The Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) was decimated in Vancouver’s civic election on 19th November.  COPE lost both of its seats on city council, all of its seats on the parks board, and only managed to hang on to one seat on the school board.  Former city councillors Ellen Woodsworth and David Cadman were both quick to point the finger at prominent radical Tim Louis for the loss; in fact, the precise opposite is true.  It was years of tail-ending of Vision Vancouver by Woodsworth and Cadman that cost COPE the election.

The simmering discontent within the COPE ranks spilled into an open revolt on 18th September when COPE’s membership did not re-nominate Cadman for city council.  David Cadman was perceived by many to be on the right-wing of the Coalition of Progressive Electors and has been especially cozy with Vision Vancouver.  Instead, COPE’s membership decided to nominate Tim Louis and newcomer RJ Aquino, in addition to re-nominating Ellen Woodsworth, for city council.  

To understand the roots of this conflict we must go back to the last time COPE won control of city council in 2002.  With the working class under attack from Gordon Campbell’s newly elected provincial government, Vancouver voters swept COPE into power and knocked the right-leaning NPA from office.  While COPE won a stunning victory, the new council was fraught with contradiction.  The council quickly divided itself between left and right, and a series of struggles on different issues ensued within COPE.

In reference to ad campaigns from Coca-Cola, media referred to the two factions as COPE Classic (left) and COPE Light (right).  COPE Classic had a towering majority amongst the membership, but COPE Light had the majority on city council.  Unwilling to bend to the wishes of the membership, the right wing eventually split to form their own party — Vision Vancouver.  The two parties quickly put together a non-competition pact and agreed to run a joint slate for city council to prevent vote-splitting.  But as the election results rolled in, it became clear that a whisper campaign had taken place amongst the Vision supporters, urging them not to vote for COPE.  This spelled disaster in the 2005 election and allowed the right-wing NPA to win power again, reducing COPE to a single seat on city council, with a larger opposition made up of Vision councillors.

In 2008, another joint slate was proposed and this in itself became a very divisive issue within COPE.  The non-aggression pact was narrowly passed at a general membership meeting, with the minority advocating running a full slate of candidates.  This time, the slate took all but one of the seats on city council, leaving Suzanne Anton as the lone NPA councillor.  The new Vision Vancouver city council, led by Mayor Gregor Robertson (a liberal businessman), was high on rhetoric and low on results.

Despite proclaiming themselves to be a progressive city council, Vision Vancouver essentially gave the big development companies everything they asked for.  Combatting this trend was the very reason COPE was formed in the first place!  Vision promised the moon and the stars in their 2008 election campaign, even vowing to end homelessness, but they simply didn’t deliver.

In this atmosphere, COPE could have mounted a real opposition to the Vision agenda: a left opposition.  It was the perfect opportunity to expose Vision Vancouver for what it is: a business party that puts on a left face; a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  Instead, COPE’s two elected councillors, Ellen Woodsworth and David Cadman, took every opportunity to support the initiatives of Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver.  Businesses were given 10-year tax exemptions for gentrifying neighbourhoods, and they said nothing.  The 2010 Winter Olympics were a multi-billion dollar corporate orgy, and they said nothing.  Planned social housing units were slashed, and they said nothing.  Again and again, they were given opportunities to expose the real agenda of this developers’ party and they refused.  They allowed the left-wing façade to remain in place.  

This was the real reason for the revolt from below at the nomination meeting.  

Unfortunately, the change came too late.  COPE had missed its chance to mount a real opposition to the city council and instead, allowed the entire race to play out as a battle between the NPA and Vision, with COPE left on the sidelines propping up the status quo.  It is no wonder they were destroyed on election-day.  To make matters worse, they allowed the campaign to breathe new life into the right-wing NPA, a party that was on the brink of extinction.

Had the COPE councillors chosen to take a stand on any one of the issues that actually matter to the people of Vancouver, the results could have been very different.  Instead, the refusal of COPE’s elected councillors to stand up to the Vision team has resulted in a massive electoral defeat.  One example that highlights this is that the Green Party, which has never elected a city councillor before (even when they participated in the joint slate), managed to make a breakthrough and elected Adrianne Carr to council.  This shows the appetite for an opposition, from the left, to the Vision council.

COPE now has an opportunity to develop a real grassroots resistance to city council.  They can build an opposition to the business agenda from the ground up.  The traditional issues that COPE was founded on — the establishment of a ward system and kicking the development companies out of city hall — are still issues that resonate with Vancouverites.  With COPE being held off city council in this election, it is very unlikely that Vision will be willing to negotiate a joint slate for the next one.

COPE can rebuild itself to its glory days, if it is prepared to break decisively with Vision Vancouver and resist the business agenda.  They will doubtlessly have a harder time getting traction in the press without elected seats, but their message will be much more potent.  By fighting for social housing, against mass rezoning, and for free public transit they could reconnect with the marginalized and working class people that have traditionally supported them.  A COPE team that challenged capitalism head-on could build a movement into an unstoppable force in Vancouver politics.  That movement would propel COPE into power in 2014.