Vancouver city & trustee elections

 In Education matters

The good news from Vancouver’s Nov. 19 civic election was very good. But the news for Canada’s oldest progressive municipal reform party was very, very bad.
On the positive side, over 140,000 Vancouverites went to the polls (a relatively high turnout of 34%), blocking this city’s version of the Rob Ford gang in Toronto. Mayor Gregor Robertson of the centrist Vision party was re-elected by 77,000 to 58,000 votes over the NPA’s Susan Anton, and Vision won majorities on city council, school board and park board. The outcome was a welcome rejection of the NPA’s far-right agenda and its fear-mongering tactics, based largely on Anton’s demands to attack the Occupy Vancouver camp at the Art Gallery.
For working people, the negative result was the defeat of the Coalition of Progressive Electors at every level. Only one of COPE’s four incumbent candidates was re-elected: Allan Wong, who won a fifth consecutive term as school trustee. The other COPE incumbent trustees, Al Blakey and Jane Bouey, both went down to defeat, despite winning about 52,000 votes, a gain of 4,000 over their 2008 results, as the NPA and Vision candidates scored even larger gains.

At City Council, COPE incumbent Ellen Woodsworth missed the tenth and final seat by just 91 votes to the Green Party’s Adriane Carr (although the Greens’ Stuart Mackinnon lost his position on the park board). COPE’s Tim Louis lost his bid to regain the city council seat he held from 1999 to 2005, finishing 17th with 43,926 votes, almost 5,000 behind Carr. The other COPE council candidate, first-timer R.J. Aquino, was 19th with 39,054 votes.

The results left the NPA with two council seats, three out of nine on the School Board, and two on park board. These gains may help the flagging fortunes of the city’s historic favoured party of big business, but the NPA will have little direct influence over the next three years. Politically, however, many observers fear that the NPA gains and the losses by the left-oriented COPE may tempt Vision’s council caucus to shift to the right in an attempt to maintain their hegemony at City Hall.

The post-mortem of COPE’s setback began immediately, but it will take time and studies of poll-by-poll results to gain a clearer picture. Some quickly blamed COPE’s electoral agreement with Vision for the losses, accusing the governing party of failing to do enough to encourage its supporters to also vote COPE. They argue that COPE members should have backed an alliance with the Greens or smaller parties and independents which have been sharply critical of Vision.

But “what-ifs” are no substitute for a more in-depth analysis. For example, some pundits claim that if COPE had teamed up with the newly-formed Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver, the outcome would have been better. This observation ignores several significant points. For one thing, NSV did not even exist until after COPE’s September nomination meeting. For another, NSV’s core support was the 4,007 votes cast for its mayoralty candidate. Since the NSV had urged supporters to back both its own and COPE’s council candidates, there is little “net gain” in this equation.

Perhaps more to the point, the COPE/Vision alliance reflected the determination of the labour movement and other progressive groups to avoid a split which could have handed City Hall back to the NPA. In the wake of the Harper majority won with just 39% of votes last May, that nightmare scenario was key to the decision by most COPE members to support the agreement with Vision.

Rejection of the agreement would have cost COPE much of its $340,000 campaign budget, as well as sharply dividing the city’s centre and left voters. An anti-Vision campaign would probably have meant less votes for COPE, not more as actually happened on election night.

The biggest lesson may be that campaign budgets determine the overall outcome of Vancouver civic elections. Vision and the NPA each spent over $2 million, pouring vast amounts into TV, radio and print ads, and hiring armies of “volunteers”. This spending overwhelmed COPE’s attempt to mobilize enough real volunteers to pull the vote on E-Day. The most urgent electoral reform in Vancouver is not establishing a ward system or proportional representation – it has to be spending limits, which seem equally difficult to achieve at this point.

Another factor which hurt COPE was the voter suppression strategy conducted by the NPA, which tried to deny ballots to large numbers of poor people in the Downtown Eastside.

“This is not a time for COPE to look inward or backwards,” says Jane Bouey. “This is a time for COPE to focus on grassroots issues, to strengthen our links with working people and progressive movements. If we can put COPE at the heart of community struggles, we’ll be in a much better position to elaborate a winning electoral tactic when the next campaign arrives.”

(The above article is from the December 1-15, 2011, issue of People’s Voice)

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