Cornwall Progressive Alliance meets Life of Brian: the story so far

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!

BRIAN: What?

REG: Judean People’s Front. We’re the People’s Front of Judea! Judean People’s Front. Cawk.

FRANCIS: Wankers.

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.

P.F.J.: Yeah…

JUDITH: Splitters.

P.F.J.: Splitters…

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…

REG: What?

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.

P.F.J.: Splitter!

(taken from Another Bleedin’ Monty Python website)

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.

 

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9 thoughts on “Cornwall Progressive Alliance meets Life of Brian: the story so far

  1. Thanks for this, Gavin. Much that I recognise here and it’s sad. I must say though that, keen as I was, as a grassroots LibDem, to help the progressive alliance, the reaction and antipathy that I observed, in Truro Falmouth, from Labour, made it impossible to consider supporting them there. There was a massive arrogance, born of the Jeremy Corbyn wave, and certainty that they could win. They didn’t but they certainly lost LibDem goodwill. So the disaffection is not just in the higher echelons, I’m afraid. The other issue, from a LibDem perspective, is the unattractiveness to me and many others, of the doctrinal extremism in both the other parties. It’s a dilemma, because those of us with a long history of, first Liberal and then LibDem values, find it impossible to support either the rich/poor divisive Tory policies, or the centralising/nationalising policies of the current Labour party. The latter is largely because we know that, in spite of supporting the need for a fairer society, their policies will always mean that middle UK, as the low-hanging fruit at the apogee of the normal distribution will always be the target to bear the brunt of the taxation necessary for those policies. The genuinely poor can’t pay and the obscenely rich are a difficult target and always find a way to avoid. I don’t think I’m alone, as one who would love to see the Tories out but is unconvinced by a Labour alternative. This is saddening as I love the idea of a less tribal progressive movement. Thanks for reading, if you do. How do I get hold of the blogs you mention, please? With very best personal wishes. Howard H.

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  2. Hi Howard I haven’t yet done the other two blogs. Because this is such a large subject I decided to split it into three so next weeks blog will be done on Saturday (at least that is my aim).

    Just out of interest, do you not feel that natural monopolies such as rail ought to be nationalised? Otherwise we are left with either fragmented regional railway services which never take responsibility for when things go wrong, charge excessive fairs and use profits as dividend payments to share holders rather than invest. Maybe you see this differently – what is the Libdem position on this?

    Part of what you see as extremism is a kind of rebound – it is born out of a pervading sense of powerlessness, rage and hurt; the left behind’ and those who feel that both their voice and vote dont count and have never counted. The danger is that this rage translates into authoritarian populism that is as much a danger to democracy as a political elite which seeks to lock in inequality and marginalise parliamentary democracy. We see that now with the machinations by Brexiters with their secretive trade discussions and the additional powers acquired by government ministers to make significant amendments to trasnposed EU law without the need for parliamentary approval.

    In a funny kind of way, the push for a second vote is also an expression of this new populism – something deep is moving and shifting among us and it is coming to the fore – people want power but they despise the traditional political mechanisms through which power is exercised. A second vote would further undermine parliamentary sovereignty, whether we win or lose it.

    We are moving into a highly combustible situation – but to stress: populism does not equal democracy. Populism is a harsh, angry cry of rage that demands action, simple answers to complex questions and strong leaders to implement them. Demagogues come to the fore and all reasoned debate goes out the window.

    Sorry this sounds so dire – there are other possibilities which I explore in my third blog, based on some fantastic work done by others.

