For Alberta NDP Leader Ray Martin, the June 15 provincial election was a crushing setback. The party that he had helped take from political obscurity in the early 1970s to official Opposition status in 1986 lost all of its 15 seats in the legislature-including Martin’s own in the working-class riding of Edmonton/Norwood. But in announcing his resignation as NDP leader last week, Martin flatly rejected suggestions that the electoral debacle demonstrated that the NDP’s message is increasingly falling on deaf ears. “Do not write an obituary for the New Democratic Party,” Martin admonished reporters. “It won’t die. It has its philosophy of justice, compassion and fairness.” But many within Martin’s own party, including some defeated MLAs, contend that the problems for the NDP go much deeper—and that the party’s stunning defeat in Alberta sounds a clear warning for social democrats across the country.
Martin attributes the NDP’s loss in Alberta almost exclusively to what he calls “strategic voting.” Thousands of traditional NDP supporters, he says, voted for the resurgent provincial liberals in an attempt to oust the governing Progressive Conservatives led by Premier Ralph Klein. As a result, adds Martin, the Liberals captured 13 of 15 seats held by the NDP on its way to becoming Alberta’s official Opposition. But while almost everyone agrees
that strategic voting was a significant factor, it was not the only one. Former NDP MLA Barry Pashak, who lost his seat in Calgary/Forest Lawn to the Tories, says that the party needs to radically rethink both its policies and its rhetoric. “If we formed a government and tried to implement all of our policy directives, we would bankrupt the government overnight,” says Pashak. “Many of our policies are completely unreal—they reflect special interest groups.”
During the Alberta campaign, Martin stressed traditional NDP themes. He spoke of the need to create jobs and protect social programs, while criticizing his opponents for being obsessed with deficit reduction. But the message did not always have its desired effect. George Mulligan, an unemployed crane operator in Martin’s own riding who supported the NDP in the past, voted Liberal this time. While Mulligan says that his main aim was to defeat Klein, he also was critical of Martin’s pledge to increase taxes on people earning more than $80,000. “He forgets that they are the people who invest, who put people to work,” says Mulligan. “Why hit these guys?”
Still, in his parting remarks, Martin cautioned against any radical change in direction. He also rejected suggestions that the party is too beholden to special interest groups such as unions, feminists and environmentalists. “The ideals of standing up for the underdog will always be part of this party,” he declared. Perhaps. But for the next four years at leasfi the party will have to pursue those ideals outside the Alberta legislature.
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