BLOG: Why this 'leftie' isn't dancing for joy about New West's election result

Julie Maclellan

Warning: If you’re riding high from the euphoria of election night because “your” team had such an amazing showing, this blog post might provoke you.

That’s not because of my personal response to the election results (which is actually irrelevant to the main points I’m about to make). For those who want to know, I actually see a great deal to celebrate in the outcome. Seeing nine high-powered women, including four women of colour, get elected to office is a pretty damn big deal in my books.

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But – and it’s a big but.

I hate that, once again, a huge chunk of New Westminster ends up feeling unrepresented by the outcome of this election. I ran some quick math and calculated the numbers, and here’s the thing: discounting the mayoral race, the Team Cote candidates (for council and school board) earned themselves a total of 73,810 votes from the city. That’s a pretty impressive number. But want to know how many votes were cast for non-Team Cote candidates? That would be 68,853.

Yes, I am aware that more people ran against Team Cote than for it, so individually speaking, the Cote candidates had the most votes. That’s why they won, and quite legitimately so in the system we have.

But lest anybody think that this election has given Team Cote a decisive mandate to continue on its current course, do the math: 51.7 per cent of votes were cast for Team Cote candidates, and 48.3 per cent of votes against.

That’s hardly a runaway.

(I’ve deliberately left Mayor Jonathan Cote out of those calculations; with his 73 per cent mandate, it’s pretty clear most voters are happy with him. But remember, that still leaves 27 per cent that didn’t vote for him. It wasn’t a coronation, although it’s about as close to one as you’re ever likely to come in a municipal election where you’re actually facing opposition.)

I like Cote and his team, as it happens. But I highly dislike the fact that Team Cote now has 100 per cent control of council and, in essence, of school board too (because the two “non-Cote” trustees can never outvote the other five) – with a little more than half of the votes that were cast on Saturday night.

Yes, that’s an issue with our electoral system (first-past-the-post doesn’t serve voters well; I’ve harped on this before and I’ll keep on harping), and Cote’s team isn’t to be faulted for the outcome. They won, fair and square.

But I want to go on the record right here and right now as raising a big warning flag: Team Cote hasn’t been given carte blanche to do whatever it wants.

Here’s where the waters get really muddy. Because I’m sure a bunch of readers are already yelling, either internally or at their computer screens, about the fact that this group we’re calling “Team Cote” isn’t a homogeneous entity and they’re all individuals with their own minds and they’re all quite happy to disagree with each other and they just happen to have “shared values,” which is why they ran together … yadda yadda yadda.

I’ve heard it before. And I do believe it - to a point. I don’t think Cote shows any signs of turning into a tyrant ready to impose his will on his minions, and I don’t think his team shows any sign of turning into unthinking minions.

But here’s the thing: The Team Cote candidates are, by their own admission, a group of like-minded people with shared values. And what’s missing, in the diversity of faces around the table, is a diversity of political opinions.

It’s not that I think the Team Cote councillors and school board members will deliberately shut down discussion or fail to consider other points of view, when brought forward. I think they’re actually generally pretty good at being respectful of other people’s opinions.

Rather, I think it’s more a case of “you don’t know what you don’t know.” We can all agree that a bunch of middle-aged, straight white dudes don’t necessarily consider the perspectives and life experiences of, say, women or LGBTQ people or visible minorities – not because they don’t want to, but just because they haven’t been in their shoes. Similarly, a bunch of left-leaning types don’t necessarily consider the perspectives and life experiences of conservative, right-leaning types when making their decisions.

If you happen to dislike right-leaning conservatism, you might say that’s a good thing.

I happen to disagree. I happen to think disagreement and debate is not only good, it’s necessary for a democratic government to function. (And if you think otherwise, then you may wish to consider the shining example of Burnaby, where unchecked dominance by one particular political party hasn’t exactly worked out for all of its citizens, and where some cracks finally and belatedly emerged on Saturday.)

A lot of the same left-leaning types in New West who are celebrating the outcome of Saturday’s vote would be celebrating a lot less hard if a conservative-leaning government were elected with the same vote percentages quoted at the top of this post. There’d be an outcry about how the other half of the population had no say in the way the city was being run and how unfair that was.

