From campaigning ‘For Europe’ to a New Progressive Politics – A Personal Journey

Vote Progressive – Source: SP Neal at CompassOnline

I want to suggest that local ‘For Europe’ groups now have a vital role to play in taking steps to change the future. Change needs to start with individuals and at local parties, we don’t have to wait for a big national decision. This is my personal story of finding hope, purpose and direction after the 2019 election, moving from For Europe to Progressive Politics.

Defeat for the ‘For Europe’ Movement

On 13 December 2019 I, like millions of others across the UK, felt my country had left me. The parties I had supported in the pro-EU campaign had fallen out with each other. They had facilitated an unnecessary election, then fought each other. The result: a Brexit government. Conversely, the Brexit Party and the Conservative Party had aligned their interests and played the system by:

  • the Brexit Party standing down in 317 seats where Conservatives could win and
  • fighting for left wing Leave votes in 273 seats where Labour might have won.

We lost. Not marginally, it was a huge defeat. We had handed power to an 80-seat majority (56% of MPs) for the next 5 years. Even worse, the people I had campaigned with to remain in the EU had fallen out with each other. ‘The People’s Vote’ campaign had imploded on the eve of the election. Brexit Britain was a very lonely prospect, with no direction to motivate the people who had campaigned so hard.

I could not continue at the pace of 2019. I was not going to pretend it had not happened. It was time for me to take a political holiday. But there was one immediate action. I resigned from the LibDems and joined Labour to vote for Keir Starmer, who looked like the best option after Labour achieved its worst election result in 85 years.

So, I started to wonder, “how is it in 2020 that we have ended up with a harder Brexit, an untouchable, and the most-right-wing, government of my lifetime?”. In 2019 the Conservatives got just 43% of the votes, yet 56% of the seats. Over 50% of people did not vote for this, yet there it was. What was wrong with our democracy?

Our Electoral System

I looked back through many elections and saw that the ‘First Past The Post’ (FPTP) system creates majority governments from minority votes. Furthermore, this was no longer a two party system, unlike the US. The UK system had become a system of ‘Divide and Rule’. It was also clear that our weak, unelected second chamber and the strange relationship of the Commons to the Cabinet and the Prime Minister had created the potential for what the Conservative peer Lord Hailsham (and more recently Ken Clarke) had called, “an elective dictatorship”.

I decided to contact the Make Votes Matter (MVM) movement who were campaigning for Proportional Representation (PR) in General Elections. I started to learn about a subject that frankly had always bored me (even though I did Politics at university). PR has its geeks but the population at large is unaware of the issues the existing FPTP system creates. A few things struck me:

  • In Cheltenham, my constituency, over half (52%) did not vote Conservative; but we had a Conservative MP.
  • In Gloucestershire nearly half (46%) of people did not vote Conservative; but the only elected representatives are Tories.
  • In the South West nearly half (47%) of people did not vote Conservative; but a whopping 87% of the elected representatives are Tories.

I was shocked to realise that half of the country had no prospect of being represented at all. Implicit assumptions about our democracy were being shattered.  It only takes a majority of 1 to elect an MP, not 30,000. The number of marginal seats is falling – around 80. If you live in a non-marginal seat any vote for ‘others’ is a wasted vote – 60-70% of all votes cast were wasted in terms of selecting an MP. In contrast in the Scottish Parliamentary elections that proportion falls to around 5%.

A contact at MVM pointed me to the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform (LCER) who were aiming to get Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) to pass a motion calling for PR. I also came across a member of Stroud for Europe who also seemed to be involved in the Stroud MVM. He connected me to Labour teams all over the South West campaigning for PR. For the first time in 12 months, I began to feel I was connecting not only with people sharing my views, but with people who had a plan and who were proactively making a difference. Action now had a meaning.

Proportional Representation

Within three weeks I had a PR motion and speaker set up for my local Labour Party to vote on. The motion was passed, unanimously. When I started this process on 2nd January, I thought we could be the 122nd Labour Constituency to pass such a motion. By April there were over 200 constituencies that had passed motions, and by the October Conference this had grown to over 320 (over half of all).

Progressive change needs a Labour Party that supports PR. It needs one that will ultimately work collaboratively in the lead up to the next General Election, to make that the last FPTP election.

Whilst Labour is key, this requires change for people in other parties too; and not waiting until just before the election (as happened in 2019). It means demonstrating that all parties believe in PR in local elections for 2022 and 2023. It means not splitting votes in wards as well as constituencies. It means demonstrating that they believe in collaboration in councils and governments. Progressive parties who lead councils need to publicly state that FPTP system is not democratic. This would be the more powerful coming from the mouths of those who have benefited from FPTP, yet still want equal votes and a better democratic system for all. Everyone councillor has the perfect platform to make such a statement. Silence is complicity.

PR as a Means to an End

A closer relationship with the EU may be the goal for many people. However, if people want that, my learning is to keep a very, very long candle burning. In the meantime, redirect your limited time to where there is real energy. Don’t expend all of it on things you can’t change for now.  ‘For Europe’ groups built an unprecedented grassroots capability in 2018 and 2019 – on streets and online. Their ‘end’ of staying in the EU was supported by the ‘means’ of a People’s Vote. Today the ‘end’ is achieving a closer relationship and it needs a ‘means’. The means is a Progressive Alliance (PA) committed to PR. Just as a People’s Vote had become the focus for ‘For Europe’ groups, PA/PR should now become the focus for the time leading up to the General Election. Making this clear to all, continually, should be a vital campaign goal.

Yes, it needs national leadership to set the policy, but without local action and voices inside local parties and pressure groups, pushing for a new trust and collaboration, the Progressive Alliance and PR will not happen. The great news is that changing to a more progressive political culture can start with very small steps. The more steps we take the more trust will be built between progressives. The more trust that is built, the bigger the steps that can be taken. I have decided to take my first step and join MVM and a new movement called Compass. I hope others can take some steps in a new direction too.

PR is used in many European and other countries around the world. If you want to hear how PR can change the political culture of a country, listen to Helen Clark former Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Ed: See also our September article by Philip Cole on Progressive Alliances and Proportional Representation.

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