With Gregor Robertson out of the running for the 2018 civic election, Vancouverites have a real chance to finally win the city we need. Now is not the time to despair. Robertson’s departure was necessary for things to get better.
Why did Robertson step down? The mayor is citing personal reasons, but in the fall he repeatedly vowed to run again. It’s fair to suppose that part of his calculation was realizing he could not win the next election.
Several factors explain the decline of Robertson and his party’s electoral brand. Above all, the mood in the city has changed as Vancouver has become North America’s most expensive city. People have lost patience with a mayor who cozied up to developers while the city’s affordability crisis spiralled out of control. Voters are turning away from Vision and its corporate politics at the same time as new campaign finance laws mean the mayor and his party can no longer rely on their big money donors.
The recent by-election showed how truly unpopular the Vision brand has become. The Vision candidate came in fifth place and did not win a single voting station. But this is not because voters have shifted to the right. On the contrary, the right-wing party NPA eked out a win with only 27.8 percent of the vote—down from 41 percent for the NPA mayoral candidate in 2014—while “progressive” candidates accounted for about 70 percent of the votes in 2017.
Jean Swanson’s independent campaign for a “political revolution” came a close second to the NPA, sweeping 15 voting stations from the West End to Hastings-Sunrise, and throughout Fairview and Mount Pleasant. If the votes of Judy Graves alone were added to Swanson’s tally, Swanson would have won 28 of 50 voting stations, and would have defeated the NPA by 16,590 votes to 13,372—even with Vision and the Greens in the running.
This suggests that more voters than ever want to end homelessness, and that they are open to an approach that takes on the most privileged interests in our city. Swanson campaigned on taxing the rich to build housing for all, in contrast to relying on tax breaks to corporations in hopes that housing would trickle down to those who need it the most.
Increasingly, voters want real rent control instead of relying on “supply” of new luxury condos and high-end rental. And they want city hall to fight for them, not just blame other levels of government. Some derided Swanson’s approach as “class warfare,” but her call for prioritizing nonmarket solutions and making the rich pay more of their fair share clearly resonated.
The shift in Vancouver is part of a political transformation around the world. From Bernie Sanders in the U.S. to Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K., younger voters in particular are rejecting corporate politics in favour of democratic socialist values. The past 40 years of neoliberalism—cutting taxes for the rich and slashing social programs for the rest of us—has made life unaffordable.
Young people watched capitalism at work in 2008, when deregulation and greed crashed the world economy while the rich made off like bandits. Activists like Sanders, Corbyn, and yes, Jean Swanson, who have been fighting neoliberalism their whole lives, are the kind of representatives young voters want in office. The coalition between young, working class, and lower-income voters, and socialist politicians and progressives is changing politics worldwide, and putting the future of corporate parties like Vision Vancouver in doubt.
This phenomenon, however, is not the only bad news for Vision. The Vision party emerged in 2005 after Mayor Larry Campbell, Coun. Raymond Louie, and others favourable to gambling, real estate, and other corporate interests split from the Coalition of Progressive Electors in the middle of its first majority term in office. Vision quickly established itself as the dominant vehicle for developers and business interests. With the backing of real estate moguls like Bob Rennie, Ian Gillespie of Westbank, and the likes of Wall and Aquilini, Vision seemed to have established hegemony over Vancouver politics, appealing to progressive voters who traditionally voted COPE, while pocketing the corporate money that used to exclusively go to the NPA.
After a dozen years, however, the jig is up. The new provincial NDP-Green government is finally banning corporate and union donations. Gregor Robertson and Vision were only able to maintain their majority on council in 2014 by raising $1.4 million from corporations, mostly real estate companies. But the new rules mean that campaigns will have to be won with lots of small donations (under $1200). Already the Jean Swanson campaign—inspired by Bernie Sanders—showed that a grassroots campaign funded by small donations can contend with corporate campaigns in Vancouver. In 2018, the grassroots advantage will be even larger.
The data from the recent by-election suggests that any Vision mayoral candidate could be handily defeated by the NPA. To stop the NPA, it’s crucial that Vision refrain from running a mayoral candidate. Instead, a candidate is needed who can inspire a grassroots campaign, energize hundreds of volunteers, attract thousands of small donations, champion policies to protect tenants, build nonmarket housing by taxing the rich, and finally end homelessness for real.
Someone like Libby Davies, who helped found the Downtown Eastside Residents Association in the '70s and has fought for the marginalized her whole life, could be a good mayoral candidate that all progressive voters could unify behind—if she happens to be willing to come out of retirement.
A strong, grassroots-powered progressive mayoral campaign could stop the NPA from returning to the mayor’s seat, and also help elect councillors from COPE, the Greens, and OneCity—provided none of those parties run too many candidates.
Robertson’s departure is a reminder that, especially in a city like ours dealing with an out-of-control affordability crisis, the political centre cannot hold. Neoliberal parties, even those with some progressive positions on social and environmental issues, cannot deliver the politics we need—and they risk opening the door to resurgent right-wing and xenophobic forces cynically exploiting people’s fears and anger. With municipal elections just over nine months away, Vancouver needs a political revolution more than ever.