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Crafting a Left Voting Strategy for November 15th, Part 1: Grieving Our Losses and Admitting Where We Are

To even begin to talk about a productive voting strategy for the upcoming elections in Vancouver and Surrey, it is first important to clear the decks of faulty logic and misperceptions standing in our way. This is especially important in BC’s two largest cities because those opposed to equity and sustainability agendas have played and continue to play on our natural desire to recoil from the depressing and sometimes frightening reality that confronts us when we take a hard look at the actual situation on the ground. So let us get a few things out of the way.

No Big Tent Progressive Party to Challenge for Government

For much of the past two and a half years, I have worked to build a big tent progressive party to challenge for government in Vancouver this fall. Many have worked harder and longer than I. And many activists in Surrey have been doing the same. Vancouver’s COPE-NDP and COPE-Green coalition slates of the 80s and 90s do not exist today nor does anything like them. The same can be said of Bob Bose’s and Penny Priddy’s Surrey Civic Electors (SCE) of the same era. No electable party is contesting the city council elections in either jurisdiction that enjoys concurrent levels of active membership, popular support, policy breadth and equity-based policy that would make it such a party.

It is very sad that this is the case but this situation will not be ameliorated until we grieve this loss and begin rebuilding. Continuing to pretend that any party meets these criteria is a costly act of denial that holds back the formation of a truly progressive politics.

Three Kinds of Parties

For people on the left, there are essentially three kinds of parties running in this election that are making a pitch to us: (1) neo-liberal centre-right parties that include leftists and former leftists in their party structures and lay a claim on left votes while pursuing policies of privatization, gentrification, deregulation, upward income redistribution and law and order criminalization, (2) small, vaguely leftist affinity groups masquerading as broad-based parties and (3) small parties and independents with a progressive perspective who are seeking an opposition/advocacy role on councils. (Note that this article does not discuss the School Board elections, which will be covered in a future post.)

Coalition of Progressive Electors (Vancouver) [Type 2]

Prior to 2005, COPE was both a large, inclusive party and the broker of even larger, more inclusive coalitions comprising other progressive tendencies that could not be accommodated in COPE’s capacious yet unwieldy political structure. From 1980 to 1986, the party partnered with the Civic Independents; from 1986 to 1993, it partnered with the Civic New Democrats and in 1999 it partnered with the Green Party and two independents. More importantly, it had a large, diverse, active membership, strong links to organized labour and enjoyed support from many local MPs and MLAs.

Whatever narrative of blame one wishes to espouse and where one points fingers, the fact is that this is not the COPE of today. No MP or MLA supports the party; and, from a high of 100% in 2002, COPE’s share of Vancouver trade unions’ political donations has fallen to about 2%. In the past year alone, the party has lost hundreds of members, half of its major donors, half its board and its only elected official to internecine warfare as small personality cults and affinity groups competed against each other for control of the party.

In recent weeks, the party has sought to make some cosmetic changes to appear to open its doors again by choosing a pragmatic NDP-affiliated moderate as its mayoral candidate and hiring an experienced NDP organizer from outside the city to manage its E-day operation. But these changes seem more like acts of desperation and cosmetic tweaks than any sincere commitment to broaden its appeal.

COPE is a shell of its former self and, worse yet, for the sake of appearances, has annihilated its chances of electing anyone by nominating an enormously large, unwieldy slate of candidates, severely hampering the ability of voters to concentrate their vote on the few strong candidates the party still has like former Bowen Island mayor Lisa Barrett and former Vancouver city councillor Tim Louis. While these two might have had a shot at election, the six additional COPE candidates are almost certain to drag them down by diluting the votes of those who want a more leftist politics but are not up for backing the whole COPE slate.

Finally, COPE’s longest-surviving and second-most powerful faction, the alliance between Tim Louis’s iCOPE and Ali Yerevani’s MAWO, is not immune to the creeping conservatism of Vancouver opposition politics. While the party’s superb mayoral candidate Meena Wong and the Left Front led by Tristan Markle offer solidly leftist policies, the Louis-Yerevani faction practice conservative ratepayer politics, opposing, for instance, the nationalization of community centres under the Vision Vancouver Parks Board and pandering routinely to conservative neighbourhood ratepayer and business groups.

COPE is a party that is rotting from the inside, putting on its last desperate performance as a major party in this city.

Independent Democratic Electors Alliance (Vancouver) [Type 3]

One of the splinter parties of COPE, this is the hobby horse of long-time gadfly Parks Board and sex worker activist Jamie Lee Hamilton and has a proven track record of being unable to concentrate enough votes around its one candidate to elect her. That’s a shame. Even when off-message from her agenda of inclusivity and lowering barriers, IDEA’s candidate and only member is highly entertaining, as in her recent digression into the need for governmental action to force the Cactus Club to offer its fish and chips at a discount through its take-out windows. Sadly, Hamilton is irrelevant. Fortunately, even if she loses, she will continue to attend every Parks Board meeting and function as she has for many years, as the Board’s non-voting, unsalaried eighth member.

