Many of you will know the considerable efforts we went to, in order to promote a more progressive politics in Cornwall by finding common ground between centre left parties.
And how that failed.
It is worth exploring why. When we initially kicked this process off, we had considerable interest by members of the public who had voted Labour, Libdem or Green in the 2015 election and who had switched votes in previous elections, moving across all three parties in some cases. A good few were party activists but there also significant numbers who belonged to no party at all.
At the grassroots level then, there was a real desire to talk to each other and explore the possibility of ‘doing deals’ between different parties in different constituencies: ‘non aggression pacts’, primaries (where different parties agree to stand one candidate), and standing down candidates in order to give way to the candidate most likely to beat the Conservative party candidate and so on.
Nor was this simply down to a self-selecting few so called ‘progressives’ such as myself; at a full capacity Hall for Cornwall (seating around 950) event to hear a talk by Owen Jones, he asked the audience to put their hands up if they were in favour of a progressive alliance. A sea of hands went up. By contrast when he asked who was against such a proposal, I counted seven hands – there may have been more behind me as I was sitting two thirds up the aisles. Clearly there was a desire for change and flexibility in seeing parties working together, not just blindly competing on every issue.
But as these grassroots discussions percolated upwards, so the enthusiasm for such pacts diminished. In short – and with few exceptions – senior party activists and leaders had no such enthusiasm for finding common ground and actively argued against it. Quite often, the main obstacle cited was national party strategy and rules.
When the June 2017 election came, we were caught unprepared with little time to actually build on the good will engendered by our launch in March. Quite suddenly there was a general retreat back to entrenched party positions and while considerable effort was made to bring Labour, Green and Libdem party candidates into the same room, the prevalent mood was one of wariness, distrust and a determination to go-it-alone. In particular, the Labour Party HQ made clear its rejection of any deals with Green and Libdem along with the very real threat of de-selection and expulsion – as happened in the South West Surrey when three senior Labour party members were removed for a progressive pact with the NHA party candidate standing against Jeremy Hunt.
The exception to all this was the Green Party who paid a heavy price in Cornwall and elsewhere by boldly standing down in certain key constituencies in order not to split the progressive vote.
The key mistake we made within Cornwall Progressive Alliance was to assume that because there was clear common policy ground between centre left parties – and there was on things like the NHS, Energy, housing, climate change and taxation – that this alone would galvanise a collaborative cross party strategy to end Conservative government rule.
What happened instead was a ‘Life of Brian’ moment; we just had not reckoned with the depth of personal animosity and ingrained tribalism at both local and national level.
BRIAN: Are you the Judean People’s Front?
REG: Fuck off!
REG: Judean People’s Front. We’re the People’s Front of Judea! Judean People’s Front. Cawk.
BRIAN: Can I… join your group?
REG: No. Piss off.
BRIAN: I didn’t want to sell this stuff. It’s only a job. I hate the Romans as much as anybody.
JUDITH: Are you sure?
BRIAN: Oh, dead sure. I hate the Romans already.
REG: Listen. If you wanted to join the P.F.J., you’d have to really hate the Romans.
BRIAN: I do!
REG: Oh, yeah? How much?
BRIAN: A lot!
REG: Right. You’re in. Listen. The only people we hate more than the Romans are the fucking Judean People’s Front.
FRANCIS: And the Judean Popular People’s Front.
P.F.J.: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Splitters. Splitters…
LORETTA: And the People’s Front of Judea.
P.F.J.: Yeah. Splitters. Splitters…
LORETTA: The People’s Front of Judea. Splitters.
REG: We’re the People’s Front of Judea!
LORETTA: Oh. I thought we were the Popular Front.
REG: People’s Front! C-huh.
FRANCIS: Whatever happened to the Popular Front, Reg?
REG: He’s over there.
But it doesn’t stop there: the ‘Life of Brian’ syndrome is repeated within local political parties with factions, fall-outs and schisms sucking in energy, and alienating voters. For example – and without going into too much detail – splits within my local Labour Party often ignore what we have in common. I have never yet met a fellow Labour member – be they strongly left wing, moderate or on the ‘right’ of the party, whether so-called ‘Blairite’ or Momentum – that did not care passionately about their local community and the vision of a just, fair and inclusive society. We have all this in common, yet at times it gets lost in divisive arguments resulting from distrust and suspicion.
At the national level, this divisive and tribal politics is aided and abetted by a mainstream media that thrives on polarised debate. Even where healthy difference and disagreement exist as part of the normal democratic process, this is played up and sensationalised. Reasoned debate is drowned out by shrill tabloid headlines, soundbites, and misquotes that divide communities and poison our politics.
To this increased tribalism and division has been added a new layer of toxic political debate brought to us by an online world. It is this theme that forms the the second of three blogs. In the third, I suggest what can be done, drawing on the ground work of others.