Much – probably too much – is being made of the fact the Alberta NDP’s organizing efforts in Calgary have shifted the Opposition party’s centre of gravity from Edmonton to Calgary. 

Mr. Nenshi when he was mayor of Calgary in 2018 (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

When the NDP released the news on Mother’s Day that its membership had grown from about 16,000 at the end of 2023 to 85,144 members eligible to vote in the party’s leadership election to replace former premier Rachel Notley, the news rocked a number of long-held political assumptions about Alberta. 

Then the number crunchers got to work and it didn’t take long before there was a buzz that the NDP was changing from a political phenomenon concentrated in Alberta’s capital city – where the electoral map has been solidly orange since Ms. Notley’s victory in 2015, despite the party’s losses to the United Conservative Party in 2019 and 2023 – to one that appears to be dominated by members in supposedly conservative Cowtown. 

Well, the numbers speak for themselves – it’s just that it’s not entirely clear what they’re saying.

No one is disputing that 39,240 of the party’s paid-up members are now in Calgary, nearly double the 21,253 in Edmonton, with the rest scattered throughout the rest of the province, including suburban communities around the two big cities. 

What that means, however, is subject to interpretation – not to mention spin. 

Candidate Kathleen Ganley (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

According to the headline on a CBC analysis piece this week by reporter Jason Markusoff, the numbers mean the NDP is “the ‘Redmonton’ party no more” – the red reference dating back to the olden days when that colour was headlinese for commies, not Republican voters south of the Medicine Line. 

“Nearly twice as many Calgarians will vote for the next NDP leader as Edmontonians,” the subhead on the story concluded, suggestively, but not necessarily accurately. 

The dramatic growth in the NDP’s membership is without any doubt partly the result of the interest generated by the race to choose a new leader to replace Ms. Notley, who announced in January she intended to step down. 

The conventional wisdom is that the membership growth in Calgary has been sparked by former Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s campaign.

But it’s also true that well before Mr. Nenshi declared his interest in leading the NDP, the party had realized it couldn’t win based on its support in Edmonton alone. 

Outgoing NDP Leader Rachel Notley, who made organizing in Calgary a priority (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

As political commentator Dave Cournoyer argued in his Daveberta Substack yesterday, these numbers are also “a reflection of how much time and resources the NDP poured into the province’s largest city in the four years ahead of the 2023 election.”

After the NDP’s 2019 election loss, Mr. Cournoyer wrote, “Calgary was their focus. The NDP moved their campaign headquarters to Calgary and Notley spent every spare moment in the city.”

“The big tent that Notley built resulted in NDP candidates elected in 14 of the city’s 26 ridings and the NDP earning more votes across the city than the United Conservative Party,” he observed. “These gains would have been unimaginable in the days following the 2019 election.”

It’s more of a reach, though, to argue as Mr. Markusoff did that this is “a galactic rebalancing.”

Well, the two leading candidates – Mr. Nenshi and former Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley – are both from Calgary, so as in the governing UCP, either one would bring a sharper Calgary focus to the Opposition party. 

But as far as party policy goes, that’s up to the NDP’s caucus and its members after a leader is chosen. And how much it will impact voter behaviour also remains to be seen. In the short term particularly in Edmonton, probably not much. 

Alberta-based pollster Janet Brown (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

As survey results by Alberta pollster Janet Brown published on Tuesday suggested, while the UCP led by Premier Danielle Smith is holding onto its support in the May 2023 general election, it’s not all bad news for the NDP.

“The NDP still remains very competitive, even though they don’t have a new leader,” Ms. Brown said. “The data says that voters are anxiously watching the NDP leadership race, and they’re watching to see how the NDP brings themselves back as a competitive force in Alberta politics.” 

Her survey’s results suggest the NDP would be likely to capture 54 per cent of all votes in Edmonton in the event of another election – so it’s not as if the election of a leader from Calgary is likely to shake NDP support in Edmonton, which can still be called Redmonton if you like.

That said, if I were a UCP strategist, I’d certainly be looking for ways to get a few spots of blue into that sea of orange. And the NDP had better not take Edmonton for granted. 

Moreover, as Duncan Kinney observed yesterday in The Progress Report, the NDP’s dismal support in the Rest of Alberta remains a problem for the party. 

