By Kimball Cariou
October 20 was municipal election day across British Columbia, earlier than in the past, when campaigning went into the mid-November rainy season. The highlight for many observers was in Vancouver, where Vision’s ten years of majority control of City Hall was ending. After a crushing byelection defeat a year ago, new finance rules cut off the flow of developer donations, and Mayor Gregor Robertson and most of his caucus decided not to stand for re-election.
The field was wide open for a record number of political parties (11) and candidates (158) to get on the ballot. Almost 180,000 voters went to the polls, electing candidates from five parties. Taking 28% of the vote in a crowded race, labour-backed independent Kennedy Stewart is the new mayor.
The best news of the night was the election of COPE’s Jean Swanson and OneCity’s Christine Boyle to city council, ending a seven-year period when the political left had no voice at City Hall. (Vision was always a centrist party, at best.)COPE also elected retired teacher Barb Parrot to School Board, and community activists Gwen Giesbrecht and John Irwin to Park Board. OneCity’s Jennifer Reddy won for School Board, leaving both of these progressive parties well established as civic forces for the next four years.
As expected, Vision was devastated, electing only one candidate; incumbent school trustee Allan Wong squeaked in by about 300 votes, thanks to his twenty-year record as a strong voice for public education. The big winners were the city’s historic pro-business party, the NPA, and the Greens, who are on the rise in B.C. and elsewhere.
The NPA took five council seats, and its mayoral hopeful Ken Sim was just 1,000 votes short of victory, which would have given his party a majority. Sim might have won handily if not for three other right-wing candidates who took about 16% of the total. On the other hand, centre-left independent candidate Shauna Sylvester won 20% of the mayoralty vote, despite failing to get the backing of the Vancouver & District Labour Council, which supported Stewart and a mix of COPE, Green and OneCity candidates.
The NPA also won three of nine school trustee spots, and two of seven on Park Board. The Greens elected three city councillors (including the two highest vote-getters, Adriane Carr and Pete Fry), plus three school trustees and three park commissioners.
This outcome has significant implications at every level. Last year, the BC Greens and their three MLAs gained a major role in provincial decision-making for the first time. Now, they are in a strong position in Vancouver, where the Green caucus could vote with the mayor, Swanson and Boyle on key issues – or else with the NPA. In recent years, Green school trustees here have often sided with their NPA counterparts. The incoming Vancouver Green councillors do take progressive stands on some issues, but they are cool to the trade union movement (despite the Labour Council’s endorsement), and their school trustees are not consistent defenders of public education.
The Vancouver civic election is the latest electoral high water mark for the Green Party, which is now represented in Parliament and four legislatures (Ontario, New Brunswick, PEI and British Columbia), and in a number of municipalities, such as Burnaby, just east of Vancouver, where Joe Keithley was elected to council on Oct. 20. If the trend continues, the October 2019 federal election could see an increase in Green votes and possibly even more MPs.
For the socialist-minded left in Vancouver, the new terrain presents a serious challenge. One measure of this election is the attitude of voters and parties to the two basic approaches to the housing crisis, which was overwhelmingly the number one issue. The “progressive” Vision council had relied mainly on encouraging big developers to build more condos, a largely “market-driven” strategy.
Mayoralty candidates favouring “market solutions” (Ken Sim, and the candidates of right-wing parties like Coalition Vancouver, Vancouver First, and Yes Vancouver) received about 40% of the total votes. But the two main centre-left candidates, Stewart and Sylvester, lean towards the view that housing is a human right, not primarily a commodity, and they won almost 50%, a strong indication of public opinion.At the city council level, the five NPA members will back various “market solutions,” unlike Swanson and Boyle, who favour strong government action to build low-cost housing. The three Green councillors are likely somewhere between these camps. The next battle over Vancouver’s housing crisis is just beginning, with much depending on which way the Greens favour.
From this perspective, these inconclusive election night results point to a missed opportunity. Working class residents, especially renters and low-income earners, now have two strong voices to fight for their interests at City Hall. But two out of eleven is simply not enough. Even if Boyle and Swanson are backed by powerful mass community actions, they need to convince Mayor Stewart and the Greens to make a real switch from the failed policies of Vision, and of the NPA before them.
What’s next for the civic left in Vancouver? OneCity was born out of the disastrous sectarian politics which nearly destroyed COPE in recent years, and there remains considerable frostiness between the two parties. COPE has stopped denouncing others on the left as “sellouts” and “neoliberals,” and has been reaching out to former members who had been driven out of the organization. The COPE campaign gained traction by focusing sharply on urgent solutions, such as the demands for a rent freeze and a “mansion tax” on high-end homes. For its part, OneCity has gained respect by crafting well-grounded policies to tackle a range of issues facing working people, and by running candidates who are strongly connected to their communities.
After the October 2017 council byelection which showed that divisions on the left and centre of the spectrum would hand this election to the right, some progress was achieved, mostly through the Labour Council’s broad progressive slate. But that initiative faced an almost impossible task – trying to convince working people stung by years of Vision cooperation with developers to support that party’s candidates, and to back some Greens despite their serious shortcomings.
During this campaign, there was considerable room for OneCity and COPE to find ways to cooperate and to encourage mutual support. There was some movement in that direction, but right to the end, many campaigners for each party were urging voters to back only their candidates. Yet a look at the numbers shows that mutual OneCity-COPE support could well have elected several more left candidates. COPE’s Derrick O’Keefe, one of the strongest radical candidates on the ballot, needed just 5300 more votes to win for council (he received over 38,000, a high number for a first-time candidate). Similarly, such a tactic could possibly have helped elect Anne Roberts (COPE) or Brandon Yan (OneCity) to council, and would almost certainly have given victory to school trustee candidates Diana Day (COPE) and Carrie Bercic (OneCity).
Victory for the left is possible in four years, but only through a cooperative, non-sectarian strategy by both parties. That should start now, with Swanson and Boyle presenting a united front at City Hall, and Reddy and Parrot at the VSB, followed up by joint campaigns and activities, policy discussions, and other confidence-building measures. Both parties are here to stay (unlike Vision, which many hope will fold up shop). The process may be protracted and difficult, but four years from now, unity in some form will be necessary.
(PV editor Kimball Cariou has been involved in Vancouver civic politics since moving to the city in 1993.)