Reflections on 2012: COPE has made great progress since election loss

As 2012 draws to a close, I find myself taking stock of this last year and getting excited about the remarkable rebuilding, energy and action within COPE. This is especially remarkable coming in the aftermath of one of COPE’s worst election outcomes: on November 18, 2011, COPE elected not one of its three candidates to City Council, none of its candidates to Park Board, and only one of its candidates, Allan Wong, to School Board.

A year of action indeed!

Organizationally, the party has regained the strength of its early years. At COPE’s February 2012 Annual General Meeting, the membership elected an executive with a greater diversity of political perspectives, many of them committed to building COPE into an organization capable of running a campaign to win a majority and form a truly progressive government. Since that time the activity within COPE has increased by an order of magnitude.

First, COPE is building on its core strength of being a member-driven party, where policy is developed democratically. Whereas in 2011, COPE’s single general membership meeting was the Vision-alliance ratification meeting, in 2012 COPE held six meetings for the general membership. These included quarterly general meetings in neighbourhoods across the city, featuring policy development alongside presentations by local activists around burning topics, such as labour issues, housing, gentrification, seniors issues, to name just a few. The COPE Education Committee hosted a well-attended conference around the corporatization of education called “Justice not Charity,” which produced this report.

Second, COPE has increased the ways in which members can get involved in the party on a daily basis. Whereas before the 2011 election, there were few if any active COPE committees — much of the organization’s resources were spent negotiating with Vision — now there is a comprehensive and accessible committee system. Under the leadership of COPE Executive member Ifny Lachance, COPE’s bylaws have been regularly reviewed and updated to reflect the new dynamic organization. Some of the other committees I’m excited about include: Housing, Electoral reform, Arts/Culture/Heritage, Communications, Membership, and the three caucuses.

COPE is speaking out on the issues and fighting for social justice

Despite having no one elected to City Council, COPE has been in the public conversation as much as any time in recent memory. When the Vision-dominated Council released its affordable housing report, COPE was quick to responded by drawing attention to the report’s shortcomings and to release its own more ambitious and socially just recommendations. COPE’s housing affordability report proposed to end renovictions, stop gentrification (particularly in the Eastside), and create a housing authority that is democratic and independent of the real estate development industry. The recent victory at Little Mountain Housing was organized in large part by COPE activists, including Kim Hearty, Tristan Markle, and David Chudnovsky. As these two (and many other) examples show, today more than ever only COPE can be trusted to speak and propose action from a position of progressive principle.

COPE’s Education Committee has taken the lead on issues of child poverty and adult education. These issues have remained on the agenda of public schools because of the work of Alan Wong and the Committee.

COPE’s Park Board committee has been the voice of reason regarding parks and recreation, with Anita Romaniuk, Ray Tomlin, Mia Edbrooke, and others fighting against Vision’s plans to erode the Board’s independence, increase community centre fees, and displace permanent community gardens.

When Vision approved the city budget this month, I worked with the COPE Council Committee to propose an alternative view based on social justice principles, and cautioned against a city that increasingly puts more money into its police budget at the expense of funding for community support services such as social housing, libraries, childcare etc.

Thinking back to November 18, 2011

I also had some thoughts about why I found myself so excited by the dynamism in today’s COPE. It’s been only one year since the November 2011 civic election loss, which was COPE’s worst showing since 1996. In the aftermath of such defeats it can be difficult to admit taking the wrong path and to change course. I recalled that after the 1996 shut-out, COPE held an election debrief to discuss what had gone wrong — and the general conclusion was that we lost because on election day it was snowing out! So when, two months after the 2011 election, the party held a gathering to discuss this latest defeat, I hoped for honest self-criticism and accountability this time around.

Members had many different explanations for our defeat. Some individuals thought that only minor mistakes had been made, such as running the wrong candidates or poor timing for the candidate nomination meeting. It seemed hard to see the forest for the trees, the long-term trends from short-term fluctuations.

While some members were willing to look to our own decisions, such as not running our own mayoral candidate, others preferred to blame the Green Party and Neighborhoods for Sustainable Vancouver [NSV] rather than acknowledge that COPE is responsible for its own mistakes. They felt that if other smaller parties had not run candidates then, at least, COPE’s Ellen Woodsworth would have eked-out one seat on council. The Green party’s Adriane Carr, some said, had “diluted” the vote. But Adriane Carr is not complaining that COPE diluted her vote – because she won! And she ran on a shoe-string budget to boot. Nor is Vision complaining that Adriane Carr diluted their vote – because they won as well.

Blaming the Green party suggests that the only way for COPE to win is by stopping the Green Party from running candidates, or by forcing them into a coalition with Vision. Even if that were desirable (which I think it is not) I can’t imagine any democratic means to achieving such ends. Before the last election, the Green Party general membership voted democratically in favour of a coalition with COPE instead of with Vision.

