no solutions to the working class. They were forced to seek solutions to their problems elsewhere.
The problems started, naturally, with the collapse in the price of oil. The Tories found themselves between a rock and a hard place, trying to be all things to all people, or at least all people in the corporate boardrooms and small business offices around the province. Desperate in the face of collapsing prices and profits, a significant drop in new drilling and production, big oil and the energy sector corporations needed the Tories to go on the offensive in the name of their bottom lines. Whereas the oil boom had allowed the provincial government to avoid a sales tax and provided room for the reactionary flat income tax, these benefits for the capitalists could only be maintained on the basis of the relatively higher prices of oil. Once the price collapsed these would come under threat.
With the economic crisis in full swing and the collapse in the price of oil, Prentice announced that Alberta faced a $7-billion deficit. With production and investment falling, and job losses in the patch mounting, the Tories announced deep spending cuts. This “once-in-a-generation” budget represented the deepest spending cuts witnessed in Alberta since Ralph Klein launched a series of vicious attacks on social services and living and working conditions in the early 1990s. Overnight healthcare premiums were re-instated for all workers earning over $50,000 per year. The flat tax, so beneficial to the rich in the past would be jettisoned. Taxes were to increase marginally for the wealthiest income brackets. Consumption taxes were hiked on gasoline, alcohol and tobacco overnight and the government imposed new fees on a whole range of services from marriage licenses to traffic tickets and vehicle registrations to mortgage registrations.
Government spending was to be cut by $323-million, with projected spending cuts of upwards of $4-billion over 3 years. Spending on healthcare was set to drop by $159-million. Safety and environmental spending was to suffer $200-million in cuts and post-secondary institutions would see a further $80-million cut from their budgets.
It was clear: the oil barons and corporations, through their political executive in the PCs, were going to make the workers, farmers and poor of Alberta pay for the crisis. The capitalists in the province, who for years had plundered the provinces resources and made ridiculous profits while enjoying low taxation and royalty rates, were now suddenly crying broke and refused to pay anything for the crisis. This even when most people are well aware that these are some of the largest and wealthiest companies in the world.
The budget announced by Prentice was the final straw and revealed the deep divisions within the province. For many capitalists and those on the right, coalescing around the Wildrose, the cuts were not deep enough and the tax increases on the wealthy, however moderate, a slap in the face. For the workers and farmers and those on the left, they couldn’t face any further cuts to services and the tax increases on the rich were not enough. Moreover, while progressive taxation was being re-introduced for those in the highest income brackets, the oil barons and their corprations weren’t being asked to pay anything. There would be no increase in provincial resource royalties or corporate taxation.
The election showed us that these deep divisions could no longer be contained within the Progressive Conservative Party. As much as it was the NDP and to a lesser extent Wildrose who brought doom to the Tories, it was in the end the class struggle that tore the party asunder.
The Tories, in their arrogance, went about business as usual and attacked the working class as they had in the past. They had 43 years of political capital they could use, indeed could always use in the past, to drive through severe attacks on workers and farmers. Arrogant, entitled, and out of touch with reality, the PCs seemed unaware that because of their gross mismanagement of the economy and years of corruption scandals, that they had squandered and spent all of their political capital. Prentice even went so far as to blame everyday Albertan’s for the crisis and stating that everyone “had to look in the mirror” and take responsibility for overspending. Prentice then decided to continue with the silly rhetoric of the NDP “not understanding economics” and pressed ahead with the now infamous “I know math is difficult” phrase. This was astoundingly arrogant, and did the Tories no favours as everyone in the province was fully aware that the only people responsible for squandering and mismanaging oil weather for 40 years had been the Tories. The Tories thought it was business as usual, and in their wildest dreams didn’t expect any real opposition to their austerity package, never mind the surge and eventual electoral victory of the NDP.
It was unthinkable.
There was one major problem. The people of Alberta did not want to pay for the crisis, and indeed could not pay for the crisis. After more than 20 years of sustained austerity, punctuated only by moderate reversals in spending cuts as well as by round after round of deep cuts, the people of Alberta could take no more, and indeed would not take any more.
Despite the booming oil patch, which had recovered for several years following the 2008-2009 recession, and despite some of the highest wages in the country, many in Alberta were already finding it difficult to make ends meet - even before the collapse in the price of oil. Housing costs have skyrocketed, as has the price of fuel and food. A wage of $100,000 per year on the patch certainly doesn’t take one as far as one would think, especially considering the gross underfunding and generalized lack of access to social services.
