Is an NDP civil war looming?

Congratulations to Naheed Nenshi.

He’s earned the leadership of Alberta’s New Democratic Party. And he means to earn the premiership. However, he’s got an uphill battle — and it isn’t from who you expect.

Nenshi’s biggest problem may be his own party.

There’s a phenomenon in politics — particularly Alberta’s politics. It’s called “single party dominance,” which Alberta experienced under the PCs from 1971 to 2015.

Single-party dominance doesn’t happen because of some malfeasance by the dominant party. Rather, it’s explained by self-destructive behaviour within opposition parties.  Simply, dominant parties happen when opposition parties marginalize themselves.

The mechanics are simple. People often get into politics because they want to be big fish. Officials in opposition parties can make themselves seem bigger by shrinking the pond. It isn’t necessarily a conscious choice. As a political figure, you get ahead inside your party by being more doctrinaire.  At the same time, this makes the party more strident and extreme, which alienates moderate voters. You benefit personally, at the expense of your party.

It’s a form of corruption.

For the Alberta NDP and Liberals, this was reality for most of 44 long years. Their leadership generally kept them too strident to win at the polls. Poor electoral results were excused by blaming them on an electorate that was somehow too ignorant to vote for the best party.

But in 2015, that changed.

It’s been argued that the NDP’s 2015 victory was owed to the PCs splitting the vote with the Wildrose Party. There’s some truth to that, though the chaos that enveloped Wildrose after Smith’s floor-crossing had more effect. But there is one undeniable truth: Rachel Notley made the NDP moderate itself (at least in some things) to the point that she was able to take advantage of her opponents’ stumbles.

That moderation was the key that allowed Notley to form the government. But with the NDP out of office for five years, there has been a new development. And it’s one that is peculiar to the NDP.

It can be summed up in one word: “Affiliate.”

The NDP has long allowed unions to have seats on their provincial council. But last year, it seems that they broadened that out to include “organizations.”  Article 2.11 of the NDP Constitution makes it clear that those are local, provincial, or national organizations  with local branches that “undertake to accept and abide by the constitution and principles of the Party.”

And when we understand that the Alberta Teachers’ Association has promised to fund radical “organizations” opposed to the governing United Conservative Party, we understand that these groups will make the party more and more radical.

Now, maybe I’m misreading the NDP constitution. And maybe they exercise restraint in allowing organizations to have a seat at the table.  But when we have a union — which manifestly has a seat at the table — sponsoring organizations, it seems unlikely that its nominees won’t get their affiliate status.

And boy, that status carries weight.

Every affiliate has the right to send delegates to provincial conventions.  And affiliates have as much as 25% of the votes in a leadership race. And most importantly, each affiliate gets a seat on the NDP’s Provincial Council.  To understand how strong a position that is, imagine what would happen if Smith’s United Conservatives allowed businesses a similar degree of power.

What this will tend to do is drag the NDP into the radical left. And on education, they’re pretty far gone already.

In last year’s election, the NDP promised to defund non-public options in education. And the strangely restricted vision of curriculum didn’t win us over, either. Nenshi himself promised funding for public education — which is a dog whistle to educational extremists who want to end Catholic, Charter, and Private schools. Dancing with radicals is how he won the leadership.

But that stance will galvanize opposition to the NDP. As much as a quarter of Alberta’s families have either left the public school system, or are currently trying to. Another quarter of them are in the Catholic schools. That’s powerful. Nenshi’s education promise may have helped him take the leadership, but it will never make him premier.

Nenshi — who was at least a little bit pragmatic as Mayor of Calgary — must know this.

If he wants to become premier, Nenshi must do more than separate from the federal NDP. He needs to moderate the party’s policies, particularly on education. That won’t happen unless he changes the NDP constitution to reduce the power of affiliates — whether unions or radical activists.  He is going to have to fight — and win — an NDP civil war.

For Nenshi, the upcoming byelections are key. If he can win at least some of them, it will strengthen his position within the party, and let him reform its constitution. If Smith manages to defeat him in the byelections, he may not have the strength to accomplish the necessary reforms.

If he fails the byelections and the constitutional reform, Nenshi won’t be able to win a general election.  He’ll lose the leadership — and the NDP will fall further and further to the radical Left.

Congratulations, Naheed, and good luck.  

You’ll need it.

John Hilton-O’Brien is the Executive Director of Parents for Choice in Education,

This article originally appeared in the Western Standard on June 25th, 2024. A printable pdf is available.