Neal Lawson, founder of the political campaign group Compass, has a powerful vision for the future of UK politics which he outlined at the ‘Grassroots For Europe Round Table’ event held on 7 March 2023. Neal argued that the need to jettison Westminster’s First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system is becoming ever more obvious, and he warns that:
“The country will go to ruin unless we stop it”.
By failing to represent voter’s real preferences, FPTP is inherently undemocratic. For around 90% of UK elections in the last hundred years, the Conservatives have won on a minority of the vote whilst the progressive majority languishes without representation. FPTP is a ‘winner takes all’ system which Neal argued:
“… centralises power [and] gives a voice to the elite who can buy their way to influence”.
FPTP narrows party attention to those swing constituencies where they might gain seats. Hence voters in safe seats are ignored. This distortion also severely compromises party values by requiring parties to court particular demographic groups. Under FPTP, Labour, for example, has to focus on perceived Red Wall Brexit values, as if they were the only seats that matter. This un-nuanced approach disenfranchises millions of Red Wall Remainers. FPTP is binary, adversarial and, Neal maintained:
“… prevents us from putting radical ideas on the table … If you can win on 35% of the vote you don’t need a big inclusive conversation.”
Neal went on to argue that the Compass vision of a new pro-democratic, pro-egalitarian, pro-European politics can only be realised if FPTP is replaced with the fairer, more democratic voting system of Proportional Representation (PR). With PR, seats properly reflect votes and casualties such as vote wastage, the right-wing slant of FPTP, and the distorting campaign focus on marginals can be avoided.
But PR is also intrinsically connected with the need for progressive parties to work together. The Conservatives’ vested interest in FPTP means they will never relinquish this electoral system. But constructive co-operation between progressive parties builds the political muscle-power to depose the Conservatives, to set the stage for PR, and to begin a cultural shift towards a fairer, more democratic society.
Unlike other PR groups such as Make Votes Matter Compass, Neal pointed out, is unashamedly partisan. The Compass progressive view of future UK society isn’t compatible with Conservative ideology:
“We don’t share their vision”.
This stance also gives Compass the freedom to actively pursue a change of government – the essential first step in obtaining PR and progressive politics – by robust campaigning to remove the Conservatives from power.
Brexit, Neal suggested, wouldn’t have happened under PR. FPTP generated the political crises that created Brexit. In the 2019 general election, UKIP received 3.8 million votes but no seats. Yet, if the Brexit voice had received some political representation, the weakness of its position could have been exposed. Brexit was a call for sovereignty and power that we need to answer in a deeper democratic way that goes beyond issues such as the cost-of-living crisis and our next budget. To prevent populism, we have to seek out fundamental, cultural change in our democratic structures.
We will only be able to return to the EU, Neal argued, if we adopt PR because the EU wants the UK to have a stable, consensus-based politics, not one that swings from far left to far right. So, we have to exert moral and electoral pressure on Labour to endorse PR in order to return to a sensible relationship, in some form, with the EU.
But, whilst installing a new government is the first step towards the Compass vision of a better society, deposing the Conservatives is a far more daunting challenge than the current polls suggest.
The Wavering Wall
Another Round Table speaker, Jake Verity, gave one reason why. Jake is Best for Britain’s senior political officer and contributed to their ‘Wavering Wall’ report, published in December 2022. The report explored the impact of undecided voters on the next general election. It concluded that Labour is unlikely to achieve the landslide win that many polls are predicting.
The study used a ‘Multilevel Regression and Post-stratification’ (MRP) model which takes a large polling sample from across the country and uses data to compare different groups of people at a granular level. MRP models use demographic indicators such as gender, voting habits, education and age.
The MRP commissioned by Best for Britain was performed by Focaldata and included two polls, a 10,010 person poll (20 – 26 October 2022) and a 2,000 person poll (28 – 30 October 2022). Their aim was to determine who the ‘Waverers’ (or undecided voters) are and who they will vote for. The questions asked included:
- How likely or unlikely would you be to vote?
- If a general election was held tomorrow, which party would you vote for?
Those who answered ‘don’t know’ to the second question were also asked:
- Even if only slightly, which party are you leaning towards?
Over 80% of respondents in both polls said they would either ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ vote at the next general election. Also, nearly twice as many undecided voters in the second poll said that, if pushed, they would vote Conservative, as those who said they’d vote Labour.
