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'You have to be audacious': Kshama Sawant tells Vancouver's Left how to win

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Image: Flickr/Kshama Sawant

Earlier this week on Twitter, NPA city councillor George Affleck ripped into Gregor Robertson for being good looking. Sadly, the level of political debate in Vancouver doesn't have much more to offer than jibes about good, strong, clean teeth. It's no wonder this city is unlikely to improve upon the disgraceful 35 per cent turnout the last time voters went to the polls.

As an antidote to enforced political apathy, Kshama Sawant, the first socialist elected to Seattle city council in 100 years, spoke in Vancouver on Saturday night on the kind of politics that could transform a city so malaised. Billed as a fundraiser for the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) Saturday night, Sawant's keynote described the vacuum left by the inability, deliberate or otherwise, of the two-party system to take care of Americans -- and how she and her party, Socialist Alternative, exploited that space with a radical political agenda rooted in a call for a city-wide $15 per hour minimum wage.

"That vacuum was not created by us. Those social conditions were created by capitalism and by the failures of the Democratic and Republican parties," she said. "We were talking about $15 an hour but really the conversation is about income inequality."


Transitional demands, transformative results

Sawant calls reformist moves like raising the minimum wage "transitional demands." She and her supporters were able to tap into the shared anger of inequality that had been highlighted by the Occupy movement. Like the tuition debate in Quebec that launched the biggest mobilization against neoliberalism North America had ever seen, transitional demands provide the framework and model for regular folk who don't study Marx to express and analyze their shared anger and systemically imposed frustrations.

Key to these transitional demands, however, is their connections to social movements. It was Occupy, Sawant said, responding to the global economic collapse in 2008 that led to tens of thousands of young people for the first time to discover how it felt "to be not alone but one among many who was feeling the same anger and outrage and restlessness."

Within that moment, Socialist Alternative realized that "there is a potential for the left to run a radical campaign." Sawant said. "You want to talk about electoral politics? Let's talk about what electoral politics should really look like."


Losing elections, one practical step at a time

The NDP and other progressive political organizations in Canada, almost cartoonishly, have failed to exploit this widening space within mainstream discourse for left-wing politics. There is some credibility to the theory that pre-2011 the Federal NDP increased their share of the popular vote because of Jack Layton's progressive populism and shift to the centre.

This led people to believe that the Orange Wave of 2011 that returned 103 New Democrat MPs to Parliament was also a result of moving to the centre -- and not, for example, the simultaneous collapse of Stephen Dion's Liberals and Gilles Duceppe's Bloc Québecois; Jack Layton's capacity to convince Canadians that he was a different sort of politician after prorogue-gate; or the coalescence of a Québec nationalism independent of the traditional separatist electoral structure -- not to mention the collective realization that politics as usual was failing Canadians, that saw huge swaths of voters who had never before voted NDP looking for an alternative.  Of course, it may have been Layton's folksy left-ish politics that led him to Stornoway and it may not be so. Regardless, the perception became strong enough to stand in as fact and no one in the NDP braintrust has seen fit to stray from the 2011 playbook.

This perception endures despite reams of evidence that the strategy is not working. The B.C. NDP threw away a 20 point lead against a lame duck premier set up to fail by running a tepid and confused campaign with the eminently horrible slogan "Change for the better, one practical step at a time." An entire population primed for bold changes on public education, labour relations, social housing and green economies and Adrian Dix opted for more B.C. Liberal, just not as much.

Andrea Horwath was humiliated in Ontario when she lost the balance of power by running a campaign many perceived to be to the right of Kathleen Wynne's Liberals -- rooted on austerity and faux-accountability rhetoric. Just last week New Brunswick's NDP received a hiding at the polls, coming in fourth behind the Green Party, after its leader Dominic Cardy endorsed shale gas production, criticized the Elsipogtog First Nation's assertion of sovereignty and recruited many former Liberal and Conservative politicians to run for his party. Cardy resigned in disgrace on election night.

