#COPE: Is there hope for the extra-parliamentary Left?

Published in rabble.ca | December 9, 2011 | Circulation: 140,000 unique monthly visitors

Ellen Woodsworth. Photo by David P. Ball

Nearly a month since Vancouver’s Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) were evicted from City Hall (but for Allan Wong’s single school board seat) in the November 19 elections, many on the Left are grappling with COPE’s loss.

Lots has been written guessing at what went wrong. I explored the question with COPE’s leadership, rank-and-file and outsiders for theVancouver Observer. Sean Antrim and The Mainlander crew offered their thoughtful post-mortem. Frances Bula shared hers on the State of Vancouver blog. Carlito Pablo pondered it in the Georgia Straight.

Some in Vancouver’s historic progressive party (founded in 1968) blame the loss on its membership voting to exclude veteran councillor David Cadman from the ballot, replacing him with the more outspoken and radical Tim Louis — someone with little love from the centrist Vision crowd.

Others blame the more than $2 million spent by each of Vision Vancouver and the right-wing Non-Partisan Alliance, a market COPE could not possibly compete in with its meagre $350,000 of mostly-union funding. And yet — the Green’s Adriane Carr got in with only $15,000.

Others say the party sold its soul in entering an electoral alliance with Vision Vancouver. Estimated at roughly a third of the membership, this group is suspicious of Vision — in particular its heavily developer-funded, developer-friendly agenda. For these people, Vision is basically Vancouver’s (federal) Liberal Party — centrist, widely appealing, but unwilling to make deep fixes to the system.

A decade after COPE surprised almost everyone in a landslide victory, the city’s historic progressive party now heads back into the political wilderness.

But we’re going to look forward now.

In this week’s edition of The Left Coast Post, we hope to start a conversation on the future of COPE and how it will relate to grassroots social movements in the city over the next three years. I spoke with the party’s executive director, Alvin Singh, who said the main goal for now is to consult the membership, heading into a party membership meeting early in the new year.

This week, I sat down with former councillor Ellen Woodsworth, a long-time affordable housing advocate and Downtown Eastside activist who served on both the 2002 and 2008 councils. She was ousted by only 91 votes on November 19. You can read also an article I wrote looking back on Woodsworth’s term in office over at the Vancouver Observer.

Woodsworth started by talking about her hopes for electoral and campaign finance reforms: limits on donations; reporting on funders during election campaigns; and moving to a ward (neighbourhood-based) system so communities are better represented.

Here’s some of what she said:

THE LEFT COAST POST: Who’s going to carry the (electoral reform) torch forward now? Does COPE have a role in this? Should it?

ELLEN WOODSWORTH: COPE will certainly fight for this – this is a key issue for us and has been for a long time. We believe it’s a key issue for democracy in the city. I think that’s going to be one of the big issues. And neighbourhoods and strengthening neighbourhood organizations — building electoral organizations in neighbourhoods and giving them a voice on council.

Do you think it will become more of a focus now that COPE’s an extra-parliamentary party, if you will — an extra-conciliar (?) force? What does that look like for the party?

(Laughs). Strengthening neighbourhood organizations, and building electoral organizations in neighbourhoods — giving them a voice on council — will be really important.

What is next for COPE? 

We’ve just finished the election. Everybody was obviously very disappointed and shocked by the outcome – we worked very hard, and we had a great team of people, we had really good candidates. Allan Wong will go ahead and he’s a really good guy. I almost made it but didn’t, that was another unexpected loss. But to lose by so much — as many have said, if you don’t have $2 million to wrap all the newspapers in and put the ads out and put the billboards out – if you don’t have those things — and a mayoral candidate — you sort of disappear for two months during the campaign.

We need to regroup and talk to the other parties who ran people. There was a lot of vote-splitting between a number of different small (parties) – Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver was a neighbourhood organization up until September. The Green Party is not a party – there was like eight people at the meeting that decided to run somebody. But they’ve got a name out there. Then there were some good individual candidates who ran.

We need to discuss the issues in the city and what we bring to the city in terms of advancing the green agenda, advancing the housing agenda, electoral reform agenda, civil liberties. There’s a lot of things we were able to move forward much further than they would have otherwise gone. An extra-parliamentary left is the traditional way for organizations to continue. We’ll be having a meeting to discuss how to go forward and deal with all these issues.

And that’s where COPE comes from, for years — winning was a surprise in 2002 that there was such a sweep. It’s not like you’re in the barren desert and have no clue what to do now.

