If you were going to place bets this spring on the political party most likely to win Vancouver’s upcoming civic election, the Non-Partisan Association might have seemed like the obvious choice. After 10 years of rule by Mayor Gregor Robertson’s centre-left Vision Vancouver, during which the city turned into one of the most unaffordable places on the planet, voters appeared eager for change. Some political observers I spoke to figured that an abundance of left-wing parties and candidates could split the progressive vote and bring a united centre-right NPA to power.
But with the Oct. 20 civic election approaching, all bets are off. The NPA must now compete against two insurgent right-wing parties, as well as several independent candidates. These newcomers are offering distinct visions of what Vancouver should be. And they are sharply critical of each other, and the NPA.
“Our City Hall is broken and the NPA helped break it,” Neil McIver, the strategy chair for Coalition Vancouver, which is running former Conservative MP Wai Young for mayor, told The Tyee. He didn’t hold back when I asked his opinion of Yes Vancouver, the party led by NPA city councillor Hector Bremner: “There’s no policy there, none.”
But Yes Vancouver also had fighting words for its competitors. Tim Crowhurst, the party’s secretary, said that he perceives Coalition Vancouver, which has made tearing up bike lanes one of its biggest priorities, as “a single issue party.”
“I don’t consider them to be serious entrants into the race,” he added.
Crowhurst said Yes Vancouver poses an existential threat to the NPA: “I think they’re finished.” (NPA president Gregory Baker didn’t respond to The Tyee’s interview request.)
This may all be premature. A Research Co. survey in July suggested NPA candidate Ken Sim was the frontrunner for mayor with 26 per cent support, compared to 25 per cent for former Burnaby NDP MP Kennedy Stewart who is running as an independent candidate. But a more recent Mainstreet Research poll showed Stewart in the lead with Sim and Bremner nearly tied for support and Young not too far behind.
“The centre and the left is divided, that means in theory [the NPA] should be able to rock their way to victory,” Patrick Meehan, a member of the Cambie Report podcast, told The Tyee. Yet there are three credible parties competing in the NPA’s political space. “It’s a hard path to victory for the NPA, and for any right-wing party, really,” he argued.
Cracks in the NPA began appearing in early May, when the party’s board rejected Bremner as a candidate for mayor. Until then, Bremner was considered one of the frontrunners. “Our intention at the time was really to rebrand the NPA,” Crowhurst said. “There were forces from within who decided they didn’t like that.” Normally this would’ve ended Bremner’s mayoral aspirations. But new rules limiting money in civic elections made it feasible for Bremner to launch his own political party this July.
Yes Vancouver wants to pre-zone the whole city for new housing, effectively opening up neighbourhoods dominated by single-family homes to higher density development. This appears to align the party with developers, who see a vast build-out of new housing supply as the answer to unaffordability, but may alienate NPA-supporting homeowners for whom density is polarizing. Crowhurst isn’t concerned by the risk. He argued a new generation of voters is sick of the “very timid approaches” of the city’s political establishment.
Coalition Vancouver, which launched in June after former Conservative MP Young dropped out of the NPA’s nomination process, thinks Bremner’s zoning proposal is a non-starter.
“There is no magic bullet,” McIver argued. “Anyone who pretends that there is a magic bullet quite simply is lying.” The housing policies that McIver’s party supports — including, he told me, lowering the cost of new development and building rental housing around mass transit — don’t sound like much of a departure from the status quo.
Coalition Vancouver is brasher in other areas. In August, Young retweeted a tweet equating social housing with “crackheads.” Her party refers to the government’s school tax changes as “blatant socialist capital appropriation.” And it vows, if elected, to tear up bike lanes and “immediately end the ideological war on transportation.”
The NPA is fighting a two-front battle against these insurgents. At the same time it must fend off independent council candidates like Graham Cook. Cook is 24 and works in tech.
He sees himself on the frontlines of a housing crisis that disproportionally affects younger people. Cook said “walled-off neighbourhoods like Shaughnessy” should be densified with new housing. Though Cook said he tends to supports the NDP provincially and federally, he heard earlier this year that the NPA was open to younger candidates with bold ideas. So he decided to seek nomination.
