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Opinion

Vancouver Progressives: Divided, They Fell Short

Centre-left risked disaster, lost school and park boards with split votes.

By Bill Tieleman 18 Nov 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

"Where there is unity, there is always victory." -- Publilius Syrus, Roman author 1st century B.C.

Vancouver's centre-left risked political disaster in Saturday's municipal election and still paid a price for well-intentioned vote splitting.

Mayor Gregor Robertson won a strong victory, leading a Vision Vancouver third term majority council after a very tough, nasty battle.

But lack of unity resulted in Vision losing Councillor Tony Tang, its majority on the Vancouver School Board and all but one seat on the Vancouver Park Board, where the right-wing Non-Partisan Association takes control.

And for what?

Voters who threw some votes to the marginalized, hard-left Coalition of Progressive Electors, or One City's sole council candidate R.J. Aquino or the Public Education Project's Jane Bouey and Gwen Giesbrecht didn't come close to electing a single candidate at any level.*

But those voters succeeded, most unknowingly, in ensuring NPA gains of one more councillor and school board trustee and two more park board commissioners.

How? In our unfortunate at large system for the whole city, every candidate is competing with all others -- even from their own party.

Vancouver is one of the only major cities in Canada without wards or ridings for council -- where voters pick their own local representatives and only the mayor is chosen citywide.

So when centre-left voters split their vote, giving some to non-Vision candidates who had no chance to win, they accidentally let the NPA -- with its disciplined, united vote -- win more seats.

Left punishing Vision helped NPA

Some voters were disappointed with Vision Vancouver for reasons like consultation -- as Robertson himself acknowledged with an apology during the campaign and again in his victory speech.

But most voted obliviously for losing left candidates without realizing they were giving the NPA a leg up to more seats.

They didn't heed my warning nor that from ex-COPE councilor David Cadman, who endorsed Robertson and Vision before the election.

"I think this election is too important to risk splitting the vote among variety of new parties and have the risk of losing city council, because with it will go affordable housing, harm reduction, homelessness strategy, greenest city initiative, public transit, a whole variety of things," Cadman said. "[It's] what the city progressively needs."

Former COPE councillor Ellen Woodsworth agreed, noting that: "I think the decision of who to vote for on council is confusing, and in that confusion, the vote gets split."

Small numbers, big shifts

And only a small number of votes makes a big difference in who gets elected.

For example, Vision school trustee Ken Clement got 57,826 votes but lost the last Vancouver School Board position to NPA opponent Christopher Richardson by just 255 votes.

PEP's Bouey had 41,757 votes and COPE's Diana Day had 39,068 -- nowhere near enough to win -- but had just a few hundred of those votes gone to Clement, Vision would retain its majority. It's impossible to tell exactly how each voter cast their ballots but it's obvious that some votes split to cost Clement his seat.

Which is not to deny that every individual and party has the right to run, and voters the right to choose them. But elections are about making tough choices and one of those is to determine who is most likely to be successful, in addition to their policies and character.

And in situations like a citywide election, voters face a dauntingly complex ballot with over 100 candidates from 10 parties.

So while people don't like slate voting, nor negative advertising, both work, as can be seen from the 10 per cent increase voter turnout and the results of the election.

Outside the tent

Ironically, Aquino, Bouey and Giesbrecht could all have run with Vision Vancouver and likely been elected -- certainly they were approached to do so and declined.

And all refused to endorse Vision candidates, leading Vision to not endorse them in return.

Vision is a classic "big tent" municipal party but they preferred to be outside because of some limited differences -- and now sit on the sidelines as a result.

Is opposition to developers vastly more important than fighting homelessness, supporting public education in the face of provincial underfunding, protecting the environment and encouraging positive labour relations? That's one of the conclusions drawn from the split vote.

Meanwhile the Green Party, which split from an alliance with Vision in 2011, capitalized on Councillor Adriane Carr's profile, adding two park commissioners and a school trustee but not breaking through further on council.

But it's important to realize that -- as Carr herself has noted -- the Greens are not left and have sided with the NPA on some issues.

"We are neither left, nor right, but out front, appealing to voters across the political spectrum," Carr said in June. That works fine for some but leaves many wondering where the Greens will come down on any given issue.

COPE was more pointed in its approach, attacking its former electoral partner Vision at every opportunity -- "We can't afford four more years of Vision Vancouver" -- and running a mayoral candidate for the first time since 2002.

But COPE's Meena Wong only succeeded in making the Robertson versus LaPointe battle much closer than it would have been otherwise by picking up 16,791 votes for a distant third place.

Similarly, COPE's strategy of fielding near full slates for council, school and park board meant running against Vision -- and intentionally risking an NPA majority on all three.

Casualties and strategies

Sadly, many of the electoral casualties of disunity were people of colour bringing broader representation to politics -- councillor Tony Tang, school board trustees Ken Clement -- the only First Nations representative -- and Cherie Payne, while promising candidates like Vision's Niki Sharma for council, Sammie Jo Rumbaua and Naveen Girn for Park Board were defeated.

The results should mean a rethink of strategy for the Vancouver and District Labour Council and affiliated unions, which endorsed a mixed slate that included all Vision candidates but included One City, PEP and COPE.

Lastly, something must be said about the bizarre and powerful impact of the alphabet on Vancouver elections.

Five of the 10 elected councillors have a last name starting with the first four letters of the alphabet -- George Affleck, Elizabeth Ball, Adriane Carr, Heather Deal and newcomer Melissa de Genova. And four of nine school trustees have A-F letters starting their last names, while three of seven park commissioners start with C-E.

Regrettably and despite all the important issues facing Vancouver and the wide range of political choices for voters, the "alphabet advantage" appears to be significant.

Ballots should be arranged with either names chosen at random for position instead of alphabetically or be grouped by party to make it fairer for candidates cursed with last names that appear far lower now on the ballot.

If Vancouver's election was a "wake up" call for Vision, it's also alarming for centre-left voters, who inadvertently defeated good incumbents and new candidates and narrowly averted electoral disaster.

* Story corrected Nov. 24 at 2:35 p.m. The story incorrectly named the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE).  [Tyee]

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