This isn’t just about “left” versus “right,” either. Although those are handy labels to use, they don’t encompass the entire range of decisions a city council has to make. But all council decisions – on development, on social housing, on arts spending, on parks and recreation, on community events and festivals, on taxes, on staff pay, you name it – benefit from a diversity of points of view, and a diversity of fundamental philosophies about what the role of government really is and what civic officials are in fact elected to do.

Having a bunch of like-minded people who work well together taking exclusive control of the city may be great for efficiency and the smooth operation of council and school board meetings. It’s substantially less great for democracy.

And it’s particularly not great for democracy when supporters of the winners try to pretend that those winners got elected solely and exclusively on their own merits. “They won because they were the best candidates, pure and simple,” seems to be the refrain being repeated ad nauseam right now.

Balderdash. Yes, there were some amazing candidates on Team Cote, and they’re more than highly qualified for the job. And yes, they worked hard and ran some incredible campaigns and logged lots of miles knocking on doors.

And you, personally – you, the voter currently yelling at your computer screen – yes, I know. You may well have individually chosen every single member of Team Cote because you believe that each of them, individually, was the best possible candidate for the job. I guarantee you not everybody did the same. Slates, in whatever form, make it easy for people to vote for a batch of candidates when it’s simply too difficult to choose from individuals in the crowd of 34.

Let’s not kid ourselves: There are great candidates who don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting elected because they simply can’t compete with the organization they’re up against.

Throwing out a couple of names off the top of my head, candidates like Angela Sealy this time around and Tej Kainth in 2014 – both of whom would have also brought female power and diversity to the table – couldn’t cut it.

Not because they weren’t great candidates, and not because they didn’t work hard, but because they were going it alone.

(And yes, I am aware that Mary Lalji got elected to school board as an independent. She is, I would argue, a unique case, because she originally won her seat in a byelection – when super-low voter turnout allowed her to take advantage of her extensive personal networks in the city – and she was able to come in to this campaign with the weight of incumbency behind her. Also, she was in seventh place. Also, Team Cote only ran five candidates for school board, and I’m dubious whether she could have broken the sweep if they’d run seven.)

But I digress.

Here’s the thing: With an at-large electoral system at play in municipal politics (as opposed to a ward system), there’s very little choice for anyone who wants to get elected but to align themselves with like-minded folks. To maximize the possibilities of getting your message out to the largest number of people possible – through advertising, door knocking, brochure delivery, signs, telephone calls, etc. etc. – requires money, and it requires people. To reach voters requires not only copious amounts of person-hours but also good strategy: targeting the people who are most receptive to your message, and ensuring they get to the polls.

That’s what Team Cote has going for it. And that – along with, yes, its slate of diverse, well-spoken, hard-working candidates – is what makes it a juggernaut.

Yes, I’m talking about the New Westminster and District Labour Council endorsement and the slate-but-not-quite-a-slate’s ties to the provincial and federal NDP. Not because I’m philosophically opposed to those ties – heck, it’s no secret I’m a lifelong leftie – but because so many people are trying to discount the effects of the labour machine on the outcome of the election. And I will call it a “machine,” despite the fact that I know I will get shouted down, because it’s ridiculous to suggest it isn’t.

I will not believe you if you tell me that Team Cote did not benefit at all from the years – nay, decades – of organization brought by the New Democratic Party and the labour movement in New Westminster. Of course they did.

It’s not a coincidence that in all those miles they logged knocking on doors, the Team Cote candidates were supported by well-known faces like that of MP Peter Julian and MLA Judy Darcy – that’s some pretty big power to bring to bear, especially for a new candidate trying to gain credibility with voters.

It’s also not coincidence that a Team Cote volunteer showed up at my door on election day with a clipboard, crossing names off a master list, making sure the people on that list had headed to the polls. It’s not coincidence that a Team Cote volunteer called my house on election day with the same message, urging me to vote because it was going to be a tight race for council. (For the record, I have never volunteered with or donated to any individual affiliated with this municipal campaign, so I’m not on the list of supporters for that reason. I have, however, showed up on the supporters’ list for the NDP at a variety of levels in past elections – and I can only assume that is (a) because I’m a union member and (b) because those lists are shared with labour-affiliated folks at all levels in order to mobilize their base of support.)

