The landslide election of 1993 took the ground out from under the Alberta New Democrats. The once-thriving official opposition lost every one of its 16 seats in an election that changed the political dialogue of the province.
“The spectrum had moved dramatically,” says Ray Martin, NDP leader at the time. “We became isolated.”
Two years before the election, the NDP was sitting as the official opposition with polling numbers putting it at 30 percent. Martin had brought the party to victory in 1986 and had maintained a consistent percent of the vote, with polls showing 30 percent of Albertans supported the party. At the time, Martin says the party establishment was contemplating forming government—a thought that has been but a fleeting dream for NDP members over the last 20 years.
Martin says the 1993 election got away from the party as soon as newly elected Liberal leader Laurence Decore declared the need for “brutal cuts” to eliminate Alberta’s growing provincial debt. Ralph Klein, who was new to the provincial scene at the time, returned fire with the need for “massive cuts.” It was a conversation that didn’t match up with the social democratic values of the NDP.
“We could feel we were in some difficulty midway through that election,” Martin recalls. “But we didn’t contemplate the loss that occurred.”
And it was devastating to party members, says Mimi Williams. Williams, who was a coordinator of outreach for the party at the time, says dedicated NDP supporters didn’t know what to do after the loss.
“People woke up the next day wondering what to do with themselves,” she says.
At the time, Martin publicly declared the party would “lay down to bleed a while.” And it did. But it’s an open question as to whether the party has followed through on the second part of Martin’s statement, to “rise and fight again.”
For the past 20 years, the NDP has been unable to regain its position as official opposition, some years barely being able to hold status as a recognized party in the legislature with only two members.
For Shannon Phillips, a longtime party activist and the 2012 candidate in Lethbridge West, getting Raj Pannu and Pam Barrett elected in 1997 was a turning point.
“We have made interventions since ’97 that outweigh the seats we hold,” she says.
Phillips recently worked in the war room on the BC campaign and thinks the Alberta NDP are more prepared to deal with the messages of economic uncertainty and fiscal conservatism because of the ’93 defeat and the lessons of the 2011 federal election success.
“The federal NDP understood that you needed to speak to people on the security of their pocketbooks and their jobs, and then you earn the right to have a conversation about health care and services,” Phillips says. “I think we’re doing better in Alberta than in other places because we have had to dance with the right more than other jurisdictions.”
With the lessons learned internally, the message that the party is electable in this province might also be returning. David Eggen was returned to his seat in Edmonton-Calder and rookie Deron Bilous took a seat in Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview. More importantly, the party was able to build votes in unexpected areas, like in Phillips’ riding, Lethbridge-West. It traditionally swings Conservative or Liberal, but the 2012 election saw a near tripling of the NDP vote in the riding.
While Martin thinks the party is smart to focus resources in key ridings like the urban Edmonton ridings, Phillips thinks it’s time to talk about the party as a provincial one.
Where Martin and Phillips agree is in the ability of the party to one day run a campaign of forming government.
“Everyone laughed when we said we were going to win practically every seat in Quebec,” Phillips says. “And then we did.”
Martin’s convinced the party can build to the point of forming government in 10 years.
“We could have won more in this past election,” he says. “It won’t happen in this election or the next, but I’m convinced in a decade that we can be government.”
Phillips sees a similar timeline, first campaigning on a position of forming the official opposition and then government.
“It’s a perfectly credible proposition to say to Albertans, ‘Look: there is a new generation of New Democrats who are prepared to make a credible case to Albertans on the business of provincial government,'” Phillips says, echoing the words of Jack Layton: “Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.”