“Any road to victory for the ANDP involves winning seats outside of Edmonton and Calgary,” he noted. “The easiest place to do that is going to be in the so-called doughnut suburbs outside Edmonton.”

Alas, it looks like we’re going to have to wait a little for meaningful numbers to crunch on the breakdown of NDP membership numbers outside the big cities, especially in the Edmonton donut. Leastways, NDP sources are saying some of the numbers given to media by Ms. Ganley’s campaign are not quite right, but haven’t yet provided data they have confidence in. 

So, for the moment, the crystal ball is still cloudy.

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  1. I agree the NDP realized some time ago that it could not win with just support in Edmonton, so I’m not sure the membership growth in Calgary and elsewhere should really be big news at this point. However I suppose the media has to write stories about something to attract or keep readers or viewers.

    I don’t think the increased NDP membership numbers is very good news for the UCP, who had hoped their Calgary losses were a one time momentary set back Even worse, Brown’s recent poll shows a resilience to the NDP support. Lets not forget governments do not generally get more popular after their first year. So it could be all downhill for them here. Particularly if the NDP chooses a popular and likeable new leader.

    It is true that two of the leading NDP leadership candidates are from Calgary, so some of the membership growth there is no doubt due to that. But then two are also from Edmonton.

    Yes, while the message from these membership numbers may still be a bit cloudy for the NDP, it is likely there may be more clouds in the future for another party.

  2. At the rate that Danielle Smith and the UCP are screwing up, they are not going to survive. That’s not possible. There is a lot of anger and that’s going to be shown on Saturday when masses of people speak out against the UCP’s bad policies, and their very expensive boondoogles.

  3. To me, the gigantic elephant in the room (visible from space) is money or the lack thereof. The party is still broke, let alone building a pot of dough for the next election. A real issue, not vote counting from 2019.

    1. YCC Lefty I certainly agree with you, slashing Royalties and Corporate taxes was the dumbest thing these Reformers could have done and they are paying for it. Not having the funds to properly fund our Municipalities and forcing us to pay much higher property taxes while we watch them screw us out of our wealth has caught up to them.

  4. The gains in Calgary are promising, but meaningless if the NDP can’t win votes in rural Alberta. The UCP knows that all they have to do is bash Trudeau, bully trans kids, flap their gums about gun rights and they’re in.

    1. Well if Pollievre is PM the time the next Alberta election rolls around, that won’t be so easy to do. Five’ll get you ten that they’ll still try some way, but it will seem desperate, even to the anti-Trudeau crowd.

  5. I believe areas outside of Calgary and Edmonton may be ripe for the taking. With the overreach of Bill 20, UCP may find out that there autocratic ways are not liked by their base. If there was ever a time for other parties mainly the NDP to make headway in these areas it will be after this overreach is passed. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the Reformer’s fell because they took their base in Rural Alberta for granted.

  6. I got quite a few emails from Team Ganley urging me to join, also at least one phone call; more than for any other candidate, though I assume they would all have access to whatever list I am on.

  7. It certainly proves what people are saying. They wished they had never voted for Danielle Smith. Isn’t it too bad they refused to listen to those of us that knew what she was like?
    She is so confident that her pal Pierre Poilievre will win in Ottawa she has set up an office there so she will be ready for him to help her steal our Canada Pension Plan and force Canadians to pay Albertans Equalization Payments to help her cover the billions these Reformers are screwing Albertans out of by slashing our royalties and corporate taxes. You can bet the idiots will support them they always do. The word Conservative is all they need.

  8. I remember someone complaining to me about the differences between Edmonton and Calgary. She was heavily involved in the arts and, interestingly, found Edmonton to be wildly conservative. For someone who was from Edmonton, and passionately involved in the arts, I thought this was a fascinating comment. For about six months, she moved to Calgary and work with a production there. When she returned, she pronounced Calgary was Alberta’s arts mecca, and Edmonton no more than pretentious back water. Personally, I felt that way about Edmonton since moving there in the 80s. Or, as the insult goes, the only culture in Edmonton is in the yogourt.

    Differences between Edmonton and Calgary, notwithstanding, are often overplayed. I recall that sage, Ezra Levant, lamenting on his weird show, on the thankfully defunct Sun NewsTV, that Calgary’s CON cred was a fraud. Despite all the bill boards around the city promoting various CON and religious fundamentalist issues, at its core, Calgary was really left wing in many ways. Of course, this angered Levant, and he sought to destroy the reds in Calgary with endless purges … from Toronto, of course. Even Dead Byfield lamented that the CON side of Calgary was largely an illusion, because no one living there actually lives a truly CON life. (CON cosplay?)

