Campbell’s departure underscores the erosion of municipal party politics power

Ian Campbell | Photo: Dan Toulgoet

The sudden departure of Ian Campbell from the City of Vancouver’s mayoral race came as a surprise to many political observers. Vision Vancouver, the party that has controlled city hall for the past 10 years, is now heading into an election without a standard bearer – and with the hopes of council candidates dwindling.

See also: Ian Campbell drops out of Vancouver mayoral race

It is not an easy year to be representing a long-standing political organization. In the City of Vancouver, 46 per cent of respondents to a recent Research Co. poll say they will definitely or probably consider voting for Green Party council candidates in the election. This is not a surprise. Four years ago, Adriane Carr was the top vote-getter across the city, with 41 per cent of the electorate giving her one of their council votes.

The only group that comes close to this high level of early consideration in the early stages of the race is independent candidates (39 per cent). Long-standing political organizations that have been responsible for the government, like Vision Vancouver, the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) and the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), are currently ranked lower than the Greens and independents.

These numbers may help explain Campbell’s decision to bow out early. Candidates are encountering many changes from the last time the province’s voters renewed their local councils.

Our municipal elections, which usually happened in November, will take place a month earlier this year. Gone are the days of relying on corporate and union donations to finance campaigns. In the province’s three largest municipalities, new political parties have assembled and the number of independent candidates for councils seems to grow by the day.

Taking “big money” out of politics was a popular idea for provincial and municipal elections, with 86 per cent of residents supporting both modifications in surveys I conducted over the past couple of years. The measure appears to have motivated many individuals to shun existing party banners and either create new ones or run on their own.

In this round of municipal elections, motivating the electorate will come down to door-knocking, policy platforms and debate performances. Party banners are no longer as valuable as once thought.

In Vancouver, there is an appetite for new ideas and a council where no party will be able to control the agenda. Voters are considering independent candidates in their mix, but just who will be successful enough to garner a spot in council remains to be seen.

The surge of independents raises the question of whether the city, and other larger municipalities, should contemplate moving to a ward system. Imagine a Vancouver election where, for the sake of argument, seven councillors are elected in accordance to federal ridings. Or perhaps an election where 11 councillors are elected in accordance to provincial ridings.

Having wards or districts would raise the prospect of candidates running targeted campaigns and connecting with the population of a specific area in a direct manner. No longer would councillors represent “the city” but the needs and wants of their local constituents.

It is ironic that, as the province heads to a lengthy debate over the benefits of abandoning the first-part-the-post system for provincial elections, discussions about a ward system in large municipalities have intensified.

Whether this becomes the “year of the independent” in municipalities that have long been dominated by specific political parties hinges on two factors.

The first one will be the ability of independents to connect with traditional party voters. My Vancouver exit poll in 2014 revealed that 43 per cent of City of Vancouver voters wrote down a list of candidates and took it to the polling station to assist them in casting a ballot. For independent candidates, success could come down to door-knocking in a way that entices residents to “save one vote” for them, even if they plan on supporting most candidates from a party they like.

The second one is creating a new constituency.

While voter turnout increased markedly in Vancouver from 2011 to 2014, it was still lower than 50 per cent. Many young residents are worried about issues like housing and transportation. Their voices could play a role in deciding who the mayor is and how council is formed. The onus is on the candidates themselves to establish an emotional connection that turns concerns into votes.