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Vancouver council's left-wing alliance off to a rocky start

Mayor Gregor Robertson thanks his supporters after he was re-elected as mayor of Vancouver.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The alliance between the city's two left-wing parties that helped carry Mayor Gregor Robertson to victory twice in a row faces a rocky future after one was almost wiped out in Saturday's election.

The Coalition of Progressive Electors' decision on whether to run a mayoral contender and more council candidates in the next election will depend on whether Vision veers too far to the right and whether breaking the alliance would give victory to the centre-right Non-Partisan Association.

"We'll have to see where Vision goes politically," said COPE's Ellen Woodsworth, who lost her council seat to Green Party newcomer Adriane Carr by 91 votes. "We'll look at things over the next three years and see what is missing in the agenda."

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Ms. Woodsworth conceded she has fielded a lot of calls from upset COPE supporters who believe the party was wrong to run a co-operative slate and campaign with Vision.

Ms. Woodsworth, the top vote-getting COPE candidate, was still about 5,000 votes behind the Vision candidate who had the least amount of votes. All of COPE's other candidates for council, school and park board had similar results, except school trustee Allan Wong.

The two parties had an alliance in the last election, and COPE elected two councillors, three school-board trustees and a park-board commissioner. The two parties didn't have an agreement in 2005. The NPA took control under Sam Sullivan that year.

COPE's poor showing has rekindled a smouldering debate that's been going on within the party for six years about what kind of relationship to have with Vision, formed when some COPE members broke away when Larry Campbell was mayor.

It has also sparked competing theories about why COPE fared so poorly – theories that will underpin what different players in the alliance decide to do.

Tim Louis, who has opposed working with Vision Vancouver since it was formed, said he believes the party did badly because it wasn't giving the public a clear alternative to the two "developer-funded parties" that now dominate elections.

He said Ms. Woodsworth and another COPE councillor, David Cadman, pulled their punches at council because the alliance hobbled them.

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Although they did vote against Vision on issues like free speech, shifting taxes from business to residential, and giving developers density bonuses as an incentive to build rental housing, they didn't do it forcefully enough, he said.

"It's not enough to politely and meekly vote against proposals from the developer parties."

He also rejected the idea that more people voted for Ms. Carr because they thought COPE had swung too far left.

She got elected because she was an independent voice that was critical of density and development, he said.

But Vision strategist and pollster Bob Penner said the most significant factor in COPE's loss was when Mr. Cadman, with a strong environmental record and name recognition, was ousted as a COPE candidate by Mr. Louis. Many people had the perception the whole party had changed its orientation.

"That was a fateful decision. [Mr. Cadman]would have won and pulled Ellen along," said Mr. Penner, echoing what Mr. Cadman is saying. "But I heard many people say, 'If Tim Louis is a candidate, I'm not voting for COPE at all.'"

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COPE campaign organizer Nathan Allen said the real problem was the spending disparity. Vision Vancouver and the NPA spent $2-million each on their campaigns, while COPE's budget was $341,000.

That problem was accentuated by the mass media's almost exclusive focus on Occupy Vancouver, which made it hard for COPE to get its message out. The parties could compensate by buying advertising, which COPE couldn't afford.

"COPE is going to be talking a lot about municipal spending limits," he said.

In the end, however, the decision on whether COPE should go it alone may not depend just on its members.

The Vancouver District and Labour Council provided COPE with two-thirds of its campaign budget, on the condition that the party work co-operatively with Vision Vancouver.

"COPE would have been taken apart if we weren't in the coalition," said Mr. Allen.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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