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Alison Redford, like Kathy Dunderdale before her, learned the hard way what happens when the nervous Nellies in caucus lose faith in a leader's ability to turn it around.

Before Ms. Redford's resignation as premier, Alberta's Progressive Conservatives were dangerously close to slipping below the provincial Liberals and New Democrats in the polls. Like Ms. Redford, Ms. Dunderdale inherited the premiership, then faced electors and won a majority government. Before reaching the midpoint of their mandates, both leaders faced terrible poll numbers and caucus revolts. But should that have been enough to end their political careers?

One wonders what might have happened had they been men instead of their respective provinces' first female premiers. Would they have given in as easily, sacrificing themselves for the greater good of party unity? Instead, they chose flight rather than fight, which may not send the best message to aspiring women leaders.

What just happened in Alberta hardly amounts to democracy in action. Mob rule comes to mind. Mostly it is an illustration of the self-preservation instinct that drives sitting legislators.

For all the recent chatter about democratic reform, sparked in part by the Senate scandal and Conservative Michael Chong's private member's bill aimed at giving individual MPs more power, modern political parties are professional outfits with the singular mission of winning elections.

Ms. Redford's biggest failure lay in her inability to control her caucus, stroke backbencher egos and inspire confidence that she could win the next election. Her fate only reinforces the need for successful leaders to lay down the law before the mob takes matters into its own hands.

Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is discovering just how hard that is. His decision to prevent Christine Innes from becoming the Liberal candidate in an upcoming by-election in the Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina belies his oft-uttered promise of holding open nomination contests. Mr. Trudeau insists Ms. Innes was blocked only because of "bullying" by her team, which includes her husband, former Trinity-Spadina Liberal MP Tony Ianno. But that's not the way others see it.

The head of the local Liberal riding association released a statement saying "there was absolutely no due or fair process" in Ms. Innes's disqualification. In solidarity, prospective candidate Zach Paikin pulled out of his nomination race, saying: "To block a candidacy, in effect, is to prevent someone from running for Parliament. That's not fair and it's not democratic."

Mr. Trudeau should just admit that open nominations are overrated in an era where party discipline is Job 1. Candidates must be scrupulously vetted for any minor skeletons and loose cannons can ruin an otherwise perfectly executed campaign. Social media is as much a nightmare as a gift for modern campaigns, as past tweets, Facebook posts, even sexts live on eternally.

The truth is, Mr. Trudeau has his preferred candidate for Trinity-Spadina's successor riding (current Toronto Centre MP Chrystia Freeland) and Ms. Innes threatened to upset the grand plan. All his sweet talk of party democracy is merely the velvet glove encasing his iron fist.

I've got news for all those eager recruits who became Liberals to back Mr. Trudeau's 2013 leadership bid: You were being used. Your ideas were being taken seriously only to the extent that the campaign pros can make personal pitches to you for money and your vote in 2015. Algorithms might even be used to "shape" Mr. Trudeau's message for maximum effect. Apparently talking about the "troubling" plight of the middle class is polling well these days.

Party conventions are nominally an opportunity for the rank-and-file to put their stamp on policy by passing countless resolutions, which are systematically ignored by strategists who shape the electoral platform. Prospective MPs go to "candidates' school," where they're trained to repeat talking points and stay out of trouble. Most don't complain as long as their party is winning.

While all of this suggests our politics could be healthier, it's not as sick or cynical as it looks. Political parties are just one ingredient of a robust democracy. We hold our governments and politicians to account in all sorts of ways that have nothing to do with elections or legislatures. The media (which are freer than ever) and the courts (see Justice Marc Nadon) are just two examples.

In the end, Ms. Redford may not have had the stomach for it all. Mr. Trudeau obviously does.