A VIEW FROM THE CHAIR
Having chaired the Cornwall Progressive Alliance (CPA) for six months, I have gained a fair idea of the CPA’s potential as well as the hurdles facing it. In this article I try to summarise the current state of affairs and to consider how, practically, the CPA might now help to improve politics in Cornwall.
The CPA was born of the idea that the progressive or centre-left parties had more areas of policy agreement than disagreement and should therefore work together to achieve political success. I shall return to this below but, because some have questioned the meaning of ‘progressive’ and ‘centre-left’, I would first like to explain which term I prefer for the values and principles of the CPA.
I have two concerns about the use of ‘centre-left’. First, to describe our complex society and its politics as ‘left’ or ‘right’ seems outdated and unhelpful. Using binary terms has always been a popular way of reducing complexity for effect but opposite poles simply don’t convey the full distribution of people’s views, beliefs or, indeed, other attributes. Describing society and individuals in these ways can cause time and energy to be wasted in entrenched doctrinal conflicts. By concentrating more closely on integrity of politicians together with honest and accurate policies we might get better Governments that we can trust, also that we might actually be more effective in tackling injustice and unfairness. We should be similarly careful to challenge political claims using derived statistics such as the various types of average that obscure diversity and variation.
My other concern about ‘centre-left’ (or right!) is simply that I’m not sure who defines the boundaries of what is central. Most political parties and supporters, even the most obviously extreme, call themselves moderates but, again, the voting public represents a continuous distribution and not a binary split.
I describe these concerns because I believe they underlie many of the challenges that face politicians and voters. At least for the purposes of this article I shall, therefore, use the term progressive to describe the range of values, beliefs and aspirations represented in the CPA. This can only, ever, be a convenient shorthand but it is in the name of the project and reasonably describes the values and principles of political and social progress, many of which are expressed in the Common Platform document (previously posted and circulated). It also allows us to debate with less risk of the stereotyping and assumptions that have bedevilled older labels. I appreciate that others might want to retain the traditional term but they, too, need to justify their preference.
Having attended both private and public meetings of the CPA I am impressed that its supporters of all affiliations are willing to have constructive discussions and work together in ways not always matched by activists and officers of some of the parties who should cooperate in this way. I have the impression that this is based not so much on policy differences as a choice, sometimes, to put party ideology and ambition ahead of democracy, Cornwall’s needs and indeed those of the Country as a whole. I shall leave it to readers to say if they agree with this or to identify other reasons for this unwillingness. I have been sorry to hear from a few of the Alliance’s most able, experienced and, initially, most optimistic supporters that they see little prospect of success unless those attitudes change. I am cautiously optimistic that we can still achieve success through cooperation but we have to be honest about the barriers.
The public meeting in February left us with an encouraging range of ideas and possibilities that have been well-summarised by Gavin Barker in an earlier post. I offer a view of what we might be able to do in time for the next general election and also for the longer-term ambitions. I have developed these suggestions after discussions with experienced Alliance supporters but I take responsibility for what follows and I invite all constructive comments and suggestions.
Based on Gavin’s summary and on other discussions, I would suggest that the Alliance has three priorities for what it could help to achieve in Cornwall at and after the next General Election.
1) Promotion of ‘Common Platform’ standards and values that define the Cornwall Alliance.
2) Maximising the chances of progressive candidates winning Cornwall’s Parliamentary Seats.
3) Using the ‘Progressive Forum’ ideas (previously circulated) to improve local democracy and public engagement. Briefly, there are two strands to the invitation for progressive candidates: first, to place constituency needs above party and to adhere to various standards of conduct; second, that if elected, to hold public meetings at least annually to report back on policy commitments. These meetings could also serve to hear marginal voices from individuals and groups as well as those who choose not to vote for any reason.
Of course, the Cornwall Alliance, along with most, but not necessarily all, progressive parties nationally has other important ambitions, most notably, electoral reform but I shall not discuss this here as progress in that and other areas will largely depend on returning more progressive MPs to Westminster. Our most urgent need is therefore to get such MPs elected in Cornwall and all our energies must first be in that direction.
