What happened to Vancouver’s civic left?

Photo by Wendy, Flickr

Photo by Wendy, Flickr

I’m writing this column in somewhat of a daze of sleep deprivation and euphoria. Our second son, Camilo, was born a week ago.

Our little family of four can’t afford to live in Vancouver. But we’re doing it anyway, with our 750 or so square feet downtown.

After our first son was born, we gave up our small co-op housing unit in the Downtown Eastside in favour of three bedrooms out in Richmond, where I grew up and where rents are ever so slightly less insane. But we couldn’t handle the commuting. We both worked downtown, and we also commuted to see friends, and to attend social and political events.

Vancouver is our home. So we moved back, managing to find a two bedroom apartment in one of the scattered non-profit run buildings downtown – in Yaletown, no less. We pay “market rent,” but it’s way less per month than most units in the buildings around us.

All that to say that it takes persistence and luck for low and middle income earners to find a place where they can live in this city. The relentless logic of Capital, manifest in real estate speculation and high end development, is driving people out of Vancouver or leaving them without a home at all – out on the street or in a shelter.

This crisis of affordability should be the central issue in this year’s Vancouver municipal election. As I’ve argued before, Vision Vancouver and Mayor Gregor Robertson have failed to live up to their promises. I would add that Vision is structurally incapable of fulfilling these promises, because of their links with the city’s biggest developers. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

What Vancouver needs more than anything is a clear political voice expressing opposition to developer control of City Hall. A political alternative that can present a principled critique while recognizing and defending the things that this administration has done right, like opposition to tar sands pipelines, from right-wing attacks.

What are the prospects for a renewed left alternative in Vancouver?

The Coalition of Progressive of Electors (COPE), the historic vehicle of the civic left, has been decimated. It has been split, and split again. It’s been a painful past dozen years since COPE swept the 2002 elections with Mayor Larry Campbell.

The joy of E-Day 2002 soon turned to horror as COPE supporters learned the most painful lesson of liberal “democracy” under capitalism: winning office doesn’t mean winning power. Campbell had progressive views on drug policy, from his years as a coroner, but not much else; the ex-cop was about the worst person to head up a progressive administration made up of gadfly councillors and a base expecting real political change. Campbell was rightly described as a Trojan Horse for Vancouver’s left, and he went on to be appointed as a Senator by the federal Liberals.

Almost immediately, COPE’s caucus was sharply divided on a series of issues: the use of police to end an historic housing squat at Woodward’s, the public-private-partnership construction of the Canada Line, and expanded gambling in the city – among other things.

After a couple of years of a bitter internal split in the caucus, Campbell and a group of councillors left to form Vision Vancouver. Those who stayed in COPE have been split on strategy for the past three elections, with some version of cooperation or non-competition with Vision Vancouver winning approval from COPE’s membership each time.

The bitterness of the debates has driven away many stalwarts, plus the agreements have meant smaller and smaller COPE slates, no mayoral candidates, and thus an ever lower profile. Meanwhile the internal division and acrimony hurt the party’s ability to organize issue-based campaigns and to attract new members.

While COPE was being diminished, Vision Vancouver was establishing a new ‘big tent’ hegemony over city politics, attracting moderate right-wingers (the type who don’t viscerally hate cyclists and environmentalists, for example) and getting support and money from both big developers and many labour unions.

In the past year, COPE lost its only elected member, Allan Wong on the School Board, to Vision Vancouver, and another quiet split took place, with the resignations of David Chudnovsky and RJ Aquino from the COPE executive. They have recently announced the formation of OneCity, with Aquino declaring he will run for City Council with the new party. I was encouraged by the language of OneCity’s first public statement: “OneCity emerged out of a deep concern that social inequality is growing, current development policies are making the situation worse, and City Hall is not listening.”

Full disclosure: I served on the COPE executive in 2006–2007, and I was invited to a consultation meeting organized by the founders of OneCity. I have many friends and allies in both parties. It’s been a rough past decade for all of us on Vancouver’s left. The solution to this impasse will involve members of both COPE and OneCity, as well as disgruntled Vision supporters and people not presently involved at all. It can be hard after so much division, but we have to assume good faith in others even when we have big strategic disagreements.

This city is my home, and I’ll be damned if we are going to let it become a soulless land of condos for the rich without a fight.

*That’s two columns sketching the big picture of Vancouver politics – next week we’ll get into specific policy analysis with a look at COPE’s important proposal for a local Housing Authority.