This weekend, Vancouver’s left-wing municipal party will hold its annual general meeting at the Maritime Labour Centre. Before hundreds of Vancouverites file into the 600-capacity hall, I want to reflect on “what now” and “what next” for COPE. My hope is to place COPE within the larger history of Vancouver’s political struggles — in particular the unnamed struggle between the political masses and the rich who oppose them.
Brief history: 1968 — Present
The Committee of Progressive Electors (COPE) was formed in 1968 by organized labour, tenant organizers, and socialists. In 1993 the party was was renamed the Coalition of Progressive Electors, signaling the entry of social movements emergent since the 1960s, including feminist, anti-racist and peace movements rooted in Vancouver.
Throughout its history, the party has been known for its fight to defend public funding for transit and housing, rent control in the 1970s, radical demands for full employment in the 1980s, and more recently, a Sanctuary City policy to confront Harper’s policing and anti-immigrant agenda.
Mass-based and membership-driven, COPE brings together social movements, organizations and communities from across the city. In that spirit, COPE has also struck electoral agreements with Greens and the civic NDP since 1980. At the turn of the 21st century, however, groups within COPE began to argue that the principle of coalition-building should be extended to Vancouver’s business community and developer class.
The Rise of Vision
In 2002 the party’s leadership was divided in half by the arrival of Vancouver’s business and real-estate interests within the party. That year — with big money backing Larry Campbell for mayor — the Campbell’s “Trojan Horse” was elected alongside long-time COPE progressives like Tim Louis and Anne Roberts. The elections would go down in history as a success, marked by “COPE’s only city government,” but at the expense of a precarious victory that soon disintegrated the party. Initially known as “COPE Lite,” the Larry Campbell faction ultimately broke off from COPE to found Vision Vancouver in 2005.
From the start, Vision received millions of dollars in corporate real estate backing, particularly from Westbank, Wall Financial, Concord Pacific, Aquilini Investment Group and Bob Rennie. By offering millions in tax breaks to those three big developers, Vision has been able to continue receiving donations and run numerous successful campaigns to win city hall. Until 2011, Vision has won by keeping COPE as part of its extended family, holding the left close to its symbolic heart in a seemingly unbeatable formula of centre-left collaboration. In 2011 COPE again made an electoral deal with Vision and threw its name behind Vision’s neoliberal roster of candidates. As a result, COPE failed to elect a single member to council.
Like COPE’s 1996 defeat — prior to COPE’s subsequent comeback — journalists reacted to the 2011 elections by pronouncing the party dead. The answer from within COPE has been divided but perhaps Gramsci’s phrase properly captures the situation: “the old world is dead but the new world has not yet been born.”
The Rebirth of Class Consciousness
It is not an understatement to say that within COPE, the old world is in the process of passing away and the new one is emerging. Pro-Vision executives elected to positions of power have for years made the decision to not attend meetings — they have treated the party as dead; they are not activists but placeholders used to prevent others from entering the party and make real change. But while a raft of older neoliberals and descendents of Larry Campbell have held tightly to a world in crisis, an underground mole has been slowly building COPE from within its shell.
First was the June 26th movement, a group of members who formed ‘Cope not Vision’ and campaigned at the meeting of June 26th, 2011. There, a full third of the party voted against an electoral deal with Vision, following a Mainlander article outlining Ten Reasons to Support an Independent COPE. The next year, in 2012, Tim Louis joined Sean Antrim, Kim Hearty and Tristan Markle to run an Independent slate against David Chudnovsky, Jane Bouey and other Vision supporters. As a result of that meeting, the party was split down the middle, seeing the election of Independents such as Tristan Markle, Kim Hearty, as well as Wilson Munoz, Ifny Lachance and Anita Romaniuk (five Independents on the 12-seat executive).
Since the election of those five Independents last year, there has been a massive surge in party membership. Hundreds have have joined, from housing activists and single mothers, to immigrants and students — everyone and anyone genuinely affected by a city firmly in the hands of the elite. Nobody any longer asks “who are the elite?” The answer is intensely clear: an unforgiving property-owning class whose political parties are Vision and the NPA.
Against the status quo of developer tax cuts and the neoliberal deregulation of Vancouver’s housing market, the Independents are making a straightforward appeal: only an independent COPE can solve the housing crisis. And this time, history is on their side.