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  3. Hi, Gavin, your points are all sound. The problem at the last election was , to my mind, that Labour had an excellent, funded, Manifesto that seized people’s hopes, but unfortunately most of it did not suit the Lib Dem’s, who are basically conservatively minded, and had no intention of giving ground in Cornwall and unfortunately, also, were promoted, still and stupidly, as an alternative to Labour. Hence, even some Labour voters were timid enough to vote LD instead of Labour. Where the Greens had sensibly seen they had NO chance of winning but every likelihood of splitting the vote and letting the Cons in , they withdrew, because without PR they would do more harm than good. The fall in Green votes , where Greens still persevered, demonstrates how voters had mostly seen that Green was a wasted vote at that time. Now that Labour is BeGINNING to see the dangers of global warming and offering some hope of tackling it, much , at least, more than the Cons or their mates, the LD, Greens should take heart that their pressure group effect has worked and they need to support the party with social and environmental policies closest to those they TACKED on to their green agenda , when they tried to create a viable parliamentary party.
    As a Green who has joined Labour, I love the Greens, but, I believe, I am closer to getting Green ideas adopted by Labour and a possible GOVERNING party, than I was in the Greens, and a lot of Greens are realising they CAN push their principles and ideals better when in Labour than not. As a Green, I would not have had a chance to shake and hold JC’s hand and quizz him in person, on what Lanour was doing to promote renewable energy and fight global warming( he was going up to see the Swansea. tidal idea scheme. Nor would I have had , with another ex Green Labour member, my fellow executive Officer For environmental Issues, Howard Mewlove, to bend Chris Williamson’s ear, for over an HOUR , at a Lanour garden party recently about how URGENT and vital it is to adopt renewable energy and dump the use of fossil fuels , or else the whole planet will be in danger of fire effects of melting glaciers causing rising sea levels that will
    Unhone MILIONS of city dwellers at river mouths, release methane from being locked up in frozen form, and possibly stopping g the flow of the Gulf Stream etc etc.
    I sincerely hope the Greens, and anyone in MK and the LD who care passionately about fighting global warming AND creating a fairer more pleasant , hopeful, survivable, future for the majority of the population, will see that, without PR at the moment, supporting, and joining And working for Labour is the ONLY option and a real NECESSiTY if we are to dislodge the powerful , and cynically in control of the Media’s , and apparently oblivious or contemptuous of the effects of global warming, Cons , who are financed by the international magnates who do not want any of Labour’s policies to burst their monopolising, manipulating, controlling , innit only for themselves,bubble . , Let’s get Labour in and the Cons out, before expecting to have PR. At the moment. Xx

    Sent from my iPhone

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    1. Hi Sheelah,

      I agree with much of what you say about split votes, the difficult position of the Green party and the urgency of tackling global warming. However I cannot dismiss the Libdems in the way you do. There is a danger of labels and universalising one point of view. For example Andrew George is a thoughtful Libdem and a champion of the NHS and there are other like him. Libdems are also more progressive in ways that we are not – they have long advocated PR principle at elections, they had a strong renewable energy policy and I recollect reading one article which said that their tax policy was actually more progressive than Labour. So things are more complex than they seem and we need to be careful in dismissing out of hand other points of view. Cheers, Gavin