“Maybe it was a little bit of political naiveté,” Cook told The Tyee. After talking with party leaders “it seemed like it wasn’t going to be a great fit,” he said. And like several others who initially sought the NPA nomination, Cook decided to run on his own.
Given all this competition, some observers were surprised when the NPA said in August it would be running nine candidates for city council. “You’d think the NPA, which ran shortened slates in 2011 and 2014, would know better than to run a near full slate, and risk splitting the vote among their ‘far too many’ council candidates,” wrote Raymond Tomlin on the site Vanramblings.
Cambie Report’s Meehan speculated that “either they know something that we all don’t or they aren’t paying attention.” The NPA strategy only makes sense in his view if you assume that all the other challengers will fail. Meehan points to the many non-NPA candidates “trying to steal their traditional voter base. That’s going to eat away and dilute their vote real fast.”
Even modest electoral gains by a right-wing newcomer could damage the NPA. When Research Co. surveyed voters in the summer it found eight per cent of decided voters supported Coalition Vancouver’s Young for mayor and five per cent supported Yes Vancouver’s Bremner. This may not sound like much of a threat to the NPA. But it could be enough to play the spoiler in a tight race where candidates will likely win with very small margins. In the 2011 civic election, the NPA’s mayoral candidate Kirk LaPointe received about 40 per cent of the vote.
“If they get, let’s say 27 per cent,” Research Co. president Mario Canseco told The Tyee, “that means you have 13 per cent of the vote that is usually centre-right that is going somewhere else and that will definitely hurt you.”
If voter turnout is low, and if newcomers such as Young can gain enough attention hammering on minor yet polarizing issues like bike lanes, they may be in a position to actually win. “You’re not going to need a lot of votes,” Gordon Price, an NPA city councillor from 1986 to 2002 and currently a Fellow with the Centre for Dialogue, said. “So you don’t need to have the broad vision, in fact don’t waste your resources.”
Yet the NPA may also be stronger than it seems. “I don’t underestimate the brand of the NPA… because you have so many parties and they all kind of sound alike,” Price said. Come election day, he said, “it may be that the NPA brand has emerged with more unity, enough to potentially give them a majority. I wouldn’t rule that out.”
For that to happen Vancouver’s left-wing parties and candidates either have to collapse at the ballot box, or split the progressive vote so completely that no one receives enough votes to be elected. For the moment neither scenario seems to be occurring. Polling suggests Stewart is a frontrunner for mayor. This week’s withdrawal of Vision mayoral candidate Ian Campbell from the race reduces the potential for vote-splitting (though not if Vision councillor Andrea Reimer decides to run for mayor in Campbell’s place).
And Vision, COPE, the Green Party and OneCity earlier this year committed to not undermine each other’s campaigns. “By and large, all the traditional left parties are at least more or less agreeing to push themselves forward rather than take each other down,” Meehan explained.
The municipal left looks stronger and more united than it did earlier this year. But some candidates are cautious about reading too much into right-wing divisions. During the 2013 provincial election there was speculation that BC Conservatives would split the right-wing vote, and instead the BC Liberals under Christy Clark won a shocking upset.
“The right-wing vote does tend to coalesce and unify,” COPE council candidate Derrick O’Keefe told The Tyee. “The NPA is obviously a party in some disarray, that’s definitely not insignificant, so the right-wing vote could split and we hope that happens, but we know we need to give people a really strong reason to vote.” He thinks the way to do that is to offer policies – like a freeze on rent increases – that make people feel less precarious in Vancouver.
Everybody I spoke with for this story agreed that anxiety about housing is the driving force of this year’s election. “This is an existential issue. On one hand, it is about housing and the policies that mediate it,” Price explained. “But on the other it’s really a larger narrative about ‘Who is Vancouver for? What really is this city about?’”
The proliferation of parties and candidates signals that Vancouver hasn’t yet reached a consensus on the answer. This has turned a previously confident bet on NPA victory this October into something more uncertain. “You have that control over the centre-right vote in the city and now that centre-right voter is saying, ‘yeah I don’t know,” Canseco said. “‘I don’t know if I want Ken Sim, I’m looking at Hector Bremner, I’m looking at Wai Young.’” That voter wants something to believe in.