The Vancouver municipal elections on Oct. 20 saw a big shift. Vision Vancouver, which had ruled for 10 years—a period which saw rents and homelessness skyrocket—was wiped out, and the left-wing Coalition Of Progressive Electors (COPE) had a strong showing. COPE ran a strong anti-establishment left-wing campaign which saw four of the seven candidates they ran elected to the city council, school and park boards.
In order to draw the lessons from the COPE campaign for the the labour movement and the left in the rest of the country, Fightback sat down with candidate Derrick O’Keefe who played a central role in the campaign, running for the city council under the COPE banner. O’Keefe received just over 38,000 votes in the election, about 5000 shy of being elected.
Fightback: First off, congratulations with the campaign. I think there are a lot of lessons that the left in other cities can learn from the COPE campaign.Can you start by giving us a bit of background?
Derrick O’Keefe: It really started last year because one of the councillors unexpectedly took a staff job with the provincial government. This led to an unusual circumstance where there was a byelection just a year before the general election. Basically what happened is that people involved in different sectors of the left decided to urge Jean Swanson to run in this by-election. Jean is sort of an elder figure of the left. She used to run for office in the ’80s but has since just been a really principled grassroots organizer and a relatively famous anti-poverty activist. We decided that it was an opportunity to try out more of a confrontational or a more left-wing version of an electoral campaign.
COPE got involved last summer, endorsing Swanson. However, she ran as an independent. This was because she had been asked by many people outside of COPE and COPE had been rather dormant since the last election where they didn’t get anyone elected. I got involved doing her communications.
The leadership group around this campaign last year was consciously seeing if a campaign modeled on the anti-establishment presentation of issues like the campaigns around Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, or Kshama Sawant would take off. Unfortunately, the left here recently has sort of shunned that approach. We decided that here is a candidate that embodies the left’s values and is willing to speak against capitalism and is willing to put issues in really stark terms and we would see how it goes.We didn’t really have great expectations. Even though the campaign went really well and we built up a lot of momentum, we were starting from nothing so we had no expectations. On election night, Jean was working on her speech and she was writing her speech as if she was going to to finish fourth or fifth. It turned out that she finished second place—in two months, going from nothing to finishing second place.
Jean ran on policies that were really just practical reforms but were considered too radical by the centre or the centre-left in town. She called for a rent freeze as an emergency measure in this housing emergency. She also called for a mansion tax, basically progressive property taxes on the biggest mansions in Vancouver.These were incredibly popular demands. Most of the institutions of the left didn’t support Jean in the beginning. For example, last year the Vancouver District Labour Council didn’t endorse Jean Swanson during the byelection even though she had this momentum behind her. But in spite of this, she ran a really strong campaign, attracted hundreds of volunteers, and ended up defying all predictions and coming in second.
So after that experience in the byelection, we thought that there was clearly an appetite for a more anti-establishment left-wing politics, and we then discussed how to bring that into the general municipal election. We discussed many different approaches and ended up deciding that it would be ideal if Jean ran for the already existing left-wing party, COPE. This was in spite of the fact that COPE was in a bit of a diminished shape after many splits over the years and having not been in power for a long time. We decided to make COPE a vehicle for a more clearly bold left-wing politics. It worked out well, as COPE was already well known as the left-wing party in the city and COPE really needed that infusion of left-wing activists from Jean’s campaign.
I think we proved that to be a good concept as we ended up getting four of our seven candidates elected at the different levels: two on the park board, one on the school board, and Jean on the city council. Myself and Ann Roberts did not get elected to the city council.
All things considered, we did well. But more importantly, we gave people a hint of what is possible if you run on clear class demands. Some people, even people who identified as progressive, did malign us or suggest that our approach wouldn’t work. Last year, OneCity’s candidate wrote in an op-ed, “This city needs class collaboration, not class war.” This was clearly a shot at us. But it turns out that people actually want to have our class defend itself. Because there is an ongoing class war. You are not initiating the class war if you are trying to stay in your home or the rent is too high and you are trying to get some control on the rent.
It didn’t matter what the pundits and the institutional progressives were critiquing about our campaign. We had so many parts of town where we had dedicated volunteers setting up tables all summer.
FB: Can you highlight some of the things you were demanding?