Promoting ‘Common Platform’ standards
CPA supporters are likely to be familiar with these so I won’t reproduce them here; they don’t represent fixed criteria but can be refined and developed if circumstances change. Their value is in forming a basis for discussions to establish which of the standards might be contested by any progressive parties. So far, little disagreement has surfaced but we need to be clear well ahead of any election if any of them represent sticking points between parties as they should represent a generic core set of progressive values and principles to be presented to voters.
Returning Cornish Progressive MPs to Westminster
I am advised that voting figures from the 2015 election suggest that 4 Cornish Constituencies could have returned progressive MPs to Westminster had votes had not been split and wasted.
What could be done next time to minimise the chances of this happening again? Clearly, we are unlikely to see electoral reform before the next election so the options are for parties to cooperate or for the public to use their votes more effectively. Where, previously, parties have stood aside in particular constituencies to give another a better chance, the arrangement has not always been well reciprocated and this has been damaging to the smaller party, notably the Greens.
It has been made clear to me that there is now little likelihood of any type of formal pact involving the larger progressive parties in Cornwall and, while I would not rule out all chance of common sense breaking out, we have to consider other ways of using votes to the best effect in each constituency. This probably has to be some form of vote-swapping arrangement and, while my own knowledge is scanty in this area, I believe this could offer some hope of avoiding another damaging result for Cornwall and the Country. I am aware that there are those who say that this is not achievable but it has been employed previously and we have much more to lose by not trying. I may have more to report on this in due course as colleagues with knowledge and experience are exploring the practicalities.
The Progressive Forum Constituency Compact
Having circulated the details to all the CPA supporters, I received some constructive suggestions but no seriously dissenting views on the idea. Similarly, none seem to have emerged from the earlier website post so the authors and I suggest putting it into practice with progressive candidates at the next General Election. Some details may need to be refined and there can be no guarantee that undertakings would all be honoured by successful candidates but this represents a real chance to improve local democracy. Signing up to the compact would be voluntary for candidates but unwillingness might cause voters to have doubts about those candidates as the compact provides some reassurance that constituency needs would have priority over party dictats from Westminster.
Longer term, the compact merges into the need for better (non-party) political education for voters. This probably needs to start in schools where critical thinking skills can start to be developed as a protection against manipulation by unscrupulous, but superficially plausible, political messages of all stripes. How to cast one’s vote might need to be decided with more care than sometimes seems to be the case. Importantly, also to debunk the too-common idea that all politicians are the same and that there is no point in voting. Not voting has, itself, to be seen as a political decision albeit one that abdicates responsibility for the results. Considerable numbers didn’t vote at the last General Election and this probably affected results in ways we can’t yet understand. Where physical problems and other practicalities make voting difficult we have to find ways to help and, where apathy is the cause, to provide reasons to participate whatever party they might eventually support.
The position of CPA Chair came with no job description but with the desirable requirements that I am not a member of any political party and that I am non-partisan. I have respected these requirements but I do not think I should shy away from constructive criticism if any progressive parties are behaving in ways that could damage the overriding aim of replacing Conservative MPs with progressive ones. I tried hard to persuade some prominent Labour supporters to join the panel at our February public meeting but I was unsuccessful. It was suggested to me that, within the Labour Party there is a reluctance to cooperate to achieve election success and that Labour’s record in 2017 gives it the confidence to ‘go-it-alone’. To this I would say only that that hubris can be a painful lesson to learn. I would, with a few caveats, welcome a Labour Government as greatly preferable to any Conservative one but Labour’s chances nationally would conceivably be increased rather than lessened by cooperating to assist the campaign of whichever progressive candidate has the best chance of success in each Cornish constituency. Risking Conservative wins again because of arrogant intransigence is reckless. I would go further and suggest that Cornwall would be best served by having the full range of progressive parties represented at Westminster
I have tried to make clear my views as CPA Chair but, ultimately, I am here simply to facilitate the aims of the Alliance and to respond to what CPA supporters want me to do. I hope still to have some success in bringing people together where they might be otherwise reluctant but I don’t think it’s beyond my remit to warn that a continuing refusal to join forces risks election failures for progressive politics again. If Labour can be successful alone in their strategy I shall be among the first to congratulate them but it is a dangerous gamble that we need not take.
I shall be happy to respond to any comments via the blog but if anyone wants to contact me privately please use the contact box below. I don’t subscribe to any social media and wouldn’t be able to follow discussion on, for example, Facebook or Twitter.