    Being CON in Calgary is largely an industry. Thanks to the U of C, any number of so called FreeDUMB foundations operate freely, germinating CON political careers and employing their otherwise unemployable fellow travellers. I always believe that if you want to find out how liberal a city is, just check a gay travel guide. Calgary has an abundance of listing for all kinds of gay-friendly services, and far more than Edmonton.

    1. The difference between Calgary and Edmonton w/r/r the arts comes down to money. There’s more of it there for artists, musicians especially. More gigs, better paying ones, lots of white collar workers who want to spend on culture.

      There’s lots of money in Edmonton, not for that though.

    2. An easterner moving to Calgary in 2007 for a three year period opened my eyes as to how progressive a city it was. From my perspective the food bank program was first rate, shelter for street people seemed beyond reproach, arts and culture excellent. My family was totally immersed in “western hospitality” and were treated well by everyone including all levels of the medical staff. We didn’t check the gay travel guide as the folks we encountered made it unnecessary. A truly great city.

  9. Some people in Calgary still remember how the UCP treated them during the devastating hail storm of 2020. The UCP leader of the day dismissed it as something that happens all the time. Sure, hail blasting through walls and roofs, leaving entire communities shredded like a war zone, is completely normal. The same premier had blamed the same people for Covid, due to the nature of their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic.

    Live in Fort McMurray? Here’s cash to rebuild your house yet again in the same place with the same materials during every fire-flood-fire cycle. Northeast Calgary? Get stuffed, but here’s some cash for overland flooding only. Not so much as small interest-free loans for insurance deductibles, which a community delegation requested during a trip to Edmonton. No hand up for you!

    (The visible scars of the 2020 disaster remain. Some homes still have a patchwork quilt of different colors of siding, due to some insurance companies only replacing individual strips of damaged siding, international siding shortages due to the scale of the disaster, and homeowners fixing what they could, when they could afford it.)

    Rural Albertans surely will vote UCP, even if drought leaves them waterless (choose water-thirsty crops and maximum crop insurance) or wildfires turn their homes to ashes yet again, for the UCP has endless cash for non-urban disasters. They might not enjoy heavy metal byproducts of mining in their rivers, but surely few people here are aware of things like cadmium poisoning that can taint both water and food crops. Itai-itai disease? What’s that? Rural Albertans are God’s chosen people, or at least the golden children of the dysfunctional UCP family. They believe in second chances, for decades and decades, hundreds of them. They are golden. They are caught in the devil’s bargain. Throw them a bone like removing reproductive rights and they’ll keep on voting like their great-grandpappy, whose wife had 10 children and no dower rights. Very good. Carry on like it’s 1970.

  10. Maybe it wouldn’t be making as much to say, instead, that the NDP Opposition’s centre of gravity for its organizing efforts has in fact shifted from Edmonton to Calgary.

    Too much can’t be made of the NDP concentrating its partisan proselytizing on Calgary. Edmonton is safely in the Dipper fold, after all; Alberta’s Legislative Assembly, where heralds of the Smith&Parker Gang enjoy the provincial electorate’s immunity, is paddocked deep within the broad quilt of safe New Democratic ridings surrounding the Capital.

    Calgary’s the NDP’s real wild frontier—well, at least its the most psephologically opportune one. That’s where the Loyal Opposition ought to be, fighting for the good people of Cowtown who are being horrified by the Smith&Parker Gang. So of course riders of the Dipper posse pull on their orange Stetsons and saddle-up, lassos coiled on pommels, battered NDRV (New Democratic Revised Version) copies of The Wealth of Nations holstered in their dusters’ pockets, and set off for the high prairie, registered long guns at the ready, riding, riding, riding through riding after ring after riding….

    This is simply horse sense. There is, however, uncommon sense as well: if not for a some Dipper riders getting their signals confused in the unfamiliar coolies and foothills surrounding Alberta’s dusty southern city just a year ago, the NDP very nearly stampeded the S&P herd into the KO Corral. But most uncommon of all, the popular former Mayor of Calgary—erstwhile professed nonpartisan in the nonpartisan system of city council, now confessing the workers’ Blues—is gunning for the NDP leadership.

