Late last year, activist and economics professor Kshama Sawant was elected to Seattle's city council, the first socialist candidate to do so since Anna Louise Strong in 1916.
Sawant's election was not the result of wishful thinking and a weak belief that, eventually, North America would come to its senses and swing left. It was the result of grit, sweat and hard-fought organizing around courageous, anti-capitalist stands on corporate power, rent control, income tax and, famously, a $15 minimum wage.
In Vancouver, a group of activists from all manner of grassroots movements has been taking notes. Activists from migrant justice, social housing, international solidarity, anti-poverty, trade unions, independent media and student movements have organized themselves under an unambiguously socialist banner they call the "Left Front" and aims to follow their Cascadian neighbour to the south.
The city's governing party, Vision Vancouver, has been soft-peddling neoliberalism under progressive guises since its formation in 2005. Through Mayor Gregor Robertson, Vision has been positioning itself as the party of bike lanes, garden plots and opportunistic anti-pipeline posturing. Meanwhile, the real estate developers that fund the party have been rewarded with unimpeded access to re-zoning licenses, tax breaks and fee exemptions, transforming the city into the poster child for gentrification. As a result, street homelessness more than doubled since last year, rents and housing prices have skyrocketed and Vancouver was declared the second most expensive city in the world (after Hong Kong) -- for the sixth year running.
The Left Front wants to change all this. The collective aims "to connect social movements in order to affect policy and generate dialogue that reflects the realities of the renter-majority, the working class and otherwise marginalized communities living in one of the most unaffordable cities in the world."
Earlier this month, candidates identifying as Left Front members won a majority of executive positions on Vancouver's second-oldest municipal party, the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE). COPE last held majorities on city council, parks and school boards in 2002.
"From the beginning, the Left Front has been a space of grassroots movement building," said Heather Gies, a Left Front member elected to Co-Chair of COPE. "Broadly speaking, we are working to influence policies and political debate at the municipal level. And part of that work is through COPE."
As a municipal entity, COPE has seen some troubles in recent years; an ill-advised electoral alliance with Vision saw COPE wiped out from city council while Vision earned a third successive majority. And their only elected official, School Trustee Allan Wong, crossed the floor to Vision last year. But their member-driven, bottom-up governance structure meant that well-organized rank-and-file members have the capacity to change the culture and direction of the party. And the Left Front seized that opportunity.
In March, several radical policies were developed and submitted by Left Front members to a COPE meeting, including making Vancouver a Sanctuary City, instituting a municipal living wage, supporting strong rent control measures and a luxury housing tax, and even planting community food forests on municipal park land. Due to impressive on-the-ground organizing, all of the policies submitted by the Left Front were approved and now form the foundation of COPE's election platform, which all prospective COPE candidates must support.
"A number of those policies are actually influencing the terms of debate," said Gies. Just weeks after COPE adopted the Left Front's Sanctuary City policy, the City of Vancouver followed suit with a similar, albeit diluted policy. Likewise, after COPE released a position paper titled "Ending the Housing Crisis," which included instituting a housing authority proposed by the Left Front, Vision announced that it too would create a dedicated agency (again, a much less radical proposal than COPE's). "COPE, but also the members of the Left Front championing these policies, are forcing the political debate to move to the left a little bit," said Gies.
Left Front is changing COPE, "but even more broadly, we've begun to force Vision to engage in this course that is ultimately more radical and more left in the realm of municipal politics," said Gies.
The Left Front has also been instrumental in challenging the gender and race of politics in Vancouver. Mayor Gregor Robertson has accused (rightly, it turns out) his right-wing rivals, the Non-Partisan Association (NPA), of comprising mostly "angry old men." Vision, meanwhile, is under fire for failing to protect their most popular Parks Board candidate, Trish Kelly, from anti-feminist shaming attacks. The Left Front slate running for the COPE executive was almost exclusively women and represents Aboriginal, Filipino, African and low-income communities.
"It's really exciting to see the executive have a majority of women… which goes along with COPE's broader equity policies -- no more than 50 per cent of candidates for council, school and parks can be male-identified," Gies says. The majority of the executive also identify as renters, another crucial development in COPE's composition. "There are so many housing policies speaking to the renter majority. It really makes the party accountable to those movements and more grounded in the policies the party is seeking to serve."
And, of course, activists make up the majority of the new executive. "If the majority of COPE members are activists," Gies says, "then the executive is becoming more representative of what the party is. It's reflecting where the real epicentre of politics is in this city and, for me and for the Left Front, where politics really happen and where the demands are really coming from is from the social movements."
COPE's Left Front-driven policies on Sanctuary City, housing and living wage not only recognize that these crises have resulted from failed right-wing policies -- something that Vision repeatedly fails to do in vainly promising to end homelessness, fix public transit and stop pipeline expansion -- they enlist innovative solutions based on what is possible at the municipal level. "Perhaps others have an aversion to the word activist…We're talking about people who are really willing to fight for change and maybe willing to think outside the box a little bit."
But despite significant victories at the policy and executive level, Gies says their work is not done yet. "Ultimately the focus for COPE -- and for the Left Front too -- is finding candidates to run… I hope and the Left Front hopes that this trend we're seeing on the executive will carry though to our candidates. Candidates who are accountable to our policies but accountable to the people who are going to be positively impacted by these policies."
"We're not seeking 'politicians' to run as candidates. But we are seeking people who are doing important work in their communities. Those are the people we want to run as candidates because these are the people who are going to fight for change."
The Vancouver municipal election is scheduled for November 15, 2014.
Michael Stewart is the blogs coordinator for rabble.ca and regularly attends Left Front meetings.
Check out the rest of the UP! Canadian labour rising series here.
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