As neoliberalism takes hold of our civic imaginations, we increasingly think of ourselves as consumers of government services, taxpayers rather than citizens. And as governments shift their revenue streams from income-based taxation to fee-for-service arrangements, this reality impacts how we understand our relationship to government, especially specialized service-delivery branches of it.
I have used the term “ratepayer politics,” to describe conservative mobilization structures in our cities, how the people who feel entitled and motivated to vote and organize politically around city council issues are property owners who pay direct taxes to the city, and consumers of services offered at local libraries and community centres. Those who feel the strongest direct relationship to the city as “clients” are those who end up organizing around civic politics and setting the agenda. “Stakeholder” community consultation processes, hard-wired into municipal decision-making, render this explicit, privileging the opinions of groups and individuals based on their physical proximity to and financial stake in the outcome of a development decision.
This is further intensified by the narrowing of local governments’ exclusive policy purviews by placing such things as transportation and emergency services under the control of unelected regional bodies appointed by the province.
As voter registration and turnout fall at all political levels, one of the new kinds of political formations we are seeing is a phenomenon so common in UK politics that it has a name “hospital parties” and “hospital candidates.” Because voters are increasingly less mobilized as citizens participating in a shared, values-based democratic process and view their relationship to the state as paying consumers of its services, new, consumer activist political organizing is becoming more viable. When facing hospital closures and cuts under the Major and Blair governments in the UK, local citizens began organizing around single-issue hospital candidates or forming hospital parties to send MPs to Westminster or, more commonly, councillors to local councils, to advocate for them as consumers, bulk-purchasing health care through a local state-maintained facility. In this light, we can better understand Delta South’s Vicky Huntington as a hospital MLA.
This reality intersects with another historical and BC-specific reality as we think examine how school board politics is changing. In Vancouver, the Coalition of Progressive Electors is viewed, for those who watch City Council as a perpetual opposition party that ran one flash in the pan government in 2002. But from the perspective of school board elections, COPE won four governing mandates (1982, 1983, 1990, 2002) and served as junior coalition partner from 2008 to 2013. And in other elections, the party came close to victory.
In Surrey, there is a more recent and more dramatic story of disparity between power on School Board and power on council. While 2011 proved a shut-out for the Surrey Civic Coalition (the successor party to SCE) on council, the party was able to gain a foothold on School Board, electing Charlene Dobie. This time, rather than trying to make a mayor-centred, two-slate party happen, Dobie has founded the Surrey Progressives, a left-tilting association that is only contesting school board seats. Capitalizing on the fact that in municipalities around southwestern BC, school board elections tilt left of council elections, local progressives are focusing on the school board race—and not just Surrey progressives. Principled leftist and queer activist Nicole Joliet, my favourite candidate in Surrey, is focusing her efforts at building a left base and changing the conversation on her school board candidacy.
And we see something similar in Vancouver. Former school trustee Jane Bouey and former COPE candidate Gwen Giesbrecht, my favourite candidates in Vancouver, are banking on doing better by creating an education-focused party, the Public Education Project, that only contests school board seats in Vancouver.
It is too early to tell if the convergence of the factors I have noted above will lead to a fundamental shift in how municipal party systems work in Southwestern BC but there are some grounds for hope. The solidarity that parents showed with locked-out teachers during the school labour dispute this year, their clear alignment to the left of the general public on education issues and the rise in progressive parent activism bode well. In areas of Vancouver, like Killarney, Collingwood and Champlain Heights, that have the most children, school board lawn and window signs outnumber council and mayoral signs. In a low turnout environment, families who have bought into the idea of themselves as consumers rather than citizens may join more left-leaning parents in heading to the polls motivated primarily by school board, rather than council issues. And with more parents’ associations hosting candidates’ forums and speaking out on social media, we may see a much more progressive result in school board elections than we do for councils.
We see this echoed on the right of the political spectrum, as well, with the rise of Vancouver First. While the party remains a fringe organization on council and parks board, its agenda of paranoid, populist homophobia and transphobia has made it a force. It is former school board chair Ken Denike and not party founder Jesse Johl who is understood to be the party’s leader and who dominates its lawn sign presence. For reasons to do with the Americanization of Vancouver politics, which I will visit in my next post, it may be that old coalitions will fly apart as self-conscious parents come to comprise an increasing portion of a dwindling voter base.
When so many voters are de-motivated and cynical, and in the aftermath of the province-wide labour dispute, it may be that 2014 will be that parents, teachers and their allies will produce a major realignment in how civic elections work this fall. If Surrey Progressives and Public Education succeed in electing candidates for a schools-only brand, our whole system of party building and governance may change.
In my view that would be a welcome relief for Vision Vancouver’s school trustees. Like the Vision Parks board, Patty Bachus leads a progressive team that is worthy of re-election, especially now that it includes long-time COPE trustee Allan Wong. With close ties between the Vision board majority and PEP’s candidates and party members, the fate of Jane Bouey, Charlene Dobie and Gwen Giesbrecht on Saturday will determine much about how leftists and progressives begin rebuilding in 2015. If there can be hospital parties, why not school parties?
With effectively no public polling for school board elections, we can only guess and vote with hope. How fortunate that we have so many more school board candidates able to inspire it.