One City (Vancouver) [Type 3]

This is COPE’s best-funded splinter party. The core of One City is an intersection between the socially-based affinity groups, long-term alliances and ethno-lineal networks surrounding the party’s co-founders, RJ Aquino and David Chudnovsky. Having put some effort into trying to work with these individuals, first to co-govern COPE, then to engage with their post-COPE organizing efforts, it is clear to me that this is an organization that remains traumatized from its members’ experiences of first running and then losing control of COPE. This party makes it clear that while it stands for a Vancouver that is for everybody, membership in the organization and even telephonic or in-person access to its principals is guarded like the Harper Tories.

Perusing the party’s donor list, there is other evidence of this narrowness. Over 70% of all money donated comes from the Canadian Union of Public Employees and nearly all of the large individual donations come from the Chudnovsky lineage.

Now, I want to make clear: there is nothing wrong with this kind of politics. At times, I did this kind of politics in the 80s and 90s. After losing a multi-year crazy-off with scary people while your allies in government humiliate and make liars of you is a miserable experience and there are good reasons to limit one’s contact with new, un-vetted people. That’s why I think it is smart for One City to run only one candidate. The party isn’t presenting itself as a new coalition seeking government; it’s presenting itself as the embryo of that. In sharp contrast to COPE, it is offering a single candidate and concentrating its muscle behind one credible individual. Also, in contradistinction to COPE, One City is not going down the Vision rabbit hole and telling voters what it would do if it controlled Translink and the provincial municipal affairs ministry; it is running on policies it can actually implement.

Finally, One City has proved me wrong. I was concerned that with such a funding overlap with Vision and with founders whose public image had become inextricable from the ill-fated COPE alliance, I worried that the party would refuse to criticize Vision. I have been very pleased to see the party grow into its role as an actual opposition party after a weak start on the campaign trail.

One Surrey (Surrey) [Type 1]

To people in the know, One Surrey is subtly signaling to former Surrey Civic Electors voters who may not have followed the dwindling base of North Surrey New Democrats into the Surrey Civic Coalition and Surrey Matters that it is interested in their votes.

Party leader Barinder Rasode has included the nephew of former SCE mayor Bob Bose on the party’s slate and has received the endorsement of the senior Bose. A few New Democrats are working quietly for the Rasode campaign which has some progressive elements in its policy platform.

But, fundamentally, One Surrey is engaged in an uglier version of the Ontario NDP’s recent flirtation with centre-right pocketbook populism, opposing tax increases, attacking “government waste” as the main culprit for fiscal problems and beating the drum of the need for municipalities to focus on “core services.” Worse still, the party’s main issue is the same issue that animates the far-right populism of Doug McCallum’s Safe Surrey Coalition: crime.

By contributing to a moral panic that targets and blames poor people, demands a “get tough” approach to social problems and stigmatizes people with substance issues, even those actively seeking help, One Surrey has not been a force that has uplifted civic discourse or seeded the soil for equity-focused politics. Surrey voters would do better to cherry-pick centre-left candidates from independent candidates and the Surrey First and One Surrey slates than to throw-in with this new party. More advice about that in part five.

Vancouver Greens (Vancouver) [Type 3]

If the Vancouver Greens don’t increase their standing this election, it won’t be for lack of the best strategy in the city. Adriane Carr has built on her election in 2011 and strong performance as a councillor in the years since by recruiting a small, disciplined slate of well-spoken, intelligent candidates. She has brought back Stuart MacKinnon, the popular parks commissioner with three years of experience under his belt and strengthened her front bench with candidates who have strong connections with and/or names that resonate in the Liberal and NDP establishments in the city.

In many ways, Carr is leveraging her success at doing the very thing that Tim Louis aspires to do, should he return to elected office: playing the role of a one-person progressive opposition, acting as both gadfly and organizer for groups that feel unrepresented on council, while staying true to her party’s core principles. This is easier for Carr because conservative ratepayer politics and residents association pandering is very much part of Green politics, as compared to the exotic import it represents on the far left. Carr has also been better-positioned to challenge Vision Vancouver as it has evolved from being a pink (i.e. light red) party to a light green one. Carr can challenge Gregor Robertson and Andrea Reimer based on their claims to be small-g greens more effectively than COPE could challenge Geoff Meggs, Raymond Louie or Tim Stevenson for being lousy socialists as socialism has generally been dropped from Vision’s evolving narrative.