Yes. We have a really good organization – a lot of young people, it’s diverse. We’ll just take time to step from it all and work with communities to rebuild – to deal with the fact that if in ’08 the Vision and NPA were spending about $1.2 million, and now they’re spending $2 million — how do we counter that and effectively move forward?

How do you counter it? The reality is you’re not going to get (that amount of) money, right? The $300,000 is a fixed, right — as long as the unions keep giving it?

Yeah, we don’t take corporate money, that’s the problem. I think it means we have to work even closer to community organizations. Running three people was a good strategy because you focus your votes. I think had there not been so much vote-splitting, we would have done better. And obviously, David Cadman was a very well-known name, so not having two well-known names running made a difference as well. Those are all things we have to reflect on and dig deep.

Pushing for electoral reform is one piece. But in the absence of that, assuming (COPE’s) funding will stay stable at $350,000 — where would you take COPE? I presume you’re going to stay involved?

(Nods).

Let’s just say there’s no campaign finance reform and that doesn’t go ahead before the next election. What would you advise the party membership and leadership in terms of how to more effectively try to get into power — or get some kind of voice at the table — with such a small amount of money relative to the other parties?

I think we were very successful in working with the Filipino community, obviously we can build on that experience. We’ve been very successful working with a number of neighbourhood organizations across the city – we have to strengthen that relationship. There is a growing movement of people concerned about affordablility in the city, and we need to work with them and strengthen that movement.

We have to work with existing social movements and try to strengthen them and get their support for COPE.

We need to start working with candidates who are interested in running now. You’ve got to build their profile. We have some candidates who’ve been working really well – Brent Granby, RJ Aquino, Jane Bouey, others – who have name recognition. We can draw in new people with the same principles who want to run with us in three years’ time.

So, from the COPE end there’s being closer to the community, campaign finance reform and electoral reform, getting candidates out there now – a lot of people, with Tim (Louis), thought he hadn’t been visible enough since we was out (of office). He kind of got elected in without having name recognition left over, or if there was it was mostly negative perceptions. So getting those people recognized and known (now is important)?

Yes, (but we also) need new, diverse candidates. It’s very important that we represent the city. That means the diversity has to be there. New, young activists have to be out. I really worked hard to support RJ (Aquino), because i felt we needed to show the diversity, and the youth activists who wanted to be a part of COPE. That’s going to be another critical issue for us.

In some ways, when you look at the media coverage, Vision had a monopoly on the public’s perception of young people being involved. They talked about how many young people were at their victory convention, but nobody really did the same with COPE, even though I observed that as well – (that) there were a lot of young people.

The media portrayed it like there was a battle between Vision and the NPA. It was like all of a sudden we vanished, even though we’d had tonnes of media attention up until July, then all of a sudden — because those two parties were spending huge amounts of money — those two parties became the issue. What we stood for in the press conferences we had — it was difficult to get the media to pay attention.

It just wasn’t reported on, to be honest – that was interesting. I thought at least the condo moratorium thing would have got more coverage, just because it was controversial. Or the C-Pass (community discount bus pass) idea. There was really silence. I don’t know what it was – but they were able to make out that NPA is old, Vision’s young; NPA’s owners, Vision’s renters. There were a lot of dichotomies because it was a two-party thing. But Vision’s much more mixed than that.

You don’t get that much money if you don’t have a… (pauses). Clearly, Vision has securely occupied the centre. I think you’ll see (independent council candidate) Sandy Garassino probably emerge as the new leadership of the NPA. I think that you’ve got that kind of money in a city like Vancouver — where land values are just going straight up, and people are putting the money into housing rather than into the market.

To get the progressive voice out is difficult. We need to learn how to do it better.

Media-wise, we don’t have something like the (UK’s) Guardian here. Maybe it’s something like the (Toronto) Star, but that’s Toronto. Rabble is not a full news site, it’s more of a commentary site at this point. That means the information isn’t getting out there.

We absolutely need that. Part of the problem is – and (with) the underfunding of CBC – there’s not a common source of information like Democracy Now, where everybody knows, ‘Oh, I’ll go to that website and I’ll get a progressive critique of what’s happening.’ People are going all over the place, picking up a little here, a little there. You don’t have a way – as Occupy was trying to do – of coming to a consensus of what are the critical issues and how to move them forward. Now the NDP’s Official Opposition – how do we shape that party? Can that continue, or will that party move more to the centre in order to maintain that status of being the Official Opposition? If that’s the case, then who becomes the progressive voice?

Maybe that’s always going to be the extra-parliamentary left – the role of that.

It is, but in most countries of the world you have several political parties. You have a spectrum of political voices and political parties.

