Party of the People: Peter Lougheed and the Alberta PCs

The election of New Democrat Rachel Notley has left many Albertans and Canadians in shock – the governing Progressive Conservatives had entered government (just under) 44 years ago, on August 31 1971.  Many of us can’t even remember that and here at Clio’s, we can’t even remember an Albertan Premier before Ralph Klein, who became Premier in 1993.  Many woke up on May 6 wondering if Alberta was resigned to dynasties and if the NDP were setting up for a couple of decades of Alberta rule.  One way or another, the comparison to 1971 when the PCs kicked out the ruling Social Credit Party are thick on the ground.

Left:  Peter Lougheed  / Right:  Rachel Notley  via Wikipedia.

Left: Peter Lougheed / Right: Rachel Notley via Wikipedia.

Looking back to Alberta’s first PC Premier, Peter Lougheed, is inevitable. Both Lougheed and Notley undermined an established but aging party with a lacklustre leader.  Both were themselves charismatic leaders who led their parties to their first victory by virtue of their face and name.  Both the PCs and the NDP offered fresh, young new MLAs with little experience in government. Yet some today wonder if the NDP MPs are a bit too inexperienced. Certainly, Lougheed’s party was not quite as untested as the current NDP government under Rachel Notley.

But taken as two moments in time, the comparison between 1971 and 2015 is a compelling one. “Everyone takes for granted that Social Credit is doing well,” Peter Lougheed declared in 1965 after winning the PC leadership, “nobody knows, however, how well they are really doing.” Lougheed took a moribund provincial party that had withered on the vine next to Alberta’s Social Credit government, and created the longest-serving government in Canadian history. On August 23 2014, the PCs had been in power for 15,688 days and surpassed the previous record holder, Nova Scotia Liberals who had governed from 1882 to 1925 (followed closely by Ontario’s PCs with 15,289 days from 1943 to 1985). In fourth place was the party that Lougheed destroyed, the Social Credit Party who governed Alberta from 1935 to 1971 for 13,156 days. From 1943 to 1968, they were led by Ernest Manning (father of Preston) and were as popular as ever.

Today, many causally remember the reason for the SoCreds’ 1971 loss: a diversifying population that was increasingly urban and upper middle class, not rural and lower middle class. The Social Credit Party just didn’t change enough for a new generation of Albertans that did not remember the Great Depression of the 1930s and grew up in a city, not on the farm. Yet, none predicted the Peter Lougheed’s majority government in 1971 despite how “obvious” it seems to us today.  Understated is Lougheed’s own role in forging a new PC party and winning over Albertans.

In 1965, no one knew that the lawyer Peter Lougheed would become one of the best Premiers in Canadian history.  Then, he was a young lawyer and grandson of Albertan politician James Lougheed and faced with revitalizing a dead party. The Alberta PCs had never been in government, and their best showing had been in 1917 when they won 19 out of 58 seats. Since then they had languished and didn’t even have candidates in some ridings for the half-century until Lougheed became Party Leader. Lougheed immediately set out on the path to power. He established “guideposts” for the PCs, outlining exactly what policies and positions a PC government would take and distinguishing themselves (but not too much) from the ruling SoCreds.  The Lougheed PCs were still conservative, he reminded Albertans, but they were also progressive. Change was not a bad thing.

Lougheed gathered the reins of power in the party around himself, pushing out older uninspired members to make way for new and ambitious ones (including briefly a young Joe Clark). His first and only campaign against Ernest Manning in the 1967 election was not meant to be a breakthrough – Lougheed wanted to win in his own riding of Calgary West (the first time a Conservative leader had won their own seat since 1917), and emphasize that the PCs were a reasonable alternative to the Social Credit Party.  It worked. Lougheed secured his seat while the PCs won 26% of the popular vote, and though that translated to only six seats in the 65-seat legislature, but it made them the Official Opposition.

A year later, Manning resigned. Manning had recognized that the SoCreds needed renewal in the 1960s. He brought in younger members to help guide the party through the turbulent decade and update its policies and image (including his son, Preston), but there was much resistance from the Old Guard that wanted to preserve the religious and rural origins of the Party. When the 61-yeard old Manning left to let a “younger” leader take his place (52-year old Harry Strom!), it proved increasingly difficult to adapt the party to changing political circumstances.  With the benefit of hindsight, it seems like the SoCreds had dug their own grave when comparing their new leader Harry Strom to the youthful and engaging PC leader Peter Lougheed.

