Until yesterday, I was profoundly pessimistic about the fate of left-leaning candidates in this fall’s Vancouver municipal election. With polls showing that only 18% of Vancouverites were willing to use even one of their twenty-seven votes to elect a COPE candidate (versus 30% willing to give Adriane Carr one of their votes) and only 9% willing to give a single vote to the COPE splinter party OneCity, it appeared that if there were to be an opposition at City Hall, it would be a centrist Green Party opposition or a conservative NPA one. Pollsters haven’t even had the chance to pronounce on the viability of the Public Education Project, a third COPE splinter party that emerged yesterday. (I’m a big fan of PEP’s candidates and will be supporting them in the election, despite their untested brand.)
But then I read that Meena Wong was seeking the COPE mayoral nomination and appears to be a consensus candidate backed by all of the endlessly multiplying factions of the party. If any person can arrest the tailspin of schism and negativity that has overtaken the civic left, Meena is that person.
Until my resignation from the party in March, I was working with her to persuade COPE to adopt proportional representation both as party policy and for internal elections. After I quit, Meena and her husband, Les—arguably the most stalwart PR advocate in the whole BC NDP—continued relentlessly to call for the party to catch up with its voter base on the electoral system. It is due to their efforts that the party did eventually adopt PR for internal elections (although this adoption is largely symbolic because of the way PR is operationally vitiated by the party’s byzantine system of representation quotas).
In the past six months, Meena has also been able to build bridges with the main factions of the party (Tim Louis supporters and Left Front members), despite having worked closely with people who have publicly fallen out with the party. While every other force on the civic left seems to be making new enemies, Meena has been bringing people together—people it is often challenging to bring together.
If COPE nominates Meena on Sunday, she could become a crucial unifying force in the election. Unlike COPE’s other prominent remaining members, she maintains strong connections to the NDP, not just to the party’s left wing and socialist caucus but to party “modernizers” like trade critic Don Davies. After all, she ran for the NDP in an unwinnable riding in 2011 and put on a cooperative, disciplined and energetic campaign that significantly increased the party vote in Vancouver South. She could help rebuild the party’s links to rank-and-file New Democrats and to NDP and labour-aligned civil society organizations, not to mention Chinese community organizations in which she is active. Already, just by announcing her candidacy, she is drawing COPE and the voting reform movement back together after a major falling out last year.
I am producing this article, in part, to encourage the hundred or so members I signed up for COPE last year to support Meena’s candidacy.
That stated, just picking Meena for mayor will not be enough to get COPE into the territory where even one of its candidates can be elected. The party must go beyond nominating her and play more actively on her strengths. COPE needs a bridge-builder like Meena to repair relations with the parties run by its former elected officials and board members. After so much bitterness, COPE needs to make the first move with groups and individuals who have left, starting with OneCity and the Public Education Project. It needs to repair relations with the Vancouver and District Labour Council, win over progressive NDP MLAs and MPs, and open more stable lines of communication with the Green Party. These are all things she is well-positioned to do. If COPE authorizes Meena to do the kind of bridge-building on its behalf that she has done to earn the strong consensus around her candidacy, her nomination could be a game-changer that saves the party’s brand.
Nominating Meena Wong as COPE’s mayoral candidate will not, by itself, restore the party’s ability to elect candidates. But if that is the party’s first move in an ambitious project of consensus-building and outreach, COPE may just have—at the last possible moment—saved their party and provided hope to the thousands of Vancouverites who need it.