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Interview: Derrick O’Keefe, Vancouver socialist, running for City Council

Lisa Descary

August 8, 2018

Lisa Descary from the Vancouver International Socialists interviewed writer and activist, Derrick O'Keefe. Derrick is a founding member of the Vancouver Tenants Union, and a candidate for Vancouver City Council with the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE).

Lisa: What made you decide to run for council?

Derrick: I was not intending to run for office this year or anytime soon. I have two young kids and with the cost of living so high in Vancouver it’s a real challenge to stay afloat here. And I was really busy with activist commitments and independent media projects. But after Jean Swanson decided to run this year with COPE (the Coalition of Progressive Electors), and after COPE asked me for a second time to run alongside her, my partner and I reconsidered and I decided to join this year’s campaign.

Like so many tens of thousands of others in Vancouver, my family feels like we can no longer afford this city. We’ve moved five times since my seven-year-old son was born. Like all our neighbours, basically, we feel like if we lose our current housing we’re not sure where we’ll be able to live. Basically we don’t know if we can afford to stay in Vancouver, but we’ve decided to fight for our Right to the City alongside a movement. And it feels good to fight collectively for what we believe in and we so urgently need.

Personally, it’s an amazing feeling to be able to run for elected office without watering down my politics at all. Before the successes of politicians like Jeremy Corbyn and Kshama Sawant in recent years, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to run a serious campaign for office as a socialist. But the world is changing, fast, for both better and worse. Now is not the time to stay above the fray. I think at this historical moment we have to be fearless and we need to have socialists running for every elected office they can. We may run for office and fail but if we choose to just sit out elections and leave the field open to more conventional, centrist politicians then we have already failed.

It’s big responsibility to run alongside such great candidates. Jean Swanson inspired a lot of people in last year’s by-election campaign, and so one big responsibility I feel is to help us complete the work we started last year and get Jean elected. It’s really exciting to take on this new role as part of a campaign that is aiming for nothing less than a political revolution in Vancouver.

Lisa: How is your campaign different from other 'progressive' campaigns? And why is the City We Need platform important?

Derrick: We’re not claiming to have reinvented the wheel, but we do think this COPE campaign, like last year’s by-election campaign for Swanson, is part of a process where the left in Canada and internationally is rediscovering its radical roots and responding to the global crisis of inequality. That’s why we talk about the need for a “political revolution”; we’re consciously alluding to the kind of new politics taking place in other countries like with Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the United States. Timid, centrist politics is not just wrong but it’s also now increasingly ineffective at holding back the rising right-wing tide.

COPE’s message this election is that the system is the problem, and that for us to find a real solution to the housing and affordability crisis it’s not enough to tinker around the edges. We need a total shift in priorities, away from market solutions and towards public and non-market housing. If housing is a human right, which we believe it is, then it needs to be decommodified. Even the federal Liberals have paid some lip service to the idea that housing is a human right, but if we really believe in this concept then the implications are immense. When we collectively decided that health care was a human right it meant taking the provision of health care out of the market and deploying massive public resources. Even beginning to do that for housing, for example by aiming for a significant percentage of new housing to be non-market, is an enormous political project. Especially after the federal government under the Liberals in the 1990s almost entirely cut off funding for non-market housing.

People all over the world are grappling with how to solve the crisis created by the financialization of housing and land. Along with fighting climate change, it’s probably the biggest political challenge we face today at the global level. Cities, and especially “global cities” like Vancouver, have become an essential space in the global economic system’s relentless drive to accumulate Capital. So we think cities and municipal governments are an essential place in which to fight back. And if we can win at the municipal level then we can inspire more bold politics at the provincial and federal level as well.

Our critics in other parties and in the mainstream media will frame this critique of global capitalism as somehow “too radical,” but I would say it’s essential to understanding why a city like Vancouver has become so incredibly expensive and to thinking about bold solutions that will actually solve the problem. The policies we’re pushing like stronger rent control and a Mansion Tax (a progressive property surtax on houses valued at over $5 million) are actually quite modest reforms that we aim to win. But we know that even these relatively small practical steps require building a movement because they will be fiercely opposed by those who currently have all the power.

