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How Gil McGowan’s Exit Changes Alberta’s NDP Leadership Race

The labour leader pushed for the party to woo working class voters back from the UCP.

David Climenhaga 14 May 2024Alberta Politics

David J. Climenhaga is an award-winning journalist, author, post-secondary teacher, poet and trade union communicator. He blogs at AlbertaPolitics.ca. Follow him on X at @djclimenhaga.

It was obvious the writing was on the wall when Gil McGowan summed up his pitch at Saturday’s NDP leadership forum. “If I don’t raise another $50,000 soon,” he told the audience, “I’m toast.”

So it was not much of a surprise Monday morning when McGowan connected the dots and announced in a letter to supporters that “Sadly, I’m writing today to let you know that I’ve made the hard decision to suspend my leadership campaign. Paying the final instalment of the $60,000 entry fee — which was due last night at midnight — has proven too much for me.”

McGowan’s campaign was always a bit of a long shot.

The commentariat pretty much wrote off his candidacy from the start, presumably for being out of tune with the new New Democrat coalition — whatever it turns out to be — cobbled together by Rachel Notley through her near decade at the party’s helm.

And as a person who spoke his mind quickly and often undiplomatically when nettled, McGowan became a frequent target for the United Conservative Party’s online army of trolls and bots — not that he ever seemed to mind very much. Well, as Oscar Wilde famously said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, and people certainly have been talking about McGowan.

The president of the Alberta Federation of Labour for nearly 20 years, McGowan pitched a strategy of winning back working class voters who have moved to the UCP and other conservative parties in recent years and re-establishing the NDP as the party of workers.

He was the only candidate who seriously raised the issue of the Alberta NDP’s faltering relationship with its traditional labour constituency — and what to do about the drift away from the party, as he put it in Monday’s letter, of “working Albertans with high school, college and trades educations (both inside and outside the two big cities) who, polls show, are supporting the UCP over the NDP.”

“Under Rachel Notley the NDP built a powerful coalition that almost won the last election, but that coalition has a hole in it,” McGowan said the day he launched his bid to lead the party. “There was a missing piece, and that missing piece is workers.”

“In other words,” he said Monday, “the traditional workers’ party needs to find a way to shore up its support among workers. As I’ve been saying over and over, they are the missing piece in the coalition we need to build in order to defeat the UCP.”

That is bound to be dismissed as nostalgia by some, passed off with an embarrassed shrug by others and it may even result in some serious commentary from veteran New Democrats from the party’s traditional labour wing. But McGowan is right that the NDP needs to find a way to bring those voters back into its big tent or fail again.

The only other candidate to offer a concrete proposal on the form the NDP coalition should take after Notley departs was Rakhi Pancholi — who dropped out of the leadership race on March 27, the day McGowan dropped in.

Her answer was for the party to sever all its ties with the federal NDP as a way to get the UCP to quit trying to tie the provincial party to federal policies unpopular in Alberta, or at least unpopular with the UCP base. Media loved the idea. Traditional New Democrats were more wary.

Pancholi threw her support behind frontrunner Naheed Nenshi, the former Calgary mayor, who has been cautious about promoting that idea too vigorously. He’ll consider it, he’s said, and ask members what they think.

Having run a creditable campaign that spoke to the values of a significant segment of the Alberta NDP’s most loyal supporters, the remaining four candidates may well now vie for McGowan’s benediction.

It remains to be seen if he’ll wear his heart on his sleeve or be tactical and cautious about whom he endorses, if anyone. As of Monday night, McGowan said he hadn’t endorsed any other candidate.

Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse was quick to publish a statement thanking McGowan for running and reaching out directly to his labour constituency.

“The opportunity for a strong labour-NDP coalition in Alberta has never been greater,” she said.

“Improving wages, strengthening working conditions, and expanding union rights requires labour and the Alberta NDP to be organized and vocal together — at the bargaining table and politically at the doors.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Alberta

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