Prior to the crisis in 2008-2009, the Tories were able to find relative political and economic stability on the basis of a relatively long and sustained boom in the patch. While oil was booming, there was very little reason for workers to question the capitalist system, as long as it was delivering jobs and decent wages. If the patch was booming, jobs were being created and wages were high, then people were willing to overlook the cuts, the growing poverty and disparity in the province, and were willing to overlook the behavior of the oil barons and corporations. There was a long-term and overwhelming sense of “not rocking the boat”. If things kept moving forward, then hopefully things would get better, hopefully there would be a light at the of the tunnel.
The Great Recession in 2008-2009 had a profound impact on all classes throughout the land and resulted in a series of political shocks, knocking the classes out of their long slumber of class peace. Each resulting shock fed into this change in consciousness, and laid the basis for further shocks.
As explained earlier this year in an article written by Camilo Cahis, the collapse in the price of oil and the developing crisis in the patch evidently had a huge impact on the workers and farmers of Alberta. They had done everything right, and done what they were asked to, with little complaint. Particularly on the patch, they worked long and hard hours under poor working conditions, sacrificed family life and stability with difficult “x days on and x days off” scheduling (usually 10 days on and 4 days off, or 21 days on and 7 days off, etc.). Furthermore, despite the boom on the patch, public services were stretched to the limit, with schools and hospital emergency wards and surgeries constantly at the breaking point.
Work on the patch is precarious by its very nature. With very little trade union presence (only about 10% of private sector workers are unionized, with 68% of public sector employees unionized, and a total of 20% of all workers in the province unionized) working on the patch is more akin to working in the Wild West than it is a modern society. In fact, exact union rates in the oil patch are difficult to determine as they are grouped in with forestry, fishing, mining and quarrying. At any rate, an estimated 10% of these workers find themselves in a union, although one would have to assume the majority of unions jobs are not found on the patch. There are jobs and high incomes when times are good, but there is virtually no protection when times are tough. Suddenly, through no fault of their own the price of oil collapsed. Rumours of political conspiracies were abound on the patch as workers discussed the possibility of low oil prices being the direct result of the attempt by the United States and its allies to break Russia. What did this have to do with them? The workers, individually and as class, are politically maturing and realized that their entire lives, indeed the entire province, could not be wholly dependent on the price of oil and cycle of booms and slumps in the patch. People had had enough with the era and policies of “oil before butter”.
Layoffs and wage cuts mounted, working conditions worsened. Yet mortgages and bills still have to be paid. On top of that, the Prentice budget announced that these same people, working families who had been on the brink even with wages on the patch, would now face deep cuts to services and increases in fees all across the board in what was nothing but a greedy cash grab.
The first question on everybody’s mind was: where did all the money go? How could it be that after all these years, there was no money whatsoever for social services, that there was no money to help protect families impacted by job losses on the patch and elsewhere, that on top of it all, hospitals and schools that were already stretched to the limit were going to get worse. After all their hard work, after all the years of sacrifice and austerity, what did the workers and farmers of Alberta have to show for it? And now they were being told that things would be worse and they would have to pay for it?
All of these issues posed one very clear question: who controls the (oil) wealth in the province, and how should it be harnessed and managed? This marks a concrete leap in the consciousness of the working class and farmers, and marks a decisive entry on their part into the political arena. For decades the working class has had very little opportunity to have its say or express their will. For the first time in a long time, at the very least, that has changed. The workers and farmers have stood up and attempted to take control over their own destinies, they have announced that they would like to see a new era launched, the era of “butter before oil”.
The impact of this election will not be limited to the borders of Alberta. With the energy sector accounting for around 20% of Alberta’s GDP, and with Alberta, not too long ago and arguably still the most dynamic and the leading force in Canada’s economy, representing just below 20% of Canada’s GDP, the victory of the NDP in Alberta will have a significant impact on politics on a national level as well. I would imagine that there is considerable concern today in the PMO and on Bay Street about the NDP victory in Alberta.