Best for Britain then performed calculations (using ‘party proportionality and redistribution’ techniques) to determine the degree of similarity between undecided voters and political parties. Using the demographic indicators of age and education, the study found that the ‘undecided’ group’s profiles closely mirrored those of Tory voters. Both groups were predominantly over 55 years and predominantly non-university educated.
The study estimated that around 70% of undecided voters in England (and around 28% in Scotland and around 48% in Wales) are likely to vote Conservative at the next general election.
So, the Best for Britain analysis indicates that if the undecided group choose to vote at the next general election, and the polling suggests they will, the Conservatives are more likely to benefit than Labour.
Other influences on Labour’s election chances
The final speaker, Roger Wilson, is a director of Unite Reform and was a mediator for electoral agreement between the Liberal Democrats, the Green party and Plaid Cymru in the 2019 general election. Roger began his presentation by expanding Jake’s conclusions to include other factors liable to negatively impact Labour’s prospects at the next general election.
One is that Sunak is making inroads on the ‘soft Conservative voters’ and his popularity has been boosted by his success with the Northern Ireland Windsor Framework. Additionally, the new boundary changes are stacked against Labour as the Conservatives stand to gain another 6 to 12 seats. Also, the new ID regulations are likely to favour the Conservatives by supressing the progressive vote. Finally, regressive parties have co-operated well in previous elections. The Brexit Party stood aside for Conservatives in 2019 and Reform UK could do the same in 2024.
If we add these factors to the ‘Wavering Wall’ data, it’s clear that Labour’s poll lead is masking the precariousness of the party’s prospects.
How to fight back
Many local regions already have progressive partnerships that jointly run their local councils. But we see FPTP’s pervasive and undemocratic “tyranny of the minority” in action both nationally and locally.
At the local level, 85 of the 230 councils up for election in May 2023 are Tory-held; many of these Tory-held councils were progressive ‘tragedies’ last year. A progressive ‘tragedy’ is where Conservatives win control of councils because the progressive vote, though larger, is split between progressive parties.
We see the same pattern for general elections. In the 2019 General Election, there were 62 tragedy seats across England and Wales. If these had been turned into progressive wins, the Conservative majority at Westminster would have been wiped out.
Why do these tragedies happen?
One reason is that, in political systems with multiple opposition parties, FPTP produces vote-splitting. As Roger noted, in Europe where more proportional systems are used for national and local elections, the tragedies that blight the UK simply wouldn’t happen.
Secondly, not enough people are voting. Young and marginalised people, who’d be more likely to support a progressive party, vote less because they feel disengaged from politics in general.
There is also insufficient electoral co-operation between progressive parties. FPTP, as a ‘winner takes all’ system, encourages adversarial competition, not constructive co-operation, to the detriment of all progressive parties. Additionally, tactical voters can lack accurate information or receive mixed messages on which party is best placed to depose their Conservative MP or councillor.
Roger went on to describe how Compass local groups are doing crucial work to overcome these hurdles.
Compass local groups
Compass now has about 45 local groups across England, some with over 30 active members. Despite the constraints of FPTP, these groups are making tremendous and exciting progress in producing change. Movement is happening through a wide range of initiatives that include promoting PR, encouraging people to vote, producing tactical voting recommendations for councils and constituencies, and setting up constructive dialogue between the progressive parties. Co-operation is key and is all to do with building trust.
Compass local groups are working on all these vital projects using tactics ranging from news and social media campaigns to street stalls, leaflets, one-to-one meetings with politicians, publications, presentations and more. The current focus for local groups is preparation for the May local elections, but many of the tactics used and knowledge gained will also apply to the next general election.
As Neal argues, there is a realisable progressive vision of a more democratic society with fair political representation that we can, and should, be working towards. Central to this vision is non-adversarial co-operation between progressive parties. This co-operation is a key weapon – the lynchpin even – for deposing the Conservatives, and for building a new political culture that is supported by a successful, functioning PR system.
Acquiring PR and progressive governance has to be fought for:
“… over the dead bodies of people who don’t want change”.Neal Lawson
We cannot rely on disillusionment with the Conservatives to get Labour over the election line and Labour’s own prospects are concerningly precarious. So, there is absolutely no room for complacency and much work to do.
We are in perilous times with the Conservatives blatantly shunting the UK ever further right. We can only stop this process through constructive action. The Compass vision that we can win if we work together is captured in their new initiative ‘Win As One’. To drive change, Compass needs more participation in local groups and cross-party alliance-building. If this article has ignited your interest in joining this movement for change, please contact Compass.
Ed: West England Bylines is independent of any political party or organisation. It does however support and give space to any progressive movement.