1. 12. 2023

Socialists at City Hall

Andrea Pinochet-Escudero

Cursed by my last name, I was born while my parents lived in a refugee camp after fleeing the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. I was raised by a single mother who survived on income assistance. She taught me that the system doesn’t work for ordinary people, so you have to fight to change it. Above all, she taught me that people deserve more than what the system gives them. 

I’ve always been an activist and an advocate, but never foresaw myself running for office. But this year I ran for municipal office in Vancouver as an openly socialist candidate. I had no expectation of being able to win a seat, but I put my name forward to support an explicitly socialist project, the new local party VOTE Socialist. While the Canadian left often seems stuck in an age-old debate about whether socialists should work within the NDP to “push it to the left,” our humble effort in Vancouver proves that it is possible to create new organizations that stir the anti-capitalist imagination and propose genuinely radical policies. 

VOTE Socialist, which received party status less than three months before the election, didn’t come close to getting elected in our inaugural effort. But we showed that it’s at least possible for socialists to run a serious campaign and propel our ideas into the mainstream discussion. We were the first party to release a full platform, and several of our proposals got picked up or echoed by more established parties: granting the city the option to acquire apartment buildings or land for sale in order to expand the stock of public housing, for example (a policy already in place in Montreal), as well as my proposal for a free shuttle bus around Stanley Park. 

Given the state of the world and of politics in Canada, we hope others will take heart from our emerging efforts here. The story isn’t epic or glamorous; it’s just a tale of rank-and-file working people getting together to raise the basic demand that society needs to, and can, do better for the majority.


From socialist organization to socialists on the ballot 

VOTE Socialist emerged from meetings initiated by the Democratic Socialists of Vancouver (DSOV) earlier this year. With Vancouver mired in housing and drug poisoning crises, a group of dedicated local activists came together to discuss how to engage with this year’s municipal elections. 

The DSOV had formed in 2020, without any thought of running its own candidates for office. With a structure that assigns responsibility for particular tasks to working groups, the organization has done food security mutual aid, held regular socialist reading groups, and campaigned for social housing and reallocation of the city’s bloated police budget. Some members of DSOV wanted to run socialist candidates in the municipal election, while others preferred to focus on building non-electoral capacity. At a DSOV general meeting in the spring, it was unanimously decided that the organization would support the formation of a separate electoral organization – open to all socialists in Vancouver who wanted to support left candidates for local office.  

Not every socialist group in town showed interest. But contingents of activists from Socialist Action and the Vancouver Workers Assembly, as well as many unaffiliated but dedicated comrades, provided us with a solid group of core volunteers. Although the phenomenon of socialists running for office has been normalized in the US, especially following Bernie Sanders’ two campaigns for president and the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America, in Canada it remains something of a hard sell. Even I was skeptical at times about including the word “socialist” in our party name. While there’s still some stigma or reluctance even amongst progressive voters when faced with the s-word, we received a lot of positive feedback on our decision not to shy away from it. At the very least, we provided clarity about who we are and why we were running in the election. 

Vancouver is unusual among Canadian cities in that it has a plethora of municipal parties that participate in civic elections. This year marked the near-total collapse of the city’s old, traditional parties. The right-wing Non-Partisan Association, formed in the mid-twentieth century to prevent socialists from gaining a majority at City Hall, was wiped out. Unfortunately for the left, they were replaced – in a clean sweep at all levels of municipal government – by ABC, a new right-wing party packaged as “centrist” but backed by billionaires, developers, and the police lobby.

There were also new centrist parties with vague names like Progress and Forward Together, crowding the field for left-of-centre parties such as OneCity and COPE. Our own party tried but failed to recruit a left-wing mayoral candidate from the ranks of tenant activists in the city. Incumbent mayor Kennedy Stewart had the endorsement of the Vancouver and District Labour Council, so other parties declined to run a left mayoral candidate. Stewart, an uninspiring centrist, turned out to be easy pickings for the well-funded ABC and its mayoral candidate, Ken Sim. 

