Record of public meeting 22 Feb #Penzance #Cornwall Progressive Alliance

Note: Cornwall Progressive Alliance is one of many local progressive alliance initiatives supported by Compass, the London based Think-Do tank  who have an individual membership base in Cornwall

Panel members

Mike Tresidder     (Mebyon Kernow)

Emma Bray     (Women’s Equality Party)

Ian Flindall     (Green Party)

Andrew George   (Liberal Democrats)

Chair  David Levine

Fifty people attended the open public meeting at St John’s Hall Penzance to hear from a panel of speakers drawn from centre-left parties.

The meeting was interactive with many members of the audience airing issues, asking questions and challenging each other as well as members of the panel

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Among the key issues to emerge were the following:

The urgency of electoral reform

One panel member pointed out that the Conservatives only got 35% of the vote, based on the total electorate not just those who voted. Yet they took all six seats.

Another example of grossly distorted electoral outcomes was highlighted by the Green Party panel member who cited the surge in Green votes and Green issues but little to show for it except one MP. Worse still, our present FPTP system pitched smaller parties against each other, prevented new entrants and new ideas breaking through, and contributed to voter dis-satisfaction and the increase in the non-voting public.

The Democratic deficit

A member of the audience saw electoral reform as part of a larger, profound democratic deficit. Democracy was not working in any area. A government’s main purpose is the welfare of its people but this duty is consistently ignored and forgotten. Democracy should be rule of the the people by the people, for the people – but no government came even near to living up to this ideal.

The media’s role in informing the public on the vital issues of the day was also called into question. Even the BBC failed; during the referendum it sought to be carefully neutral in its coverage but in doing so, failed to convey key facts and evidence the public needed, for fear of being seen as biased. The result was a failure to properly inform viewers of the key issues.

Another member of the audience  highlighted the failure of local newspapers and TV stations to report on Cornish issues, or if they did, to do it in a way that was one sided. An example given was the impact of the boundary review on Cornwall’s territorial integrity with the introduction of Devonwall. Media reporting was restricted to brief clips and images of a noisy demonstration; it did not report and explain the issues to a broader public.

The boundary review has been reactivated by the Conservative government  with the backing of the DUP. As shaped by  the Conservative government, it is likely to work in its favour by adding an additional twenty seats. Some Conservative MP’s will lose out though and it is vital that we play on disaffected Conservative MP’s to block the review. These changes would likely  be implemented in October with the real possibility of an election soon after.

Locally, the boundary review will impact on Cornish identity by introducing the Devonwall proposal – a new constituency that amalgamates North Cornwall with part of Devon. The reduction of councillors from 123 to 86 would add to the sense of disconnection that people felt as individual councillors struggled to cover larger areas.

Individual voter registration has also widened the democratic deficit. It disadvantages people least likely to vote Conservatives: students, the young, the less well off, and those in rental accommodation with  insecure tenancies. All these categories are mobile populations who move around and less likely to register to vote (if you keep changing your address you keep having to re-register).  

More public engagement needed in shaping policy. One panel member remarked that we needed more public debate and more engagement in the way that policy was shaped. Devolution was an important step in this direction but it had to be real: it must allow local people a decisive say in issues such as housing. It also meant proper funding of local authorities in place of the present system where local councils had to go cap in hand to central government.

Another panel member stressed the importance of education in raising political awareness. This was especially important in schools. In her teaching role, she gave the example of school debates about Brexit along with mock votes for and against staying in the EU. This transformed students understanding of the issue and students voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU.

Different perspectives on Progressive Politics

The term ‘progressive politics’ is better understood as a loose constellation of values and principles that are summed up in the Common Platform document rather than a rigidly defined set of policies.

At least one member of the audience expressed frustration at no clear definition. There were also diverse perspectives from the Panel; one  panel member challenged the unthinking assumption of  economic growth as a progressive policy when we lived on a finite planet whose wellbeing was imperiled by blind adherence to ever more economic growth.  