But let us be clear: while much better-positioned to make gains, running an larger slate and having a charismatic and battle-tested leader, the Vancouver Greens are not a broad-based progressive coalition. They are an insular, autocratic group that has been beating back efforts at democratization and inclusiveness longer and more successfully than the Chudnovsky-Aquino show running One City when they controlled COPE. And, unlike One City, they are not promising activists a more open membership and inclusive discussion if they are rewarded by voters. Instead, Carr will likely view this as a vindication of her practices of hand-picking and announcing candidates before her small party membership can exercise oversight.

The Greens present themselves neither as a big-tent progressive party nor as the embryo of one. What they are and should be supported in is being the best opposition the city can summon up in the absence of such a party.

Vision Vancouver (Vancouver) [Type 1]

Given that Vision Vancouver’s membership rolls are basically Vancouver’s NDP and federal Liberals, it is pretty clear where Vision’s right-wing impetus is coming from: its funders. For-profit corporations want results for their donations: quantifiable, demonstrable return on investment. Whereas trade union members will vote to hand over hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for a promise to be kicked in the face 31% less hard, and will do it again as long as the kick is 10-15% less hard, real estate developers and their companies don’t see it that way.

If they are to build “social housing,” it had better not just produce an immediate state subsidy; it had better so completely redefine “social” as to permit coffin-style bachelor suites to be rented for $2000 per month in the name of fighting poverty and generating equity. If their rezoned buildings must fit with the aesthetic of gentrifying neighbourhoods so as not to kill the golden goose of nostalgic, heritage buildings that attract new condo buyers, they had better enjoy vast rezoning windfalls, increasing the value of their property tenfold or more. If they must tolerate city spending on anyone other than themselves, property tax rates had better be the lowest on the continent.

What Vision Vancouver proves is that no matter what your resume says, no matter what colour jersey you wear on E-day in provincial and federal elections, smart, profit-driven developers can and will make a deal with you if you are willing to help them make money today.

That is one of the reasons that we see such a sharp contrast between the performance of Vision Vancouver city councillors and the party’s Parks Board and School Board. While I will speak to the school board elections in a future post, let me briefly address the Vision Parks Board. Here are candidates chosen from the same pool of activists, voted-on by the same party members. And look at the difference. With no land to rezone, no social housing requirements to waive, no social development metrics to redefine, Vision Parks Commissioners have proceeded aggressively with an equity agenda, taking on conservative ratepayer groups and private clubs, nationalizing our community centres and creating universal, portable access to city facilities. While COPE and the Greens have pandered to insular local community centre associations, with “membership has its privileges” attitudes to public building use, Vision has remained stalwart and unflinching in one of the few projects of nationalization we have witnessed since the Cold War.

Meanwhile, on city council, the contrast could not be sharper. While Gregor Robertson has been a strong public spokesperson for climate justice, opposing the Kinder Morgan pipeline and Tim Stevenson made our whole city proud by his work against homophobia in Russia, when it comes to public policy, as opposed to activism and advocacy, Vision is a conservative party. Its front bench may feature people who have cut their teeth as Greens, Communists and NDPers but what guides this party’s policies on the fundamental questions of equity and affordability are developer cheques, not the party cards in councillors’ wallets.

 

In sum, neither Surrey nor Vancouver residents can go to the polls on Saturday and cast their votes from a big-tent progressive alternative to govern their city. Instead, they must craft a voting strategy to make the best of the current situation and sow the seeds for better choices in 2018.

No Fair Voting System

If there is one thing I have learned organizing for Fair Vote Canada, Fair Voting BC, the BC Electoral Change Coalition, the Ontario NDP and the BC Green Party, it is that voting as though you already have the voting system you want is one of the most effective ways not to get it. I see many voters crafting voting strategies as though some form of proportional representation is already in effect. It is not.

While Vision Vancouver could have implemented a proportional or semi-proportional system in the form of Single Non-Transferrable Vote, Limited Vote or Cumulative Vote, and were asked to by Fair Voting BC and Fair Vote Canada, they instead chose to maintain the current voting system, offering the excuse that they were holding out for the province to pass enabling legislation to permit their favourite kind of proportional representation. You know, they way they’re holding out of the province to pass legislation banning corporate donations, even though they already possess the power to substantially ban them.

Surrey First has lacked that option due to their lack of a specific city charter from the province, granting them the control over their voting system that Vancouverites enjoy. No blame can be assigned to Surrey’s government in maintaining the voting system under which we will be choosing our governments on Saturday, one of the most unfair voting systems in the world, one enacted in BC in the 1930s with the explicit goal of reducing voter turnout.

Voters heading to the polls on Saturday must make our votes count under a “multi-member plurality system,” known colloquially by voting reform activists as first-past-the-post on steroids, a system even more effective at delivering massive, disproportional, unearned majorities. In 1996, for instance, the NPA won 43% of the popular vote in Vancouver but that translated into 100% of the 27 seats being contested.