DO: First, we said that we should have a four-year freeze on rent increases. Last summer when we first presented this demand, lots of people said “this is too much, you can’t ask for that.” But we just went out and petitioned. We had petitioning teams tabling all summer. Not only did we get thousands of signatures, but we we were getting new volunteers because people got so excited they wanted to help. By this time last year we had hundreds of volunteers who were so inspired by the campaign that they would go above and beyond what normal volunteers would do.We also were willing to talk about how year after year, at the municipal level the police budget always goes up and no one ever challenges it. Last year starting with Jean and this year with COPE we said we should actually cut the police budget and this money should go to housing the homeless. This was partly because when you house people, police costs and emergency services costs generally come down. Traditionally, that’s an issue that you are not supposed to touch, but we were willing to do it and we had a good response to that.So we put forward concrete reforms, but they were reforms that pointed people towards organizing and struggling against the system. At the same time, we had political spokespeople who openly identified as socialists in my case, and other people on the team who were clearly against the system.
We were also not afraid to name the people we considered to be the bad guys in this class war. For example, last year we held a demonstration at Chip Wilson’s house, the largest mansion in Vancouver. Chip Wilson is a billionaire who started Lululemon, is now buying a lot of commercial property and speculating on it. This year we kind of made him a theme of the campaign. While a lot of other parties would suck up to him and hope that he donated to them, we would just go after him. When he donated to the NPA—the right-wing party—and he had their lawn signs outside his house, I went to his mansion and filmed a video. I said: “This guy is supporting the NPA, he is giving them so much money, so this is why our side needs to have donations from working people. There are more of us, but if we don’t organize and mobilize, their side wins.”The naming of enemies was important, although some people got squeamish about it. Some people said that you shouldn’t criticize particular business people, that they are respectable and they worked hard for their money. But I think it was really important that we talked about specific class adversaries, and gave names to the companies and the developers whose powerful vested interests we were opposing. Naming the power behind the throne is crucial to understanding systemic injustice. Another reason this was specifically important in the context of Vancouver is that there is so much anger about the housing situation and this is related to an underlying or even visible racism. Many people have this idea that the problem is Chinese people in general, conflating an opposition to a wave of speculative capital in the housing market with bigotry against the Chinese population of Vancouver in general. Some openly stoke this xenophobia. Now it’s true that every world city does have a certain amount of capital flowing in from outside and investing in the real estate market. For example in London, there are Russian oligarchs pouring their money into London. And I don’t think it is anti-Russian to comment on this. But the real problem is capital in general taking priority. In Vancouver, regardless of where the money is pouring in from, the people who are profiting the most are the domestic capitalists, the domestic developers and real estate barons like Chip Wilson.
So I would say the three things were that we had clear concrete demands, we talked against the system and we were willing to name enemies, in a way that politicians normally shy away from.
FB: Can you explain to us what role the Vancouver District Labour Council played?
DO: In the winter, they initiated talks with the different parties because there had been various splits. The idea was to limit the number of candidates that ran overall because of the electoral system where you have to get in the top 10 to get elected. The progressive vote is usually split amongst too many candidates from too many parties.I was involved in the negotiations on behalf of Jean. When we went to the first negotiation meeting, we said that the problem here is that Vision Vancouver is not a progressive party. They’ve been the ruling party, a corporate party, kind of like the U.S. Democrats. They had some labour money and some connections to the movement, but they had overwhelmingly corporate money and backers. He who pays the piper, calls the tune. Having been in power for 10 years they were clearly a party of the establishment. And people were obviously furious at them. So even tactically, in our opinion, it was a bad idea for the labour council to include them. In their defense, some of their member unions were supporting Vision so they said that they had to include them.
In the deal that ended up being worked out there were some positives, such as COPE and OneCity ran relatively small slates—three from COPE and two from OneCity, and the Greens also agreed to limit their number of candidates. The negative thing was that Vision was allowed to run five candidates and the labour council endorsed four of them, which just led to confusion among people. And the results speak for themselves: Vision Vancouver didn’t elect anyone to city council, and most of their candidates finished way out of contention. So in this case the centre split the vote, and contributed to preventing more of us on the left from being elected.It was sort of a non-competition agreement, not a slate. And the agreement specified that we were allowed to criticize each other on the issues. I would say that it was useful to have that agreement.
