British Columbia·Analysis

Vancouver's progressive political parties face weekend of reckoning

It sounds like a undemocratic vestige of backroom politics: union leaders, meeting with representatives of left-wing parties, to decide who will be running in an upcoming election.

Do they settle on a consensus choice for mayor? Or cause a situation where the NPA become favourites?

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and four of ten city councillors say they won't run in October's municipal election, causing intense jockeying for positions on this year's ballot. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

It sounds like an undemocratic vestige of backroom politics: union leaders, meeting with representatives of left-wing parties, to try and decide who will be running in an upcoming election.

But that's exactly what will take place this weekend.

"We're now going into more formal discussions," said Stephen Von Sychowski, president of the Vancouver and District Labour Council (VDLC).

"We're basically trying to determine who's going to run how many candidates, and try and minimize that vote-splitting to the greatest extent possible."

Up to three representatives from Vision Vancouver, COPE, OneCity, the Green Party, as well as supporters of longtime activist Jean Swanson, will meet with the labour council May 6 and 7.

The goal? To find some level of agreement between the parties that identify as "progressive" in Vancouver — and possibly decide on a mayoral candidate that would be acceptable to all of them. 

The risk? That no consensus is reached and multiple groups run their own mayoral candidate, giving the centre-right Non-Partisan Association (traditionally, no friend of unions) the inside track to power. 

"Every election we're involved, and have a process of vetting and endorsing candidate, but this time around is quite different," said Von Sychowski.

"There needs to be some cooperation, people need to be talking to each other. There's going to be different parties, but this level of divisiveness could cause real trouble to the city."

Jockeying and posturing

It's rare to have this level of uncertainty in a municipal election: with less than six months until the vote, only one of the five established political parties — the centre-right Non-Partisan Association — has a straightforward process for choosing who will be its mayoral candidate. 

Ever since Mayor Gregor Robertson decided not to run again, the other four parties have been posturing, without committing to any specific course of action. With the NPA to choose its leader at the end of this month, time is ticking.

And adding to the tension, they all view the NPA as the least acceptable option. 

"They all see a moment where they can transform city hall off the path of what [it has been], and that's why the prize is worth the jockeying," said Simon Fraser University political scientist David Moscrop. 

Former COPE councillor Anne Roberts can see that moment. She was part of the team that swept to power in 2002, which ended 16 years of NPA rule. As she plans for another run at council, she sees parallels between then and now. 

"There was a feeling all across the city that the NPA, who seemingly had been in power forever, were done. They had failed," she said to a crowd of about 100 people outside City Hall on Thursday, who gathered for a political rally organized by Jean Swanson supporters.

"There is an enormous mood for change, and we can capture it." 

But while Von Sychowski preaches the need to find common ground among progressives, Roberts says the 2002 result shows the opposite approach is needed: if progressives are to win at the polls this fall, they must stake out a strong position that sets them apart from the NPA.

"We offered real radical policies that got at the solution, not sort of paste things over, not  trying to crowd into the middle. So we're all acceptable and not alienating this group or that."

Supporters of longtime social activist Jean Swanson rally outside City Hall on May 3, 2018. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

Time for some game theory

Hence the dilemma: finding a candidate that all parties would not necessarily endorse, or even explicitly support, but be palatable enough to prevent one party from going it alone. 

Any political scientist can tell you how that scenario typically plays out.

"The first five minutes of any game theory lecture is [about how] the more parties there are, the harder it's going to be to rally people," says Moscrop.

He says the most obvious choice is Green Party councillor Adriane Carr, who won the most votes for council four years ago and has topped recent surveys of potential candidates.

He singled out Carr "in part because name recognition and lack of time, and in part because of organizational capacity and being able to appeal to the median voter."

It's complicated

But Carr has said she would only run as a Green Party candidate, and so far none of the other parties has expressed interest in agreeing to that.

In short, it's complicated.

Some clarity is expected after this weekend's meetings, but the end result will have less to do with political math, and more to do with the human condition. 

"Sometimes people just don't like each other, and sometimes people just can't agree," said Moscrop.

"And sometimes people's egos are so big they can't get over themselves for the greater good."

The NPA would disagree with the sentiment. But would love the result. 


Justin McElroy


Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.