Vancouver has an “at-large” municipal electoral system, whereby candidates compete city-wide to elect ten city councillors, seven park commissioners, and nine school trustees. VOTE Socialist decided to run just one candidate for each level of municipal government: city council, park board, and school board. We wanted to raise our banner with clear political demands, not field too many candidates and muddy the waters. Though we felt it was important to run explicitly socialist candidates, we also hoped to energize the broader left. We dedicated a lot of our effort to giving non-voters a reason to vote by offering them a clear alternative. We also appealed to left-of-centre voters to “save a vote for the socialists.”


Putting housing justice at the forefront

Our headline policies, like those of other left parties, dealt with the soaring cost of housing. Plastering the city with posters declaring “The Rent Is Too Damn High,” we campaigned on strengthening rent control, taxing the rich to fund public housing, giving land back to Indigenous nations, and defunding and reallocating the Vancouver Police budget to meet urgent social needs. 

In our park board campaign, we demanded a restoration of funding to social infrastructure, a doubling of public pools, and a free shuttle bus around Stanley Park. Our school board campaign called for COVID protection measures in schools and an end to public subsidies for private institutions. As a kind of mutual aid offering, our candidate Dr. Karina Zeidler led a workshop in the alley behind our campaign office at which she guided people in building Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, which serve as low-cost air filtration systems. In this and other ways, we tried to model a politics of care and inclusion.

In all our campaign materials, we talked about returning municipal land, including civic golf courses, to Indigenous nations. Since municipal budgets are largely dependent on property taxes, we openly called for significant increases to those taxes, including a progressive property tax or mansion tax to fund social housing. The preamble to our policy platform spelled out our anti-capitalist and anti-colonial framework: 

Vancouver is the product of colonial land theft, and the city’s development has always been designed to serve the narrowest and most selfish of interests. The rail barons and speculators who dominated Vancouver’s beginnings have left behind a legacy of botched land zoning and brutal spatial inequalities. Until the 1970s, only property owners had full voting rights at the municipal level. Renters, unhoused people, and other marginalized people were excluded from any meaningful participation in the life of this city. In fact, property owners still have extra voting rights: your landlord can apply to be a ‘property elector’ and vote in this year’s municipal election even if they don’t live in Vancouver. Even now, your landlord and your boss would prefer if you didn’t vote; they don’t want us to realize that another city hall is possible.

Taking inspiration from municipal movements like Barcelona in Common, we started developing our platform long before we even formally registered as a political party. In January, DSOV launched a process of “listening circles” on key topics, gatherings where we could learn from social activists working on campaigns for fare-free transit, defunding the police, socialist arts and culture policies, and more. With this participatory effort, we came up with a platform (“Vancouver For All”) that included more than 220 specific policy proposals. 

We tried to distinguish VOTE Socialist by leading with policies that clearly break from the status quo, demonstrating how we would offer something qualitatively different from the hodgepodge of centrist and right-wing parties, who often hid behind platitudes. Ken Sim and ABC, for example, flooded the city with ads claiming their new party stood for “Safety, Affordability, and Sustainability” – social aims that a party backed by cops and billionaire real estate speculators was never likely to achieve.

Another important feature of our campaign was the type of candidates we ran. All were long-time activists, committed socialists; none had any compromising connections to the political class or to the labour leadership aligned with the BC NDP government. Sean Orr, our city council candidate, is a renter who works as a dishwasher and landscaper. For about 15 years, he has written a regular column chronicling gentrification, police violence, and inequality in Vancouver. More than any other left-of-centre city council candidate’s, his campaign impacted the overall debate in the city.

When the Vancouver Police Union took the unprecedented step of directly backing candidates for election, Sean showed up uninvited to the VPU candidates debate and held up a banner reading “Police Out of Politics.” He was promptly thrown out, and ultimately the VPU-endorsed ABC party swept into power. But at least we put up a fight.

