Nicholas Ellan: A blueprint to take back COPE
By Nicholas Ellan
So you may have read that article about COPE ["COPE on verge of civil war"] in the Straight by now. I made a brief appearance, alongside my comrades and COPE executive members Kim Hearty and Stuart Parker. Here’s the explanation I owe you.
“Civil war” within a diverse coalition, which COPE aspires to be, is not so remarkable. We had one last year over breaking from Vision. This year, having declared our independence, I believe we need to secure it by determining what COPE aspires to become. This has proven surprisingly controversial.
When hundreds of us joined COPE to help it break from Vision and renew its commitment to the grassroots, we were optimistic about its willingness to change. Some hoped to democratize COPE and work toward another COPE majority; others have opposed this, expecting COPE to revert to its Rankin-era oppositional role. Whichever happens, the consequences will reach far beyond the 2014 election.
I remain optimistic that COPE will undertake the difficult but rewarding task of becoming a truly grassroots working-class party which will someday, hopefully soon, govern Vancouver in our collective interest. I am increasingly concerned that the current board majority opposes this direction and is using any means at their disposal, including the assistance of Ali Yerevani and his followers, to obstruct it.
I contributed a lot more than what got printed in that article. Much was not published, I suspect out of fear of legal action against the Straight. A conservative minority within COPE is determined to maintain their control, apparently regardless of the political cost to the organization, and MAWO/FTT’s recent activity is just the most visible example of this behaviour.
What The Hell Is Going On?
First, for those who find themselves mad at Kim and Stuart and perhaps even me, I will be very clear. I don't believe I have any duty to hide MAWO's recent interference in COPE from the membership or the public. On the contrary, if we are serious about a turn to a truly grassroots organization, we need to at least acknowledge potential roadblocks new members may encounter in their organizing, such as "our Internal Chair has a secret rent-a-crowd he might use to oppose you on a whim." If our goal is to grow as a party we should work collectively to uncover and dismantle these problems, especially insofar as they are in conflict with our shared principles.
But in lieu of that more active defence, I'm supporting Kim and Stuart's decision to go public on this issue. If we demand the silence of those who speak out on principle and at personal cost, in order for the party to achieve some short-term win, what are we even doing here? Vision Vancouver already shows us the story of what happens to "progressives" who abandon principles for success, in excruciating detail.
If we keep our allies in the dark about ongoing problems within COPE, they tend to find out at the worst possible time, and months or even years of volunteer labour can be suddenly and dramatically wasted. This is how we lose good people forever. And we've lost a lot, even just since last April.
If only we had been more honest with each other, as we joined to oppose Vision Vancouver, about the reality of the political situation within COPE. The current "civil war" is not the result of a "personality conflict" or even an ideological disagreement. It's much simpler than that. We failed to work in solidarity with each other, and the result is a coalition not split in two, but in shambles.
To those who think any public criticism of the current incarnation of COPE is proof we are Vision operatives working in tandem with the pro-corporate Georgia Straight, you're being fucking paranoid, as is your right as leftists, and I respect that. But the failure of Vancouver's left to get their shit together is our collective shame, and it hurts everyone, including the staff at the Straight.
To those who accuse us of opposing Tim Louis, or simply failing to support Tim Louis given his political contributions, this is has nothing to do with our council candidates. This not about any one person, but about the organizational structure of COPE. It is about whether we are a party that is content to ventriloquize the working class, or if we actually want to help bring the disenfranchised majority back into municipal politics.
What Needs Changing
In April, COPE’s membership made a bold and principled commitment to become independent again. That was not the end of our work, but the beginning of a great deal of it. Many current, former, and potential members are waiting to see if we are going to follow through on that commitment, and will join us when we take to the task we set for ourselves.
We need to denounce the vote-buying practised by current executive members. We need to put in place a grace period between elections for internal and external positions, to ensure the executive is not hijacked by individual candidates to control election outcomes in their favour. The executive exists to support the membership, not to manufacture its consent.
We need to move away from our reliance on meeting-based voting to ensure all members can participate equitably in all party matters, despite challenges in attending meetings. Our current meeting-based structure privileges the voices of the wealthy, retired, and/or childless, in contradiction to our supposed goal of being a diverse and inclusive grassroots coalition. It encourages our executive to cooperate with cultlike groups to maintain control of meetings to control outcomes. It’s motivating our internal chair to spend thousands of dollars on legal opinions and compliant parliamentarians to silence debate and thwart the will of the membership. And in the past, it has made us vulnerable to hostile takeovers by pro-Vision forces.
I am speaking out about the dysfunction at COPE because I believe these problems of process are the root of our city’s political crisis. I do not believe the current incarnation of COPE to be some kind of magical institution that will confer political success upon those who learn its ancient rituals. It is weird and old and exclusionary in a lot of little ways that really add up. And it has been historically dependent on union contributions which are drying up fast. It must change.
What Is To Be Done, Perhaps
COPE: The Coalition of Progressive Electors' executive currently has four vacancies that will be filled this March at a quarterly meeting. (Another six are up for grabs in July.) This is highly unusual, a result of mass resignations, and it is a significant opportunity. Some of these positions are quite important in an election year, like external chair and fundraiser. They will determine the majority composition of the board. And it would be a welcome change to have talented and principled people who actually plan to do the job occupying these positions.
So, I hope some of you will seek an executive position at the March policy conference. I might yet be tricked into becoming one of you. And I hope we will all come with policy ideas to help democratize COPE. Here's the catch: barring a Christmas miracle, MAWO, its extended network, and those of its associated board members will be there too. They will bring at least 60 people that will not vote for you, no matter how great a candidate you may be. They will come to vote for the designated cronies of our internal chair. This, too, we need to be honest about.
So you will have to do better than 60 votes to have a chance, but that’s easier than it would be at a typical AGM. Of course, the more people who contest spots independently, the harder this will become. It's likely we will need to work together to form a slate to surpass these numbers within the meeting room's capacity. You will need clear and compelling messaging making the case for your slate, as it's likely that a some proportion of the meeting will be there to talk on pet policy issues, and not care too much about the elections. Personally, I would be thrilled to see an emergence of an exec majority determined to stop the endless mobilizing for exec positions by implementing more flexible voting systems and periods. Part of becoming a viable grassroots party is ending our vulnerability to crowd-stacking.
I hope, as many of you do, that membership drives will suddenly triple our attendance rates at quarterly general meetings and end MAWO's relevancy forever. I think signalling our desire to end MAWO’s relevancy by democratizing COPE may be of some help to that effort. But in case that sudden influx of starry-eyed working-class policy wonks with weekends off does not materialize, those of you who are already here, active, and committed to COPE now know what’s going on, and can determine your involvement in 2014. It's not a small task we have here, but it's a worthy one.