Similarly, some individuals blamed NSV for diluting COPE’s vote. But NSV did not run anyone for Parks Board or School Board, so that does not explain COPE’s defeat there. Where NSV did run candidates, on Council, it explicitly asked its supporters to vote for all three COPE candidates. In the main, NSV candidates did best where COPE did the best – Commercial Drive and Mount Pleasant. In my opinion NSV boosted COPE’s vote.

In the end, blaming other small parties for diluting the vote is a form of denial. Once we look at these parties with the respect they deserve, there is actually much to learn from them. Now that the tornado of the election is behind us, let’s ask some tough questions: why did the Green Party refuse to join in coalition with Vision? Why did NSV run its own candidates? In politics as in life, everything happens for a reason.

Let’s start with the Greens. They ran with the COPE-Vision coalition back in 2008, allotted one spot on Parks Board. Stuart Mackinnon was elected, but soon became extremely disillusioned with the way Vision ran the Parks Board: they supported the corporate developer agenda, covered it up with green-washing, and then bullied anyone who didn’t vote with them (concerns are often shared by COPE). Mackinnon’s conscience left him no choice but to reject that style of government. Indeed, at the Green’s Party’s general meeting before the 2011 election, Mackinnon himself put forward the motion to reject running on Vision’s slate, and to instead run one candidate for each of the three levels of civic government. Mackinnon then put forward a motion to leave the door open to running a joint slate with COPE, who he said shared the Greens’ genuine environmental and democratic principles. Mackinnon’s motions passed with near unanimity of the entire Green Party membership. (Unfortunately, COPE’s leadership at the time was not open to that arrangement – and the divided COPE membership voted for joining Vision’s slate, though just barely).

Why did Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver decide to become a political party and run candidates for council? NSV originated not as a party, but as a network of residents’ associations and grassroots organizations mobilized against Sam Sullivan’s EcoDensity initiative. They criticized it as a Trojan horse for the corporate developer agenda. But when Vision came to power Sullivan’s agenda continued. Many on the left had numerous legitimate complaints against the ruling party, concerns not dissimilar to those expressed by the Greens. But these folks did not see an opportunity to voice their frustration with Vision by working inside COPE. COPE’s decision to join Vision’s slate in June 2011 resulted in some people in COPE joining NSV in order to speak freely against Vision. My point is not to say that every member of NSV is progressive, nor that the party is as progressive as COPE – COPE’s position always strives to put social justice front-and-centre. But it is unlikely that NSV would have become of political party at all if COPE had run its campaign independently of Vision.

I believe strongly that we can’t blame the Greens and Neighborhoods for Sustainable Vancouver for COPE’s 2011 loss.

COPE was an unequal partner in the Vision alliance

Contrary to the Greens or NSV being responsible for COPE’s decline, it’s COPE’s dependence upon Vision which became the cause for the Greens’ and NSV’s rise as opposition parties. So what, then, is responsible for COPE’s eviction from city council? I believe it’s the result of a long-term process where, for seven years, COPE not only formed an alliance with Vision, but did so as an unequal partner. In any unequal relationship, the constrained partner loses its independence over time – and that was certainly the true for COPE in this relationship.

One obvious example is that COPE’s profile has been harmed by not running a mayoral candidate since 2002, and by running so few candidates each election campaign. Equally crucial is the fact that COPE’s organizational capacity has suffered. COPE became increasingly dependent upon Vision’s developer-funded campaign machine. In a sense, when the COPE membership was asked in June 2011 to support the Vision deal, it was not a real choice. COPE’s organization was no longer up to the task of running a larger slate or a full election campaign. The membership did not err on that day alone; rather, the problem was systemic one of becoming organizationally dependent upon Vision.

The toll all this took was great. Although progressive voters across the city still believed in COPE’s principles, many began to doubt whether COPE had the capacity to form government and to turn ideas into action. It was hard to get excited about that.

An independent COPE emerges

When I take the long view, it’s clear that COPE’s 2011 election loss can’t be explained by a few minor mistakes, but was the inevitable end-result of a long-term project in which COPE was the unequal partner of developer-backed Vision Vancouver. It is factually incorrect to blame smaller parties for COPE’s decline, and it is unfair to criticize them for filling the role of opposition where COPE had abandoned it. Although COPE’s profile and organization took a serious hit under the previous arrangement, in the past year the stage has been set for a renaissance. COPE is now by far the most democratic and progressive civic party in town. But much hard work lies ahead as we build a party that is big enough and strong enough to overthrow the current developer-funded Vision-NPA council. Now that’s something to get excited about in the new year!

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