To get a sense of how the system works, imagine that there are three groups of voters, comprising 50,000, 40,000 and 30,000 people respectively choosing eight candidates for Surrey Council. Imagine that each group is associated with a party running a full slate of candidates and that each voter voted for their party’s entire slate. The result would be that the party backed by 50,000 people would choose all eight councillors and that the other two groups would receive no representation; 41% of the voters would have 100% of the seats.

But, surprisingly often, Surrey and Vancouver do elect candidates from outside the first-place party. That is because of “split tickets.” While most voters do, in fact, allocate all their votes to the party of their preferred mayoral candidate, a minority of voters don’t do that. How this minority of voters behaves largely determines the result of an election. So I am going to briefly offer an inventory of the subgroups that comprise this group, in order of estimated prevalence:

Mixed Slate Voters

Racist Voters: It appears that the largest group of voters to split their tickets are white Anglo voters with a long history in the Lower Mainland. Unlike the residents of rural mill towns who tend to behave in the exact opposite way, these voters feel that civic politics is “corrupt,” and tend to locate corruption in the awarding of civic monopolies (primarily taxi and food cart monopolies), high-turnout nomination meetings and public displays of generosity. They associate these things with a stereotyped image of South Asian people. South Asians, they seem to think, are an especially corrupting force, what with higher-than-average rates of political party membership and association with civic monopolized industries. Many of these voters will vote for every candidate their preferred party is running but withhold their votes from its South Asian nominees. Academics, community activists and electoral reformers have long made much of the ways in which multi-member plurality voting reinforces racial stereotyping and division and chronically underrepresents South Asian people.

Generally, the best way to salve one’s conscience after doing this is to then use some of these votes to vote for members of a different minority group. While Vancouverites of Chinese extraction don’t view Chinese candidates as harder workers or better fiscal stewards than other candidates, white Anglo racist voters often do, as typified in Rob Ford’s backhanded praise of Toronto’s Chinese-Canadian population. In most elections in the past generation, a Chinese-sounding name has conferred an unearned bonus from white voters of 5-10% while a South Asian name has tended to produce a 10-20% penalty.

Noblesse Oblige Voters: Especially in times of runaway victory and party hegemony, voters for the governing party also—correctly usually—understand that they are not just picking the government. They are picking the opposition. “Saving” a vote for Bob Williams, Harry Rankin, Jenny Kwan, this was something that NPA voters have been doing since the 1960s when they party has been securely coasting into yet another mandate. Noblesse oblige voters understand that the opposition candidates around whom they concentrate their votes will be the ones who get the handful of council seats that are not won by the incumbent government.

Often these opposition candidates will, in some small measure, epitomize what the government voter thinks their preferred party is losing sight of. In 2011, Adriane Carr earned the support of many people who were voting Vision because of its light green agenda and wanted an opposition voice who would enhance that. Conservatives concerned about fiscal probity would routinely save a vote for Harry Rankin to support his line-item budget reviews and ferreting-out of civic waste.

Voters Who Pretend We Have STV: If we had the single transferrable vote electoral system, one could vote for a mixed, multi-party slate and have those intentions translated accurately when votes were counted. That’s not how multi-member plurality voting works but, as I have written elsewhere, for many voters, what matters is how they feel when they cast their votes and the council they envision in their minds in the privacy of the voting booth and not the results of their ballot interacting with tens of thousands of others during the counting process.

I have been hearing a lot from such voters in Vancouver, people who think that there should be a four-party council comprising the Greens, COPE, Vision and the NPA who fill out a ballot that resembles that result, rather than one tactically designed to produce that result. Often these voters do a lot of research, poring over candidate statements and party platforms, attending all candidates’ meetings, etc. but then insist on doing no research whatsoever about how the vote counting system works.

While these voters are not the majority, they do affect the election substantially. Members of this group often exert a powerful influence on which candidates from the second-place party win and which candidates from the first-place party lose in very close elections.

Change-Focused Voters: In Vancouver and Surrey, it looks like the incumbent parties will be returned to office with fewer votes, following a bruising campaign. Voters engaged in a last-ditch effort to prevent this will sometimes scan the ballot for the highest-profile members of any opposition party and cast votes for anyone whose candidacy has a good shot of knocking the less popular members of the governing party. Voters whose primary concern is to defeat Vision may choose a mix of candidates who are polling well, are with mainstream parties, have names near the top of the alphabet and otherwise show signs of being electable.

Of course, such an approach is costly because it often prevents one’s favourite candidate from gaining, in relative terms, on opposition candidates that one likes less. Many COPE voters chose to include Adriane Carr on their slate of preferred candidates in 2011, increasing the chances that some opposition councillor would be elected but reducing the chances that Ellen Woodsworth would keep her council seat by placing ahead of Carr. Depending on one’s priorities, this can be a rational and constructive choice, that makes the best use of multi-member plurality voting.

Well, that’s 4000 words or so. I had better stop now. More tomorrow.

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