Alberta NDP’s high leadership fee works against its own values

A party that fights for equality and the working class shouldn't require a $60,000 entry fee for leadership candidates.

The Alberta New Democratic Party (NDP) has historically promoted the principles of equal opportunity. Despite this, the NDP created a significant barrier for participation in its leadership race by having a $60,000 entry fee. The financial burden pushed Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, out of the 2024 race. While leadership candidates need to prove their commitment and party members’ support, the high fee might be keeping more people out of the race than it should.

The rationale behind leadership race entry fees isn’t entirely flawed. Most of it serves to protect the party, which is important as the NDP is the only viable opposition to the United Conservative Party (UCP). Entry fees can demonstrate a candidate’s ability to fundraise and mobilize voters. If a candidate can’t get enough support to pay the fee, there may be doubts that they would perform well as a party leader. An entry fee is also a way for the party to pay for election campaigns, the leadership race itself, and other expenses.

But being able to pay a fee doesn’t prove good leadership or support for a candidate. The fact is, most people who vote for in provincial elections aren’t card-carrying party members of any political parties. Even passionate supporters of the party won’t necessarily pay for a membership, nonetheless donate to a leadership campaign. And those that do only represent a small number of NDP voters. While the party now has over 85,000 members, 777,404 people voted for the Alberta NDP in the 2023 provincial election. 

Parties on the left side of the political spectrum like the Alberta NDP are meant to fight for the disadvantaged. Although the Alberta NDP has shifted further right, who it’s meant to serve hasn’t changed. McGowan ran on a platform emphasizing workers’ issues and economic challenges. At many times, he was the only candidate who even brought up some of these points. He designed his policy platform to appeal to workers and those with less privilege. Of these people, likely only a few are party members. Even less are likely able to donate to a leadership campaign — nonetheless run for leadership themselves.

Another potential reason for the fee is for a candidate to display a commitment to the race. This also serves to weed out any saboteurs who may try to interfere with the race. The right-wing Alberta separatist organization Take Back Alberta (TBA) has taken credit for installing Premier Danielle Smith as the UCP leader. TBA also now controls much of the UCP’s board. Its leader, David Parker, made a statement that he intended to destabilize the Alberta NDP through its leadership race. Without an entry fee, groups like the TBA could use the leadership race to try to gain control of the NDP.

However, the leadership race does have some additional rules to protect itself from sabotage. Candidates had to be members of the Alberta NDP before August 5, 2023 to enter the leadership race. Additionally, they go through an in-depth vetting process. The party’s rules did allow for those who hadn’t held a membership for that long to make a special application to run in the leadership race. Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi was allowed to apply for candidacy in this way, since he wasn’t a party member before. A person could argue that the exception to the rules is unfair and unnecessary, but it still protects the party from outside interference. And it allows those who wish to run to do so if they really want to, as Nenshi did.

Ultimately, the high fee pushed McGowan out of the race and has left me feeling disappointed. McGowan was one of the more interesting voices in the race, bringing a unique vision that the other candidates didn’t. He spent a lot of time speaking about the NDP’s lost working-class base and the need to get that back. I feel that leadership races are better off with candidates like McGowan in it, whether they win or not. Evidently, the $60,000 fee may stop those who embody NDP values from running for leadership. If the NDP wants to be truly democratic and win back a working class base, it needs to reconsider the fee.

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