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The ‘Redmonton’ party no more: Alberta NDP’s base has shifted to Calgary

You don’t have to go far back — 2012, or four elections ago — to find a time when the Alberta NDP hardly registered in Calgary.

Sure, they ran candidates, but none of them seriously door-knocked or campaigned. They averaged less than five per cent of the votes in Alberta’s largest city in 2012.

It had been an Edmonton-centric party for decades, because that’s where its leaders resided,  and that was the only place in Alberta where it actually won seats.

Times have changed. Calgary has changed. New Democrats certainly have changed, especially as they look beyond Rachel Notley for a new leader.

The Alberta NDP is now a Calgary-dominated party.

Nearly half of the party’s membership ahead of the June leadership vote is Calgarian, according to a riding-by-riding breakdown of the party’s 85,144 members. That compares with only one-quarter of members from Edmonton, while the rest hail outside the two major cities.

There was buzz among party insiders that the party’s centre of gravity would shift, particularly with the star candidacy of former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, who joined the opposition party this spring to seek the leadership.

But this is a galactic rebalancing. Calgarian NDPers outnumber Edmontonians by nearly two-to-one, 39,240 members to 21,253.

This regional lopsidedness of the NDP membership likely bodes well for the hopes of Nenshi, the widely perceived front-runner, and Kathleen Ganley, a Calgary MLA and former cabinet minister. Meanwhile, it means there are fewer Edmontonians to support the leadership bids of local MLAs Sarah Hoffman and Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse, making success a greater uphill climb for them.

New Democrats might also be encouraged by the new size of their base in the city that was the key battleground in the last election. There are more NDP members in Calgary now than there were UCP members there in 2022 for its leadership vote — despite Danielle Smith’s party having more members province-wide.

“It says that a lot of people are really excited in Calgary,” said Ganley. Her own riding, Calgary-Mountain View, has 3,501 NDP members, the most in Alberta — and more than the UCP had in its strongest rural riding in 2022.

In fact, the six ridings with the most NDP members are all in Calgary, followed by Notley’s own Edmonton-Strathcona in seventh.

Ganley’s leadership campaign used geocoding with the addresses in an updated NDP active member database to provide the geographic data. This breakdown was provided to CBC News.

The party’s membership has grown more than fivefold since January, when Notley announced she would step down once a new leader was chosen. Party insiders have said that before leadership campaigns began enlisting new members, the membership base was more evenly split between Edmonton, Calgary and the rest of Alberta.

The NDP has struggled to make inroads outside the major cities, and this membership data largely bears that out. The party has sold fewer than 300 memberships in 11 rural or smaller-centre ridings, including several ridings in northwest Alberta that the NDP won in 2015, when Notley’s party formed government.

But there’s another fascinating shift in the party’s support happening outside Edmonton and Calgary. Just outside. 

The enthusiasm for this NDP leadership contest appears to be radiating outward from Calgary and into bedroom communities with zero history of voting New Democrat.

The five ridings that encircle Calgary — including Banff-Kananaskis, which is currently represented by the NDP — have more party members than the seven suburban ridings around Edmonton, all of which elected a New Democrat in the 2015 sweep.

Airdrie-Cochrane, a riding the party lost by 23 percentage points in 2023, now boasts more NDP members than St. Albert, the Edmonton-area riding that the party has won three elections in a row.

For the last several years, Notley and her team have organized heavily in Calgary, trying to win back more support after a near-wipeout in the city in the 2019 election. Ahead of the 2023 vote, many Edmonton MLAs door-knocked regularly in the southern city, not expecting much competition in their own ridings.

The party swept all 20 seats in Edmonton last election, and won 14 of 26 seats in Calgary.

Is there more complacency in the capital city, the progressive enclave often nicknamed Redmonton? Some of the party’s longest-held seats, Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview and Edmonton-North West, only have around 500 members in each. Rural conservative strongholds like Red Deer-South and Innisfail-Sylvan Lake actually have more card-carrying New Democrats than that.

The leadership campaigners’ focus on enlisting members in Calgary is evident in these numbers, said Deron Bilous, who served for three terms as Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview MLA before leaving office last year.

But it could also signal some challenges for the party to preserve its political fortress, especially if the next leader is the NDP’s first from Calgary.

“This shift in the majority of members out of Edmonton means that maybe the NDs have to hustle more here,” Bilous said.

There could also be a shift in the political approach of a party that’s more based in Alberta’s corporate-culture city, rather than the government town. After becoming premier, Notley had tried to bring the party toward the centre, and becoming a more Calgary-focused movement could further that trend, Bilous said.

Ganley’s team could not pinpoint the listed addresses of 221 NDP members, meaning 0.3 per cent of total members could not be assigned to any riding in this breakdown.

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