And media. I remember going to Europe in my early 20s and seeing the newsstands – you have everything from the fascists to the communists to the centrists who have their own papers.

Absolutely. In Japan it’s the same, and in Japan you have the communist party, the socialist party, you have the social democrat party, you have the liberals – you have a whole range of political perspectives. It does lead to vote-splitting (laughs) —

— And some bizarre coalitions.

And some bizarre coalitions, yes.

I wanted to ask you about the insider-outsider feel. I’ve observed this about you – politically, you’re very, I would say, radical and very clear about being willing to critique the system. And also you’re in many ways at the heart of the COPE structure. There’s a few people you could list as being very influential there – whether it’s David (Chudnovsky), you, the co-chairs, other people. How do you take on that role? I presume you’re going to still be involved in shaping how COPE strategizes and thinks about things in the interim, until there’s an AGM. How do you see your role in that? Is that an accurate perception of your role there? Influential mentor of the party, or what?

I always have seen myself as part of social movements. I’ve never really been active in any of the national or provincial parties. I’ve been engaged with their campaigns and supported parties very clearly, but when I got involved with COPE for the election in 2002, obviously I became one of the voices of the social movements at City Hall, but very much saw myself as a social activist.

But I didn’t see myself as being in a leadership role in the party, because there was David Cadman (2002-2011 councillor), Anne Roberts (2002-5), Fred Bass (1999-2005), Tim Louis (1999-2002). There were people who’d been involved in COPE for many, many years at the civic level. (LCP note: These four COPE councillors, plus Ellen, made up what Charlie Smith termed “COPE Classic,” in contrast to the more centrist “COPE Light” councillors who broke away to form Vision Vancouver in 2004).

I’d been working in the Downtown Eastside, I chaired the Action Canada Network in BC, dealing with free trade agreements. I’d worked in anti-poverty movements, but hadn’t really been focused at the city level. All of a sudden I was elected. Jim Green (2002-5 COPE councillor) was there – Geoff Meggs (2008 to present Vision councillor) was there – people much more seasoned politically than I was in a political party context.

Then Vision split from COPE on the issues of the Olympics, public-private partnerships (‘P3s’) and gambling, and all of a sudden we were all out. (Former COPE Executive Director) Rachel Marcuse drew me back in to help lead the party, and there was a really good relationship I had with her. We could work together really well.

When I won the election with David Cadman, here I was with someone who was clear – again, he’d run as mayor, he’d been very active in COPE for many, many years. He continued to have that leadership position, and I continued to relate to neighbourhood groups and social movements. Then all of a sudden David was gone at the nomination meeting.

I sort of actually stepped into that position, as the one elected who was going on. That’s been an interesting evolution for me into that position and that resonsibility. To be supportive of RJ Aquino coming up, Brent Granby, some of the other candidates running for us – support and advise them, argue through positions with them. I’ve learned a lot by having to do that. I’ve obviously done that in many positions before, but not in the context of a party. It’s been an evolution into being where I am today.

But of course I’m not elected, so I have to focus on, again, how do we deal with the pressing social issues today, and how can we use COPE to speak and to address those social issues?

What do you see as your role as being with COPE in the next three years?

I hope that we can continue to build on what we’ve achieved and draw in people who’ve made a huge difference in terms of developing our policy, and draw in others who are active in lots of other issues in the city, but who don’t trust political parties – who came around during the election – and convince them to stay part of it, and convince them of the need not just for an extra-parliamentary left, but to actually use an extra-parliamentary left to influence government. And hopefully we’ll run some good candidates in the next election.

Why is it important to keep engaging people who are disillusioned with political parties?

Because government and democracy are a very important mechanism to control the economic and the environmental and social future of this world, let alone Vancouver. If we don’t have political organizations, the corporations will continue to strip the pine beetle forests, and use up our waters and sell them to the United States, to dismantle our social programs and destroy our unions, and make legal aid impossible to access, dismantle our human rights commission – all those things that made Canada a great country that my forebears fought so hard for.

They worked so hard to create our social structures, a fair taxation system – to make sure that everybody in Canada had a place to live, decent health care, could go to school. If we don’t build organizations, if we don’t build coalitions, we’re going to see it get much, much worse.

Are you going to put your name forward again for election?

We’ll see what opens up. I would certainly run again. We’ll see where and how that’s possible. Right now, I have to get a job and I have to absorb the change. I have to start looking around.

Anything else I should ask you?

Well, ‘Don’t mourn; organize.’ (LCP: Quote from labour organizer Joe Hill) — That’s always a good way to end.

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