Political entrepreneurship and UCP


Lethbridge Herald
5 Aug 2017
Faron Ellis and George Rigaux

First of four parts

Following the decisive votes by both Wildrose and Progressive Conservative members in support of merging their parties into the new United Conservative Party (UCP), many headlines have posed the quite reasonable question: what comes next?

Beginning today, and over the next few weeks, we will attempt to provide some answers. Initially, we will review what led to the merger by placing the UCP in its contemporary and historical contexts. Past examples of political entrepreneurship can provide useful lessons, at least where circumstances are similar enough to make meaningful comparisons. Fortunately, Canada has a rich tradition of political entrepreneurship from which we can draw.

Political entrepreneurs from the Canadian prairies, Alberta in particular, have spawned a variety of new parties, mergers of legacy parties and major political realignments. The United Farmers provincial parties and their progressive federal counterparts in the early 20th century were followed by the Great Depression-era Social Credit and Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. The latter eventually entering into a formal alliance with the Canadian Labour Congress to create the NDP. Indeed, Peter Lougheed’s building of the Alberta PC’s from the ground up into a 44-year dynasty that replaced the 36-year Socred dynasty, itself the result of an outstanding act of political entrepreneurship, serve as provincial examples. More recently, and likely more useful for comparative purposes, are Preston Manning’s Reform Party/United Alternative and Stephen Harper’s successful merging of the Reform/Alliance and Progressive Conservatives into the Conservative Party of Canada.

Although somewhat unique in their circumstances, approaches and results, each of these share common threads of political entrepreneurship: the identification of substantial unrepresented or inadequately represented demand within the electorate; and the attempted establishment of a new political vehicle to meet that demand, either by way of building anew from the ground up, or through amalgamation of existing parties.

Recent Alberta conservative politics is well known and need only be briefly outline here to understand what caused the unrepresented demand. When successive PC governments could not find their purpose after the policy drift that accompanied the final years of the Klein governments, each successive administration alienated swaths of former supporters, and eventually the Alberta electorate more generally. The Stelmach government so thoroughly annoyed the Calgary oil patch that it began financing the upstart Wildrose. When Wildrose elected Danielle Smith as leader and the Redford government began alienating rural Alberta, it appeared Wildrose would continue the provincial tradition of replacing a long-serving dynasty with a new party, elevating it from relative obscurity to majority government in a single election. But the 2012 election exposed Wildrose’s inability to corral its more radical social conservative elements whose outbursts repeatedly damaged the entire brand.

When Jim Prentice ascended to the PC leadership and engineered the floor-crossing of Smith and most of her caucus, both parties were tarnished beyond repair. Alberta voters flocked to the NDP and conservatives in both parties were left with some soul searching to do. Despite their defeat, the 2015 election produced ambiguous results for Alberta conservatives. Wildrose won more seats and formed the official opposition, but on fewer votes than the PCs. The PCs were reduced to third party status but had history, more votes and enduring organizational capacity. With posthoneymoon polls showing Notley and the NDP faltering, often trailing the PCs and Wildrose, both conservative parties dug in for another four years of internecine warfare. Enter Jason Kenney. Kenney was first to identify the strong demand for a unified option among both Wildrose and PC voters. He launched what was at the time considered an audacious campaign to unite the two warring conservative factions, built momentum, won the PC leadership by campaigning on a unity platform, convinced reluctant Wildrose leader Brian Jean to come onboard, achieved a workable unity agreement and delivered an overwhelming majority of PC members’ support.

Of all the variables that had to be considered, all the people that had to be convinced, recruited and organized, and all the hurdles that had to be overcome, Kenney’s intervention into the self-induced quagmire of Alberta conservative politics stands as the single most important factor in getting Alberta conservatives to the UCP. Although coming a bit late to the party, Jean deserves credit for delivering Wildrose. But make no mistake, full credit for ending the now decade-long split that eventually led to the neither Wildrose nor PCs governing rests squarely on the shoulders of Jason Kenney.

Kenney is only three acts into his five-act entrepreneurial play. And substantial hurdles remain. But his quest to create and lead the UCP to government already ranks as one of the most successful acts of political entrepreneurship in Alberta history. Should he ultimately succeed, it will rank among the most successful in Canadian history.

Faron Ellis is Research Chair, Citizen Society Research Lab, Lethbridge College. George Rigaux is a Lethbridge banker, Reform-CPC organizer and campaign manager.