And that’s all OK, by the way. Although I do get my back up when I get “suggestions” of who to vote for – either from a labour organization or from another politician – I get where this huge interconnected network of leftism has come from. The labour movement has had to mobilize in order to fight against the big money coming into politics from corporations and well-heeled donors, in order for the “left” to stand any chance at all.

I’m all for that. I’m all in favour of anything that gives the little people a fighting chance to take on “big money” and “big business.” I’m just not all in favour of ignoring the fact that those who used to be the “little people” are now, in fact, the well-heeled, well-supported ones.

And I just don’t want “my” people – the so-called left, the voice of the people, the people who fight for the little guy and the underdog – to become arrogant and believe that they’re where they are solely on the strength of their own merits. And I don’t want “my” people to fall victim to the same arrogance and dismissiveness of opposing voices that the labour movement rose against in the first place, so many decades ago.

So this is my challenge to our new city council and school board: Don’t just wait for disagreement to arise.

Go seek it out. Actively solicit the opinions of people who don’t live in your echo chamber.

Do better than that, in fact: give them roles, official ones. Appoint them to city committees, where their opinion will carry weight and force discussion on issues and challenges you may not have considered. (Yes, even intelligent, thorough, hard-working people still don’t always consider all sides of every issue all the time. It’s simply impossible.) No, I don’t want “opposition” for its own sake, if that means just finding someone to snipe about every decision you make; I want actual, genuine discussion that takes into account the fact that not everyone shares your fundamental world view and your vision for New Westminster. Whether that’s about densification of neighbourhoods, or preservation of heritage, or community traditions like May Day, understanding the views of the “other” folks can only improve your decisions.

And yes, you might have to do some “head-hunting” and encourage individuals to apply for committees. With the system being what it is, with council having approval of committee makeup, there’s a built-in disincentive for any opponents to even bother applying if they feel like there’s no point.

I would love to see some of the intelligent, hard-working folks who didn’t get elected on Saturday given roles in the city where they can bring their vision to the table and challenge the Team Cote folks on what’s right for the city. Well-thought-out policy can stand up to challenge; in fact, it gets better for it.

Know what else I’d also love?

I’d love if you, this left-leaning coalition, would finally just get together, label yourselves and admit that you are the New Westminster Democratic Party.

In a city like New Westminster, which seems to vote in New Democrats without much of a fight at every level of politics, the label could hardly hurt you – and it would go a long way towards answering the hostility of people who find the current approach, shall we say, less than transparent.

Perhaps better yet, I’d love to see what would happen if someone would step up and put to the test this whole “oh, the Labour Council endorsement doesn’t mean anything really” dismissiveness that’s going around out there. Great. If the labour endorsement doesn’t mean anything, and labour assistance doesn’t mean anything, then just don’t take it next time, and play out the fight as true, actual, non-aligned independents. (Oh, and don’t use the resources of the NDP to do so, because that’s not a fair fight, either.)

When you all win again, without the assistance of this “machine” that so many people insist doesn’t exist, I will be the first to eat my words.

Failing that, my backup suggestion is this: Next time out, don’t run a full slate. Accepting that your power (at least in this current climate) virtually assures you an election victory every time, choose instead to run four council candidates. Leave two spots open for citizens to choose “opposition,” if they’re so inclined. You’d still guarantee yourself a majority, and more people would feel represented – and heard – by their civic government.

And in the meantime? Listen to people. All the people. Not just the ones who elected you, not just the ones with the loudest voices on social media, not just the ones who are currently part of the in-crowd. And don’t just listen, but hear; take the time to genuinely understand and appreciate where those who didn’t vote for you are coming from.

You might be surprised to find out that there are, in fact, intelligent and thoughtful people with reasonable opinions who actually disagree with yours.

This goes not just for the elected officials, but for their supporters, too – who, in many cases, are much more vicious to the opposition than the elected officials are.

New Westminster is for all of us, not just for those who subscribe to one particular ideology.

To those candidates and supporters who already know and believe all of that and already intend to put it into practice, my thanks.Your momentum is enormous. I look forward to seeing what good you can do for the city we all love.

Yes, even the “right-wingers.” Because last I checked, they’re citizens too. And they’re just as deserving of good government as I am.





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