The beauty of our campaign is that it was led by people who have struggled in their own right, who have lived experience of this inhumane system – and this resonated throughout the campaign, with both volunteers and voters.


Lessons learned

Reflecting on our campaign, it’s clear we should have started our initiative earlier. It was not possible to reach hundreds of thousands of potential voters across the whole city in just a few months. Our campaign was so under-resourced that our volunteer coordinator was herself a volunteer. We had no paid staff until the final weeks of the campaign, and with a very small budget even then, we weren’t able to make up for lost time. While the new right-wing party ABC had nearly unlimited financial backing and saturated the city with social media, radio, bus shelter, and billboard ads, we relied largely on organic social media and several weeks of postering key neighbourhoods in the city. 

We also put a lot of effort into mobilizing volunteers for Car Free Days (a movement of street festivals that encourage limiting car traffic and reimagining public space) and other outdoor festivals, which helped us get our name and candidates in front of potential voters. We were able to garner some media attention, including op-eds in the Georgia Straight and widespread coverage of Sean Orr’s courageous protest against the Vancouver Police Union’s intervention in the election. 

We committed to running a campaign that would model the COVID safety policies we were advocating, which presented some significant logistical challenges. While every other party held indoor concerts or social events, we hosted outdoor events only. When outgoing mayor Kennedy Stewart held his election night party in the former Trump hotel downtown, we were eating pizza in a dimly lit outdoor plaza on Fraser Street in East Van. 

As we deepen our engagement with what socialist policy would actually look like at the municipal level, it’s clear that some parts of our platform need to be reconsidered. For example, we campaigned on turning city-owned golf courses into a combination of public housing and accessible green space, and giving publicly owned golf course land back to First Nations where possible – but this policy assumed the city’s shortage of public housing was the result of a lack of available city- or school board-owned land for it. This turned out to be a naive assumption. The city owns all sorts of parking lots, unused school properties, and shopping centres that could be used for housing: it’s just a matter of political will. Focusing on the golf course land had a populist appeal for a certain crowd, but it let the city and provincial governments off the hook for failing to address the housing crisis with the land that’s already available. In my opinion, this oversight resulted from a lack of sustained left-wing engagement with park board issues. The Green Party and COPE had had a majority on the park board, but those board members all either resigned prior to or were defeated in the recent election. They had done an excellent job on many fronts, but received little effective support against a years-long right-wing onslaught.


What’s next for VOTE Socialist?

Going forward, VOTE Socialist members are reflecting on our electoral effort and possible next steps. We’re encouraging all our supporters to join grassroots organizations building collective power. Some of the new volunteers our campaign attracted have joined the Democratic Socialists of Vancouver. 

In all our messaging, even during the campaign, we emphasized that voting is just one tool in our toolbox. But it’s an important tool, and we can’t afford to abstain from using it. In the course of our campaign, we met so many people working valiantly in their communities – for a safe supply of drugs, for accessibility and the right to the city, for active and safe transportation, for food security, for more co-op and public housing, and for a thousand other social goods that add up to a more just society. 

Margaret Thatcher claimed there’s no such thing as society, and for too long social democratic parties have failed to offer any alternative to Thatcher’s neoliberal vision. Yet not only is there such a thing as society, but communities striving for equality and justice have produced nearly every good and decent element of our social infrastructure. For example, Karina Zeidler would often remind voters about the so-called Sewer Socialists in Milwaukee, who saved countless lives by installing basic sanitation in that city. As Sean Orr would repeat at public debates, quoting a friend: “We’re all socialists, some of us just don’t know it yet.”

The only way more people in Canada will come to identify themselves as socialists is if we scale up our efforts and openly present our ideas. There is an alternative to austerity and social murder – but we have to name and fight for it.

Andrea Pinochet-Escudero is a Chilean lifelong socialist and frontline housing support worker and union member who ran for Park Commissioner as part of VOTE Socialist in the 2022 Vancouver municipal elections.