Toronto mayoral candidate Olivia Chow, who tried to run a moderate campaign rooted in the notion that she was not Rob Ford, now appears to be riding a similar vector. Many critics on the left have been tempted -- this critic included -- to criticize the individuals responsible for these campaigns for this or that bad decision (and there have been plenty of bad decisions). But that's a bit like criticizing Henry for trying to carry water in his bucket full of holes when there is no straw to mend it. Left-wing electoral politics in this country have been so bereft of big ideas that there has been no foundation on which to build a campaign in the first place -- so naturally the best option repeatedly appears to be borrow from the other guys and add lower banking fees or a ministry of penny-pinching.


"You have to be audacious."

So how is Kshama Sawant different? Her campaign of a Seattle-wide $15 per hour is undeniably populist and even -- that dirty word among socialists -- small-l liberal. First, as an economics professor, her analysis was always sound. But more importantly, she was fearless in how she approached the campaign.

"You have to be audacious. The left has to be audacious. This is the year of explosive social movements." Perhaps it is a sad testament to the status quo that a increase to minimum wage that fails to top even the living wage counts as audacious nowadays, but nevertheless it provided an avenue to talk about economics, labour and marginalization from a socialist perspective in mainstream discourse.

"What we did was completely change the conversation in Seattle," Sawant said. "We ran on a completely working-class campaign." Not only minimum wage increases but taxing the wealthy to fund education, rent control and other left-wing policies.

"Analysts were always telling us," Sawant joked, "'Don't be so out there! Do you always have to say you’re a socialist every day?'" Quite a difference from the fearful campaign run by Dix that tried to inveigle business elites with promises to uphold capitalism-as-usual. 

"It is precisely this kind of bold, audacious, left campaign that distances itself clearly from politics that is what young people are looking for."


Tapping into Vancouver's political vaccuum

We've seen bold leftist policies already shift the conversation in Vancouver toward more robust issues than the soupy subway/tanker debates. COPE's decision to call for a housing authority and to make Vancouver a Sanctuary City was almost immediately co-opted by Vision -- albeit with watered-down versions of the original policies.  Sawant talks about seeing this move in Seattle, where the Democrat, establishment mayor spoke movingly of how much it meant to him to improve the lives of the working class by his privilege of bequeathing upon them the $15 per hour minimum wage he had spent the previous year fighting.

Earlier this month COPE Mayoral candidate Meena Wong -- an outside runner if ever there was one -- mused publicly about taxing empty homes to address Vancouver's world-famous housing crisis. COPE had already released its platform that included fairly strict rent control measures including a landlord registry and a right-to-return for tenants faced with renoviction -- inarguably far more radical than a mild tax on snowbirding millionaires.

And yet, no less than the Vancouver Province published a scathing editorial excoriating Wong's idea and the "naive, discredited and destructive economic views" of her party. Never mind that one year ago, retired B.C. Supreme Court Judge and former NPA candidate Ian Pitfield proposed the same thing. "No one has a 'right' to own a house in a particular city or neighbourhood," the Province editors fulminate. "You want a house? Work hard and buy one -- or move somewhere cheaper."

Incurring contempt from the neoliberal Province can only count as a victory. But taxing vacant homes, while it may hint at the larger disgust Vancouverites share about housing prices in the city, will never mobilize working-class and low-income populations to engage in a political system that has abandoned them. COPE's campaign to increase the city-wide minimum wage to 15$ has not taken off like it did in Seattle. Other, bolder policies have not yet found traction.

Rent control seems the most likely policy that would resonate with the city's renting majority, but the COPE campaign on rent hasn't found its populist hook yet -- perhaps because traditional avenues for rent and housing activism have been crushed by litigious municipal administrations and ideological audits on non-profits. Without sufficient activist work on the ground, underfunded left-wing parties won't be able to do the work necessary to connect with local people in the short amount of time allotted by an electoral campaign.

And that's the other, invisible side of Sawant's "be bold" imperative: hard work. "We knocked on tens of thousands of doors," Sawant said. "We visited farmers markets and working-class neighbourhoods and schools and colleges and talked about 15$ an hour relentlessly."

If the media isn't carrying your message, she argued, you need to bring it to the people yourself.



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