Lisa: What do you think needs to happen after October 20 to ensure we win the reforms we need? And what role do you see the Vancouver Tenants Union and other movements/groups playing in this?

Derrick: We understand that as hard as it is to get elected on an unabashedly left-wing program, the really hard work starts the day after you win. Having three elected city councillors from COPE will give us a megaphone and the ability to move and second motions, but we won’t win the changes we need without a movement pushing from outside City Hall every step of the way.

Our concept is that too often social democratic parties appeal to social movements for support at election time and then lose any real connection to that base once they get in office. People who have experienced this a few times can get understandably cynical about politics. We want to foster a different kind of politician, and a different relationship between politicians and activists. We want to use elected office not just to raise the issues that matter, but to build the social movements themselves.

Personally, I’d like to destroy the whole concept of “career politicians” altogether in favour of “movement politicians.” I’ve been an activist for 20 years, and running for political office shouldn’t change my essence. Everyone is susceptible to the powerful forces of cooptation that come with elected office, and maintaining organic connections to social movements are essential. In my mind a politician should see themselves almost like a delegate on behalf of the causes they work on and care about. And ideally we should be delegates in office for a limited time. I’d like nothing more than to get elected for one or two terms on city council and then go back to being a rank-and-file member of the Vancouver Tenants Union and other groups.

Lisa: What do you say to people who argue that you should beware of 'splitting the left vote' in the city?

Derrick: Well, this year COPE is only running three candidates for 10 council seats, so voters who also like other candidates or parties will have plenty of spots left on their ballots. We’ve chosen to concentrate our focus, in part, so that COPE can get elected members back on to all three levels of municipal government: School and Parks board, as well as at City Hall.

But on the larger question I will answer in two parts.

First, we think voters have been deprived of a true left-wing alternative to the status quo for so long that they will be really energized by the ideas we’re putting forward this year and therefore motivated to vote. In Jean Swanson’s by-election campaign we really focused on speaking to the interests and also the emotions of people who are used to being ignored and excluded by electoral politics: renters, working-class people, poor people, homeless people, people on social assistance, people living with addictions, people who live in non-profit housing. You’re not supposed to spend time on ‘those people’; you’re supposed to focus on homeowners and those who supposedly are the ones who show up to vote. So we’re trying something different, which is to expand the electorate and inspire all those who have been turned off by electoral politics.

Secondly, all that having been said, there are legitimate concerns about splitting the majority of the current Vancouver electorate that tends to vote for left and/or centrist/’centre-left’ parties. It’s important to understand that Vision Vancouver, for all of my criticisms of their housing policies and their decision to accept so much corporate money over the years, has in the past depended on the support of many progressive voters, on the support of many unions and their members, and on the support of people who are concerned about the environment and climate change.

We are appealing to those people who have voted Vision in the past, but are now fed up or are now looking for a stronger alternative to block the overtly right-wing parties like the NPA from returning to power. We’re also appealing to the supporters of other parties like OneCity, a political formation that emerged out of COPE after years of good faith differences but often-rancorous debate between committed left-wing people over how to relate to Vision Vancouver. I know a lot of good people in OneCity, and although there are obviously some real political differences, there is also significant political common ground and so I think it’s a good thing that supporters of our two parties can vote for both because we’ve kept our slates relatively small.

Of course I think we’ve got the strongest candidates. In terms of standing up to the right-wing, both of my fellow COPE city council candidates Jean Swanson and Anne Roberts have a lifetime of experience doing just that. We also have incredible and experienced women running for school board like Barb Parrott and Diana Day -- who is aiming to become the first Indigenous woman to ever serve on the VSB.

So if you’re worried about stopping the Right, the strategic vote is for COPE. You can vote with your head and your heart, as they say; there’s no need to hold your nose and vote for some “lesser evil” this time. On Oct. 20, a vote for COPE is a vote for strong left-wing politics at Vancouver’s City Hall. And it’s also a vote for the political revolution that is gaining steam around the world. Socialist politics needs to become the common sense of the 21st Century, and our fight here in Vancouver is part of a wider movement for a better world.

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