Lougheed immediately set about improving the image of his party and developing an organization capable of winning the next election. He toured the province, listening to Albertans of all backgrounds, but particularly focused on rural areas where the PCs still performed poorly. On Friday nights, he went to local shopping centre in his riding to shake hands and talk to his constituents face to face. Little by little, the PCs built connections and impressed voters by their commitment to the people, rather than government. They were the party of Albertans, unlike the SoCreds, who merely hung onto power by virtue of a three-decade established tradition.

This part, at least, sounds familiar in 2015.

The small group of Conservative MLAs also begun to participate actively in the legislature. Though the Social Credit majority only met sparingly (since every vote passed), when it was in session the PCs took every opportunity to lambast the government and introduce their own well researched and well written legislation. At the time, it was an innovative practice that was obviously doomed to fail as not even one of their introduced bills ever passed, but it proved to Albertans that the PCs had reasonable policies. It set them up for the 1971 campaign as a party capable of governing the province.

Peter Lougheed opens campaign in Calgary, Alberta, via The Glenbow Museum.

Peter Lougheed opens campaign in Calgary, Alberta, via The Glenbow Museum.

NOW! was the Conservative campaign motto in 1971. As in, now was the time for change. The campaign featured a full slate of Conservative candidates, a powerful and modern PC organization, and an ambitious and likable Peter Lougheed at the helm. While the SoCreds spent almost no money on television advertising (stating that no one watched TV in the summer), the PCs spent most of their advertising budget on TV ads. They targeted the myth of Social Credit performance in the province, asking Albertans to consider a positive change for the sake of change itself.  Lougheed ultimately convinced 46% of Albertans that the SoCreds did not have a right to govern simply because of their length of service, and that the Conservatives could govern at least as well as the SoCreds – if not better.

While political analysts like to attribute Lougheed’s victory to the disparity between urban and rural, it’s not that simple. Edward Bell had shown that the Social Credit Party received reasonable support from rural and urban voters in 1971, and their popular vote (41.1%) was not too out of line from previous elections. Instead, while SoCred leader Harry Strom was fighting a losing battle, it was one of his own making. He didn’t realise that he had to convince Albertans to vote for his party rather than convince them not to vote PC. A telling example was from a speech on 26 August 1971 just days before the election, when Strom declared that a Conservative victory “would be the first step in the takeover of Alberta by the socialists.”  Few were convinced by the old spectre of socialism, let alone when applied to Lougheed’s Conservatives. It offered no reason to vote for the SoCreds. On August 30, 1971, the PCs won 49 seats in the now 75 seat legislature, a clear majority.

The next fourteen years under Premier Lougheed were historic ones. Alberta went from a somewhat backwards province led by aging ideologues to the centre of the national stage. Lougheed stood toe to toe with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and other political giants of the day. The price of oil skyrocketed – it was between $2-3 a barrel in 1971 and it was $28 a barrel by 1985 when he left office.  Alberta’s GDP per capita was $17,000 when Lougheed became Premier and rose to $50,000 by the end of his tenure. As we all know, it was the start of the longest-serving government in Canadian history – largely because of Lougheed’s policies and appeal that continued to be associated with his party years after he stepped down in 1985.

Peter Lougheed with René Lévesque, 1981  during a constitutional conference, via Library and Archives Canada.

Peter Lougheed with René Lévesque, 1981 during a constitutional conference, via Library and Archives Canada.

Today, Alberta’s Premier Rachel Notley and her NDP government face a similar challenge, but perhaps one that will be more difficult to overcome. There are many superficial similarities between 1971 and 2015, but inevitably it will be different government with different results, despite Alberta’s inclination to vote in dynasties.  Lougheed had the advantage of rising oil prices, a relatively minor ideological shift from the conservative Social Credit Party to the Conservative Party, and also had years of building his party and preparing for government from the time he was elected leader in 1965.  Notley only became leader of the NDP eight months ago in October 2014.  While both had little experience in government, Lougheed’s Cabinet was generally filled with lawyers, doctors and businessmen.  Notley does not have the same calibre on which to draw.

Still, one compelling similarity between the two is hard to dismiss. Both faced down aging government with by calling themselves the party of the people and the party for Albertans. Both Lougheed and Notley genuinely believed that the ruling government had lost their way and it was time for a change and renewal. Lougheed certainly delivered on that promise, and now Notley has the same opportunity as he did, though under vastly different circumstances. The opportunity for democratic renewal, even if it doesn’t work out, is always worthwhile.