FB: What do you think that the left and the labour movement in general can learn from the COPE campaign?
DO: Class politics is not just about workplace battles. Those are obviously important and paramount but for example with the housing crisis, labour unions have a direct interest in pushing for affordable housing. It doesn’t matter if you have a good union contract in Vancouver because over the last 10 years, if you are a renter, your housing costs have gone out of control. I remember campaigning and I was talking to a city worker, and he said something like “all the guys under 50 live out in the valley now.” These are good-paying union jobs working for the city of Vancouver, but you can’t live in the city of Vancouver. Especially if you have a family or you want more than 400 square feet. Everyone is stuck in this housing emergency, so if unions do not start fighting for affordable housing and rent control, they are ultimately hurting their membership. On the positive side, there have been some unions who have launched some public campaigns on the question of housing.For example, we were campaigning on the rent freeze and in the summer, the NDP government announced a rent increase of 4.5 per cent. We made a lot of noise about this. But at the same time the BCGEU, which is one of the biggest public sector unions in B.C., launched a big affordable housing campaign at the same time. And they have a lot of reach. So we were reaching a lot of people in Vancouver, but when the BCGEU started talking about it they were reaching people in Prince George, Victoria, Kamloops, etc., all over the province. So the B.C. government was hearing a lot of noise and a lot of push back and they ended up making another announcement just three weeks after that they would be changing the rent hike formula created by the B.C. Liberals previously. So the pressure worked. When unions got involved that was decisive because they have the members and the social weight.So the lesson for the labour movement is that class politics goes beyond the workplace. It also presents an opportunity for the labour movement to introduce itself to especially young people who are living in precarious housing. It is an entry point for class politics. Maybe you start talking to them about affordable housing, but then they ask about unionizing their coffee shop.For me, the main lesson from the campaign is that not only is class politics not an obstacle, but I think it is necessary to have any electoral success. People are so clearly struggling under the current inequality that the system is producing that you have to offer them something real in a campaign to get their attention.
I would go to these all-candidate meetings and there would be 30 candidates and sometimes they would just all seem the same. Then someone like Jean Swanson would get up and say, ”Actually the system sucks and the rent is too damn high, so you should join our campaign.” And people liked that someone was saying something different. The danger in this period of inequality and crisis that the capitalist system is in is that if the left is not saying something that is distinguishable and clear, people will gravitate towards this fake anti-establishment of the far right. The centre left is basically pretending like everything is fine and people see right through that. So the anti-establishment character of the campaign was important.One final thing is that actually going out and talking to people works. A lot of election campaigns that I have worked on in the past with the NDP were very technocratic. On NDP campaigns they quite often look at their members as just donors or just volunteers with some really mechanistic task like phoning people and reading from a message box. Often the message is very controlled and it is like they don’t trust their own members to have conversations with people and win them over to ideas. The message is very narrow and they focus on mailouts and advertising. But these ways of communicating with people are more expensive and quite superficial. What we did is that we had groups of people on street corners every day talking about the issues. It is maybe a slower way to win over voters, but it is actually more effective. It also develops your organizers politically when you trust them to go out and have discussions.I am relatively pleased with the election results. Importantly I could see over the months of the campaign that we developed dozens and dozens of competent organizers who were as confident as any of the candidates in talking about the issues. And we definitely pulled the other parties to the left on certain things.
FB: Any final comments?
DO: I know it is just one municipal election, but I hope the federal NDP is paying attention to this and other examples of the left campaigning on clear class politics. I think in the next federal election if the NDP tries to be the Liberals Lite again, it is gonna be a blowout. It could be oblivion for them or a really bad result. There is nowhere to go but left.Jagmeet Singh was not my choice for leader. He could shift a bit, but more importantly is who they let be candidates at local ridings. Last election, a lot of people who were not even socialist or that radical were blocked. There is so much blocking of left-wing candidates, they need to not do that otherwise they will have no good candidates.I was surprised. Everyone knows I am a socialist, anti-imperialist, anti-war activist, so I thought there would be more attacks against me, like red-baiting from the media and right-wing parties. Nowadays it is more mainstream and it is a very good time for a socialist to be running openly for office. I am hopeful.