Going into battle, alone

It's politics, and it's what politicians do.

Jeff McIntosh/ CP; John Ulan/CP

“You can only be bloody and unbowed to a point,” grumbled a frustrated Liberal candidate, calling upon the opposition parties to stop splitting their vote against a monolithic right-wing governing party. “We have passed that point.” The Liberal brand, he complained in an election-night interview, should be abandoned in favour of uniting the parties on the progressive side.

“We would have to get by the personal pride of the leaders and the hollow speeches,” he ventured. But he had spoken with “high leaders” in opposition, he said, and “had found agreement with his views.”

The date was June 17, 1963. The disgruntled Liberal was Calgary alderman Ted Duncan, and he was pitching the formation of an “Alberta Unity Party.” E.C. Manning’s provincial Social Credit government had just been re-elected, winning 60 of 63 seats in Alberta’s legislature. Ex-Stampeder Duncan had finished third in Calgary West behind Progressive Conservative leader Milt Harradence, a flamboyant fighter pilot (and future Alberta Court of Appeal justice) who used a P-51 Mustang as his campaign plane. Duncan argued, with impeccable logic, that “if either Mr. Harradence or I had run alone, we could have beat [Socred candidate Donald] Fleming.” To him, a Liberal-Conservative agreement to run “the best man” in each riding was the only strategy capable of stopping the Socreds.

Duncan was immediately rebuked by both his own leader and by Harradence. Forty-seven years later, his frustration is still felt by the luckless Alberta Liberals. But the denouement of the tale shows why opposition parties often end up choosing patience over self-abnegation. Harradence’s successor as Conservative leader, Peter Lougheed, would snatch the Calgary West seat from Fleming in the next election (1967) and become premier in the one after that (1971).

As Ottawa crackles with rumours of an electoral pact or even a merger between the federal Liberals and the NDP, Alberta serves as a practical reminder that overcoming deep grassroots allegiances is not easy, even when the stakes are high and the futility of vote-splitting might be considered obvious. For four decades Alberta’s Liberals and New Democrats have professed to loathe Conservative government, but even through the Ralph Klein years they continued to reject the teamwork of even the most casual kind that might have thwarted it.

Dr. David Swann, a tall, lugubrious physician who once held a hunger strike outside Stephen Harper’s constituency office, took over the Alberta Liberals in December 2008. He refused at first to rule out any strategic possibilities, including an “Alberta Unity”-type arrangement with the New Democrats. But with the new Wildrose Alliance hypothetically splitting the right-wing vote, and the NDP remaining hostile to compromise, he has pledged renewed faith in the red Liberal standard.

Alberta’s Internet is ablaze with home-cooked, half-baked progressive schemes for transcending existing political brands. (For a while, disgruntled dissident voters faced an amusingly esoteric choice between Renew Alberta and Reboot Alberta.) But the 2012 election will be fought, Wildrose aside, on the old lines.

This became crystal clear in April when Friends of Medicare director David Eggen, an ex-MLA and perhaps the highest-profile Alberta New Democrat outside the assembly, announced a switch from his old Edmonton-Calder riding, re-mapped to the PCs’ advantage, to the perennial three-way battleground of Edmonton-Glenora. This was denounced as dog-in-the-manger behaviour by the renewers-rebooters. But it’s politics, and it’s what politicians do.

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