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Red Mile Reimagined: NDP’s Growing Influence in Calgary’s Political Scene

Once a minor presence, the NDP has established Calgary as its new hub, outpacing Edmonton in party membership.

In the words of poet and songwriter Bob Dylan, “the times they are a-changin’.”

Who would have thought that support for the provincial NDP would shift from “Redmonton,” to Calgary’s traditional conservative blue stronghold?

But the shift has happened, and even the NDP is surprised!

In the 2012 provincial election, the NDP’s presence in Calgary was minimal. 

Candidates ran, but serious campaigning and door-knocking efforts were almost non-existent. After all, what was the point? The party barely registered in the city, garnering less than one in twenty votes. 

For decades, the NDP was heavily centred around Edmonton, primarily because its leaders and high-profile candidates were based there and because it was the only place they had a chance to secure any seats.

Fast Forward… South!

Recently, the landscape for NDP support has changed dramatically.

Calgary has emerged as the new hub for the NDP as the party looks beyond Rachel Notley’s leadership. 

As the party gears up for a leadership vote in June, almost half of its 85,144 members hail from Calgary, compared to just a quarter from Edmonton. The remaining membership is spread throughout Alberta outside the two major cities.

The buzz within party circles about a potential shift in the NDP’s centre of gravity has turned into a reality, especially with the high-profile candidacy of former Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

Nenshi’s bid for the leadership has re-aligned party membership rolls towards Calgary, where members now outnumber their Edmonton counterparts by nearly two-to-one, with 39,240 members compared to 21,253 in Edmonton.

In fact, there are now more NDP members in Calgary than there were UCP members in Calgary during the party’s 2022 leadership vote.

This regional disparity in NDP membership likely boosts the prospects of Nenshi and Kathleen Ganley, the latter a Calgary MLA and former cabinet minister, who are seen as front-runners. 

Conversely, the Calgary shift challenges Edmonton-based candidates like NDP MLAs Sarah Hoffman and Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse, who now face an uphill battle for leadership support.

Chart of distribution of NDP memberships in Alberta by town and in Calgary by ridings
Chart of distribution of NDP memberships in Alberta by town and in Calgary by ridings | Jason Markusoff and Robson Fletcher | CBC

Calgary’s New ‘Red Mile’

Seventeenth Avenue in Calgary is no longer the only red mile in the city

The NDP’s ‘red spread’ is evident, with six ridings in Calgary filled with the most NDP members in the province.

Ganley’s riding, Calgary-Mountain View, leads with 3,501 members.

Ganley’s campaign team utilized geocoding to map out the NDP membership data across the province, revealing that the party’s base has grown over fivefold since January when former Premier Notley announced her intention to step down.

Initially, the membership was more evenly distributed among Edmonton, Calgary, and other parts of Alberta. However, the latest figures underscore Calgary’s newfound dominance within the party.

Over 1,000 NDP supporters attended the party's leadership debate in Calgary on May 11. Five leadership hopefuls took place including, from left, Gil McGowan, Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse, Sarah Hoffman, Kathleen Ganley and Naheed Nenshi.
Over 1,000 NDP supporters attended the party’s leadership debate in Calgary on May 11. Five leadership hopefuls took place including, from left, Gil McGowan, Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse, Sarah Hoffman, Kathleen Ganley and Naheed Nenshi. Since then, McGowan has stepped down from the race | Jeff McIntosh | The Canadian Press

Rare in Rural Alberta

Although the NDP is gaining support, challenges still exist. 

The NDP must make significant inroads in rural areas to balance its new-found urban concentration. 

Membership numbers in rural ridings remain low, with some ridings reporting fewer than 300 members. 

Yet, there are signs of shifting support even outside the major cities. 

Ridings surrounding Calgary, like Banff-Kananaskis, now boast more NDP members than the suburban ridings around Edmonton, many of which were previously strongholds for the party.

Airdrie-Cochrane now has more NDP members than St. Albert, the Edmonton-area riding that the party has won three elections in a row.

This shift in the NDP’s support base, particularly its rise in Calgary, may signal broader changes in the party’s political approach. 

With the possibility of a Calgary-based leader, the party might lean more toward Calgary’s corporate culture, potentially moving further toward the political centre. 

A move to the centre is probably welcomed by many Albertans as the left-right divide has become increasingly polarized. According to polling, most Albertans are actually centre-leaning.

Speaking of polling, despite rising membership numbers, the NDP still faces stiff competition from the UCP.

According to a new survey commissioned by CBC News, if a provincial election were held today, 48 percent of voters would support the UCP and 45 percent would support the NDP.

In the 2023 election, the UCP won with 52.6 percent of the vote.

Will the political landscape of Alberta follow Bob Dylan’s “the times they are a-changin’,” or will the next election round just be “the more things change, the more they stay the same?”

It’s a long way to the 2027 provincial election, and both the UCP and the NDP have a lot of work ahead of them to win the trust of Albertans.

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