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  4. Hi Gavin. Thanks for that generous defence of my Party, the Libdems. I need to respond to a part of the previous comment, re: the idea that the (narrow) win by the Tory MP was somehow due to progressive voters being too “timid” to vote Labour. This shows a misconception of how to operate a progressive resistance to the Tories. Why? It’s down to the way History has shaped West Cornwall. Those in a town like Penzance might feel there’s a community of Left-minded people who are natural Corbyn voters. That’s a bubble. Most of St Ives is rural, the background is small traders, one person businesses, farmers. Methodism/non conformism was the pattern those people who opposed the landowner class followed. Although Chapel is not the social network that used to be prevalent, it’s still significant because people tend to vote (still) the way their parents & grandparents voted. That way, historically, was and still is Liberal. Add to this that when Labour has been in power at Westminster, priorities have not been the welfare of Cornwall or other peripheral regions (so if you look at a map of UK, you still see Liberals consistently representing Cumbria, parts of Scotland, etc.) Therefore, the depth of grass roots opposition to Tories is Liberal; again, the history has been that when positive change occured in Cornwall, it was due to Liberal representation and assertive advocacy in Parliament.
    A progressive alliance in other places will see a different pattern. If I lived in Exeter I would vote Labour- depending on who the MP was. I have many excellent friends and fellow travellers who are Labour or Greens. The purpose of a progressive alliance is to mobilise all those (usually the majority in almost every constituency) who see the Tories as a destructive influence and actor. It is an illusion to think that Labour are going to mobilise 22000 voters in St Ives; but Andrew George has that kind of level of support… because of his positive work, but also because of the Political “ecosystem” of West Cornwall. Nationally, the progressive alliance concept could break the Political stalemate. There is, I admit, deep-seated tribalism in my own party. But at least we have participated in cross party dialogue. All small parties are fatally squeezed by the FPTP system. The elephant in the room here is, I’m afraid, the Labour Party…it’s the Elephant that is largely in this case absent from the room! Reasons? Partly, they believe that they are solely the ones who are fit to be the alternative Government. Partly, their history is that they long believed that FPTP benefited them…many still do. But ask “Make Votes Matter”…facts show that Tories have formed overwhelmingly more Governments, despite very rarely having more votes that all the other parties. Progressive and PLURALISTIC politics (representing regional/Green/Women’s Equality variations in Britain’s citizens) ultimately need a PR system for fair, representative and democratic governance. As someone who subscribed to the Progressive Alliance, I know that that is a sentiment held by all the participants. I wish Labour as an organisation could be round the table; this movement can’t really get off the ground without them. What a tragedy.

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  5. Hi Marc, that’s a really interesting take on the St.Ives – Penzance area, thankyou!

    There is a shift in Labour towards PR and real democracy based on a proper voting system – but still some reluctance on the part of those who feel this may translate into ‘weak government’ with the need to compromise on a radical agenda for change. While I am all for a radical agenda to address inequality, strong public services and nationalisation of rail and energy (some would not call this radical), I understand that this may not be everyone’s cup of tea. For example issues to do with tax and nationalisation would likely be points of difference between Libdem and Labour – but there would still be much common ground.

    Your observations about Libdem being a voice for Cornwall also echo comments from MK who say that when they hear Labour speak it feels like ‘London talking to Cornwall’. Nevertheless there are local Labour who have settled here , know the area well, and are sensitive to that fact.

    Anyway, any real democratic voting system based on PR inevitably does away with majoritarian party rule and requires bargain and compromise between different parties. It is at that point that Labour will say ‘sell out!’ But the real sell out is our present FPTP voting system that awards disproportionate power to parties based on a minority of votes – and as you point out it is the Conservatives who have largely benefited from this. Rule by minority government, even a Labour government, is not democracy. Were Labour to continue winning on that basis, it would add to the rancour of many who see their vote wasted and their voice ignored. It would rebound on Labour very badly over the long term, especially since we consider ourselves ‘the party of democracy’.

    But PR is only a beginning. Real democracy means ordinary people talking to each other across divides and we have completely lost the political literacy to make that happen. Splits within and between parties are having a damaging effect on community cohesion and this tribalism is infecting all of us. Perhaps it is part of a larger shift towards a new populism that is driven more by anger than reasoned debate.

    Hope to catch up with you soon! Maybe a coffee?

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    1. Hi Gavin, as always I appreciate your rational well-argued viewpoint and agree with almost all you say! Btw, I was tasked with writing a constituency history/context piece for the St Ives Libdem website, so did some research into West Country Liberal/Political history with help from Garry Tregigda of Exeter University. Hence my local take, very briefly summarised …there is a very imperfect understanding among the public but specially among activists of all hues about why there is an enduring bedrock of Liberal support, why this won’t melt away and in fact why the Liberal Party is still relevant as a UK political force and tradition in the 21st century. Anyway, a coffee would be admirable, be good to catch up. My Dad is terminally ill, I am going up & down to Sussex & in fact will be leaving quite shortly, back next week. Feel free to email me at marchadley2@gmail.com cheers

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