These are the concrete, material reasons for the rise in the NDP in Alberta and its crushing victory over the Tories. Some political pundits have tried to explain away the NDP victory as a one-off, an aberration. Despite the numbers, they still believe that Alberta is not an “NDP province”. They explain that this was simply a protest vote, explaining that the Tories were so bad that people wanted to punish the Tories and elect a party that would most hurt and humiliate the PCs, and that things will soon return to “normal”.
While the exact political and economic future cannot be determined with any accuracy, one thing is certain. Things will never be the same in Alberta again, and it is not likely that things will return to “normal”, i.e. we will not see the return decades-long stable governments with provincial politics dominated by a single party.
The reality is that, while certainly some of the votes the NDP received were indeed “protest votes”, the NDP won that election on the basis of the development of the class consciousness of the workers, farmers and youth of Alberta. The NDP victory in Alberta demonstrates rather clearly that, despite its problems, the NDP is still seen as the party of working people.
When the working class moves, as it has in Alberta, it will generally move through a series of political expressions and parties in an attempt to find the best solution to its problems. In Alberta they have suffered the Tories for decades, and at times looked to the Liberals, some even to Wildrose. But now they have clearly moved to the NDP and are finding at least a partial expression of their interests there.
Perhaps quicker than expected, the workers and farmers in Alberta, through the thousands of historical and political ties that bind them, by means of historical memory, instinctively gravitated around the NDP and the trade unions.
After years of cuts and austerity, after decades of “oil before butter” the people of Alberta have stood up and said “Enough is enough!” The electoral victory of the NDP marks a massive development in the consciousness of workers and farmers in Alberta. It marks their political awakening. Workers who in the past were considered backward and hopelessly conservative have taken a giant leap, and struck a clear blow to the ruling class and oil barons.
While we will have more time in the coming days and weeks to discuss the election and the impact it will have, and while the reaction to this monumental change continues to unfold we will have an opportunity to discuss perspectives for the province, it should be noted that the current NDP government in Alberta will quickly find itself in a difficult position.
The party program was not particularly left wing, and was more in line with the NDP federally and in other provinces where the overriding concern was to present the party as responsible “managers” of capitalism. But capitalism cannot be managed or tinkered with.
Notley’s acceptance speech was designed to be all things to all people. She tried to allay the fears of the oil barons and corporations by highlighting her government’s desire to be a “good partner”. Interestingly, when she mentioned that she was working with Stephen Harper on a host of issues involving Alberta, Notley was interrupted by a lengthy chorus of anti-Harper booing. This is indicative of the mood of the rank-and-file of the NDP and is a harbinger of future conflicts.
It is no accident that the NDP is growing stronger now precisely where it has been historically weakest. The NDP surged in Quebec and Alberta, historically speaking two of the least likely places to find an Orange Wave. The reason for this is that the NDP in these provinces, because it has been so weak historically, has not had much experience with power and is not “stained” or “tainted” with a legacy of austerity, corruption and bad governments as they were in the provinces of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Colombia. Where the workers have more experience of the NDP there is a concurrent rise in cynicism and contempt due to the betrayals. Because of the relative weakness of the unions and NDP in Alberta, the bureaucracy and apparatus is also relatively weak compared to its counterparts. This leaves the door open for radicalization and the prospects of large struggles in the future where the unions and labour movement bureaucracy may not so easily be able to control the situation and rein the workers in.
Notley also acknowledged that “Albertans voted for change”. And they did. And they will more than likely need to remind her of that. The NDP won on the basis of opposition to austerity, and modest tax redistribution through royalties and taxing the rich. This will not be enough to halt austerity, growing unemployment, deteriorating standards of living or reduce the problems in the patch. The constant cycle of booms and slumps on the patch should be enough of an indicator that there can be no solution to these problems on the basis of capitalism. Only a program based on a decisive break with capitalism and based on a program of nationalization and workers’ control can defeat austerity.
We would like to take this opportunity to tip our hats and raise our fists to the 7,000 NDP volunteers, as well as the to workers, farmers and youth of Alberta whose powerful expression of anger has struck a blow to the bosses, to the oil barons, and to the PCs and Harper. The victory undoubtedly was due in no small part to your hard work, blood, sweat and tears and extreme determination to get through a lot of lean and difficult years.
Our own version of the Tory nightmare is over, in Alberta at least. The workers, farmers and youth of Alberta have given us the lead. Our next task is to take the battle federally and wipe out the Tories and Liberals in the next federal election.