    Party membership is way up but it’s hard to tell what these statistics might be attributed to. Is it Calgarians’ recollection of good times under Mayor Naheed Nenshi or recrimination for being the city which provided the few thousands of votes in only a handful of Cowtown ridings that just barely re-elected the outlaw Danielle Smith whose feral dark horsemen now maraud roughshod over Canada’s Constitution? Or is it the longer memory of Rachel Notley’s single NDP term which in retrospect was pretty darn good and is the best explanation for the NDP retaining several times the number of seats it traditionally had before its upset 2015 win, and substantially increasing that number in 2023? Safe to say many voters were unsure about the reunited right-wing party in 2019 which, despite beating the incumbent NDP, leaving it with a sizeable Official Opposition, and plainly disaffected by the UCP’s chaotic first term which began with the curdler of three parties of the right and ended up with the destroyer of at least two (that Smith might soon make it a trifecta is not beyond reason).

    But it’s too much—or perhaps too early— to say the NDP itself has changed, or switched its centre of gravity, at least not any more so than some say Rachel Notley had done already. True: leadership contests change every political party, no matter who or which faction wins it. The fact that losing candidates can take credit for ‘moving the needle’ in general party policy is what makes leadership races such an important part of political and governing processes. (For some, only winning matters, but anyone, from activists too young to vote to politically partisan pundits, can participate in influencing policy—it’s ‘democracy’, not ‘oligopoly’.)

    The truth, if definable at all, probably has more to do with some combination of how much Calgary society has changed due to interprovincial migration and how much even longtime Calgarians have changed how they vote. But that doesn’t necessarily correlate with voters evolving or sophisticating their political philosophies. And Alberta is the primary (or, possibly, second only to Quebec) example of voters casting for one party or another for some other reason than socio-economic—which is why single parties like the Socreds and ProgCons can ‘big-tent’ such broad spectra of political opinion for decades or, alternatively, be suddenly taken behind the woodshed for a good hiding or worse.

    Anyway, it’s not too much to say that political and party dynamics in Alberta today make Quebec’s look predictably staid and boring (donnez-leur du temps, mes amis, donnez-leur du temps…)

    It’s definitely too much to say how any of these factors counts as active, as opposed to passive, change. Has the centre of the NDP’s policy gravity shifted? Or, put another way, is Calgary changing the NDP in some typically Cowtownian way? To answer those questions needs to know “the only polls that count”, the result of the NDP leadership race and, ultimately, the victor of the next general election: if Nenshi doesn’t win the NDP leadership, all calculations hitherto will be for nought and the cycle of punditry will have to begin again, possibly with as much predictive accuracy as that just discarded. And naturally we will have to wait see if, in any event, the NDP can get over its supposed ‘traditional’ self first. My advice is to accept wearing purple Stetsons while riding the political range around Cowtown, and be consoled that the underside of the hat-brim is allowed to stay bright Dipper orange.

  11. There’s semi-urban rural and then there’s RURAL RURAL… The NDP have no hope in the land of flat earth conspiracy nuts and COVID deniers that’s true. Those people are lost to the general world at large and that’s the way they like it. They are truly on the fringes of modern life and they are prepping for it to fall. However that is only a very, very small portion of actual rural Alberta. Outside of Edmonton, Calgary and the regional hubs that have 2 seats each (Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat) there are about a dozen ridings that have sizeable urban populations located in regional market towns. These are towns that previously voted NDP in the 1980’s and would easily be won back into the fold if you concentrated on their issues and concerns… These places include… Pincher Creek, Vegreville, St Paul, Cold Lake, Lamont, Camrose, Wetaskiwin, Olds, etc I have lived in half the ones listed plus others as well as living in Edmonton and Calgary and their concerns are just like those in Edmonton. Economic diversification, health care, education and of course housing. The crisis extends to those communities too in terms of both affordability and quantity of what’s available. One way to bridge the gap? Bring back Regional Rail using Battery Electric Multiple Units radiating from our regional cities. This would make physical access to everything from education to healthcare to lower housing prices that much easier while generating no net carbon (if powered by Alberta’s solar and wind industries)… If it’s on an existing railway ROW, other than the CN and CP East/West mainlines? It’s being woefully underused and last time I checked CP was more than open to striking deals for both regional and high speed rail along its corridor which would still be cheaper than starting from scratch.

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