Radical independent candidate strong second in Vancouver city by-election

Seattle socialist Cllr Kshama Sawant campaiging with Jean Swanson

People in Vancouver regularly talk about the coming “big one,” referring to a likely future earthquake, as the city lies near a major fault line. An earthquake struck Vancouver on Saturday, 14 October, but it was a political earthquake, revealing deep faults in the city’s society.

A radical independent candidate, Jean Swanson, came second in a by-election for city council. Starting from nothing at the beginning of August, the campaign defeated the Greens, the soft-left OneCity and the ruling party, Vision, who came a pathetic fifth. 

Hector Bremner               NPA       13,372   27.8%

Jean Swanson   Independent     10,263   21.4%

Pete Fry               Green Party       9,759     20.3%

Judy Graves       OneCity                6,327     13.2%

Diego Cardona  Vision    5,411     11.3%

Jean Swanson is a long-time social justice activist fighting poverty, to end homelessness and provide decent housing for low income people. She is well known and respected in the city and beyond.

Her campaign and her programme dominated the election, with all the other candidates forced to respond to her demands. The key demands included:

  • A rent freeze for four years
  • A mansion tax to build homes
  • Stop ‘renovictions’ and gentrification
  • Free transit for low income people and children

The other parties

Vision, the ruling party in Vancouver for the last nine years, promised to end homelessness by 2015 but instead have presided over a mounting housing crisis. This is no surprise as they take mega-bucks from the developers. They knew they would lose this campaign and their candidate was widely seen to be a “sacrificial lamb” that was “thrown under the bus.” They put up no lawn signs to advertise their candidates and had virtually no publicity for their candidate, Diego Cardona, a 21 year old who came to Canada as refugee from Colombia.

The Green Party thought they would coast to victory following on from their gains in the May provincial elections. They ran a lacklustre campaign. Their key reason to vote Green was so that their present ineffective councillor would have someone to second resolutions.

OneCity, a soft-left party established by the right wing of the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) and union bureaucracy to take over when Vision inevitably faces defeat, saw this as a great opportunity to launch themselves. Their candidate, Judy Graves, is well known in the city. The local Labour Council and the main City Hall union supported OneCity.

The victors, the right wing NPA, are claiming this is a breakthrough. However, they received less than 28% of the votes, hardly a strong endorsement.

Some commentators are saying that the split on the left let the NPA win. In reality, Vision and the Greens are not left-wing parties, they are centre parties, while OneCity is soft-left. While Swanson concentrated on policies to tackle Vancouver’s problems, increasingly during the campaign the Greens and OneCity attacked Swanson and her programme. All three parties were upstaged by Swanson’s enthusiastic campaign and bold ideas.

At the same time as the council by-election, the School Board was up for election. These results show the voters’ choices without an inspiring left alternative. Out of nine places, Vision and Greens each won three, the NPA gained two and OneCity one.

The turnout was low at 11%. City Hall acted as if they wanted a low turnout. There was only one advance voting place compared to eight in the last election and there were less than half the number of voting places, with many common locations not available. They also did not take the ballot boxes to nursing homes and seniors’ centres, and did not send out voters’ cards.

Swanson’s campaign

Vancouver has an out of control housing crisis, which affects almost everyone. Homelessness is at a record high. The cheapest rent in Vancouver for a single room, without its own washroom and often with vermin, is now C$550 a month. Entire neighbourhoods of lower rental homes are being demolished in waves of gentrification. The average rent for a one room apartment is over $2,100 a month. Houses for purchase start at $1 million. Vancouver, according to Demographia, has the third most unaffordable housing market in the world.

The solutions from all the other parties is to give more encouragement to developers. However, this actually makes the problem worse as they tear down older and lower rental units and replace them with much more expensive units either for rent or to purchase. Vancouver does not have a shortage of housing units, it is estimated that there 25,000 unoccupied units.

The answer to the housing crisis is to build publicly-owned homes with affordable rent. If done on a large scale this will drive down private rents and house prices as who would pay extra scarce money for their home. Jean proposed a range of policies to tackle the housing crisis. A rent freeze for four years would slow down rocketing rents, which increased 20% in a year. The mansion tax of an extra 1% on houses valued between $5 and $10 million and a 2% tax on the value over $10 million would bring in $174 million a year to end homelessness and build social housing. The city needs to reverse its present policies that encourage developers to tear down good affordable rental properties and replace them with expensive towers of for-sale apartments. Landlords use the excuse of doing repairs or renovations to evict tenants and then push up the rents. The city has the power already to insist that after repairs the existing tenants have the right to return at the same rent. All of these would have a real impact on the outrageous cost of housing in the city.

The Swanson campaign was marked by bold ideas that were based on what people need, rather than what big business and the developers want. The campaign went out directly on the street and doorsteps to talk with people. The campaign had the highest visibility, the most energy, a large number of young people and the only one with momentum. The campaign raised more money than the Greens or OneCity, and without any corporate or developers’ money. At the start, the campaign was dismissed as being on the fringes, but as the weeks rolled on even the mainstream media commented on its growing strength and support.

Socialist Alternative in the campaign

Swanson’s campaign took inspiration from Socialist Alternative and Kshama Sawant’s successful election to Seattle council and then winning victories on important issues for working people. Swanson pledged, like Sawant, to only take a worker’s wage rather than the $85,000 a Vancouver councillor receives.

Socialist Alternative (CWI) in Vancouver was involved from the start of the campaign and decided unanimously to work for Swanson’s election. We believed there was a growing mood for real change in Vancouver and the idea of bringing a ‘political revolution to City Hall would gain support. Just as with the work in the US around electing Sawant and the Bernie Sanders’ movement, we saw the changing mood. Unfortunately many on the left in Vancouver neither saw the mood nor got involved.

Socialist Alternative Vancouver organized the street tabling and door canvassing in a key area of Vancouver, Grandview Woodlands, talking to thousands of people over six weeks of intensive activity. We, along with Left Alternative from Simon Fraser University, organized a rally with Kshama Sawant speaking alongside Jean Swanson one week before the election. Nearly 800 posters were put up and 150 people attended to what a journalist described as a “raucous rally.” It gained crucial media coverage and raised over $800 for the election campaign after the meeting’s covering costs.

Socialist Alternative is proud of our work in the campaign, which certainly made a difference to the result. The City has not released detailed results so it is impossible to do an analysis of Swanson’s vote. There were scrutineers in three polls, in areas of low income and a high number of renters, and Swanson won all three. If others on the left had done the same as Socialist Alternative and the dedicated team around Swanson, we might have elected Jean to City Hall.

Swanson’s campaign had a similar approach to those of Sawant – bold demands, energetic campaigning that speaks directly to people, mobilizing them enthusiastically. The campaign has upset the political apple cart in Vancouver with a new left force of opposition in Vancouver. We now know that some of the winds that pushed support for Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain are blowing in Vancouver.

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October 2017