Progressive politics too Westminster centric. Another panel member criticised progressive politics as “too Westminster-centric” in its perspective and asserted a different more localist and distinctive definition that took account of Cornish identity and context. Westminster politics had not served Cornwall well; it was one of the poorest areas in Europe, why was it ‘so blue’? A Westminster elite, composed of millionaires has no understanding of the needs of local people and it is local people and local needs that should be the focus of a progressive politics.

Gender rights: another panel member stressed that  progressive politics must include gender rights, inclusivity and the huge gaps in pay, work and equal treatment that women still had to contend with. That half the population – women – still had to wrestle with enduring inequalities was the impetus behind the Womens March in London, Washington and across the world.  

The challenge of cross party cooperation in promoting a more progressive politics in Cornwall

There was a clear desire on the part of panel members to see their parties work together and this was echoed strongly by supportive comments from the audience. But there was also  a clear recognition of the challenge and a gulf between formal party leadership and party activists  which rejected cross party co-operation, and voters  of different parties who wished for a more flexible and co-operative approach. The notable exception to this was the Green Party Leadership who deserved far more credit for the strong Labour showing at the last election, given the  sacrifices they made in order not to split the progressive vote.

It was Labour who benefited from Green strategy to step aside in 22 constituencies but instead of reciprocating, Labour chose instead to suspend three of its members in the South West Surrey constituency who advocated standing down to allow the NHA party a clear shot at the sitting Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt.

Nor was Labour alone in coming under critical fire. One member of the audience, a member of the Liberal Democrats,  strongly criticised his own  party for putting up paper candidates that split the centre left vote at the last local council elections, allowing Conservatives to gain seats they would otherwise have lost.

This damaging competitiveness was reflected in the outcome of both  national  and local elections and left voters perplexed.  One panel member referred to research by Queen Mary University which highlighted a clear coalescence of policy issues on the centre left, and the gulf between them and policy views held by the Conservative party. He suggested that while it may not be possible to form formal alliances, we could identify common cause which the Common Platform document tries to do. Leaders of centre left parties could be challenged by asking “what part of this document do you disagree with?”

Another member of the panel observed that any co-operation had to be built on trust – and there was little or no trust between formal party leaders in Cornwall.

Womens Equality Party emphasised collaboration with other parties. It was embedded in their aims and objectives and they welcomed affiliate members.

Another observed that Liberal Democratic Party membership rules were  more relaxed but the opposite approach was  taken by Labour which explicitly forbad  membership of any other party and imposed strong sanctions on those that sought open pragmatic collaboration with other parties.  

A Vote Swap site for Cornwall?

A member of the audience briefly outlined his idea of a local vote swap site for Cornwall which met with broad approval from both panel and audience. In the absence of any formal cross party collaboration, the only option was to appeal over the heads of party tribalists and enlist the support of a broader voting public who were more flexible in their outlook and wanted only to ensure that their vote counted and was not wasted.

The aim was also to combine this with a constituency based electoral college in one or more Cornish constituencies. This would include smaller parties such as MK and the Green parties whose policies could be publicly endorsed by the candidate most likely to win the seat. It was not just about removing the Conservatives but about a more sustained political relationship between centre left parties. The elected MP would publicly endorse policies promoted by other parties and feedback progress to the electoral college on policy commitments they had signed up to.

Vote Swap sites will remain a necessary corrective to a dysfunctional election system until such time as we get Proportional Representation. A member of the audience made specific reference to Make Votes Matter campaign (there is a local branch in Cornwall).   

Cornwall General Election 2017:

Posters feb 2018

votes cast and votes wasted. Click this link here to see and download posters showing the voting in Cornwall

Where is Labour?

Despite our best efforts, the chair explained it was not possible to find a panel representative from the Labour Party.

A member of the audience explained that Labour’s strong showing at the last election has encouraged a go-it-alone approach. Many party members believe that they will win convincingly in Cornwall and and nationally at the next election and that all it takes is one-last-heave. While there had been some initial interest in exploring cross party collaboration, this has died away as a result of the strengthened Labour vote

A panel member observed that it was vital that Labour endorse PR as part of its  manifesto commitments. It could win power if it co-operated; if it didnt, it was hard to see how it would  gain the extra 63 seats to do so without co-operating with other parties.

Next steps

the ideas arising from the meeting will inform the next steps to take after discussion with CPA supporters.

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