Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Can Christy Clark learn any lessons from Alison Redford?

It’s a staple of punditry to take events in one region and try to connect them to another. And far be it from me to break with tradition. But I think the parallels between Alberta and British Columbia are interesting, and I think there are definitely lessons that Christy Clark and the BC Liberals could take from Alison Redford’s surprise PC majority in Alberta last night – if they choose too.

They do have a lot in common: fresh female faces that won the leadership against expectations and with minimal caucus support. Both took over long-ruling governments (crazy-long in Alberta’s case) facing a public appetite for change. Both were seen as too moderate and l/Liberal. And both faced significant threats on their right flank, from the Wild Rose Party in Alberta to the BC Conservative Party in B.C. Both opponents have drawn lots of attention, and both have weak benches beyond their leaders.

Now, the parallels aren’t perfect, of course. BC Conservative leader John Cummins is most definitely no Danielle Smith. And Redford had no real threat on her left from the Alberta Liberals and NDP, while Clark has to contend with an NDP that's leading the polls and the reality of vote-splitting moving ridings to the NDP. But I do think it’s telling how both Redford and Clark have dealt with their very similar situations.

Facing a threat on her right flank, Redford may well have been tempted to lunge right to bring the defectors back into the camp. Instead, she stayed in the moderate middle (it’s large even in Alberta) and was able to bring progressives into her fold, attracting traditional Liberal and NDP voters determined to stop an even more conservative threat. She may have lost some of her more conservative members (goodbye, Ted Morton) but the result is a government with broad public support that owes nothing to the right.

Meanwhile, facing the same threat on her right in B.C., Clark has opted for the opposite approach, shifting ever more right to try to bring conservative voters back into the fold that are fleeing to the BC Conservatives. She’s stuffed her office with Harperites, adopted his media approach and taken him to hockey games. Other than a majorly overdue hike to the minimum wage, from crime policy to resource development I can’t point to many particularly Liberal policies from her government.

And what has this rightward shift gotten her? Continued bleeding in the polls and a restless caucus as, faced with a choice between faux-conservative and the real thing, most people looking for that opt for the genuine article.

In the interim, Clark’s left flank, ignored and taken for granted, is becoming increasingly restless. With her Harperite chief of staff musing about dropping Liberal from the party name, many wonder if that hasn’t happened already. If Clark keeps ignoring her left flank, she’s going to wake up one day soon and find it’s gone. With her right going to the BC Conservatives, that doesn’t leave her with very much to work with.

I’d encourage Clark to embrace Redford’s example. And embrace her own image. She’s seen (by those on the right, certainly) as a progressive with (too) strong Liberal ties. Trying to out-conservative John Cummins is a losing battle. She’s a centrist, and the votes are in the centre. One reason Redford succeeded is that she was genuine, while Clark is running away from herself.

Let the far-right leave and stop drawing you away from where most of the voters are. Marginalize and ignore the BC Cons: only two parties have a realistic shot at government – the BC Liberals the BC NDP. That’s the choice; focus on that battle and on winning the centre.

Maybe it’s a hopeless fight; it certainly seemed so for Redford. And Clark is between a rock and a hard place. But the right will never buy her as a born-again conservative, and trying to do so will only drive the left away.

I’d leave her with this thought: is a desperate lunge right really why she got back into politics? I’m not saying the fall is all that’s left. Anything can happen. But does it matter how one falls? I think it matters a great deal.

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Anonymous said...

Not an entirely comparable situation (The so-called "Liberal" party in B.C. is a rather strange hybrid after all), but there are some similarities involved.

The smart move for Clark would be to write off the old Socred elements of the party's rural base (which are moving in droves to the BC Conservatives in any case) and tack more to the center-left, attracting moderate liberals and those who would otherwise be culled by the NDP.

DavidA said...

Fighting with a more extreme version of yourself is a losing battle.

Clark should take the absolute centre, drive out the SoCons, keep the FiCons, and suck up as many social Libs as possible. Play nice with the feds, placate the left, and play the long game.

BC is essentially split down the middle, as far as partisans are concerned. Clark runs the risk of being a Dion if she runs too far to either side.