A blog post by the chair, David Levine
2016 saw the publication of ‘The Alternative: Towards a New Progressive Politics’ in which politicians from Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens together with other political thinkers explored the idea that ‘cross-party cooperation amongst progressives could reinvigorate politics and inspire a credible alternative to the Conservatives. Whilst there can always be arguments about the meanings of progressive, there was reasonable clarity that the term referred to those parties who profess more values in common than on which they disagree. In Cornwall this encompasses The Greens, Liberal Democrats, Mebyon Kernow, The Women’s Equality Party and Labour.
Cooperation seemed like an excellent idea for Cornwall and we hoped that progressive parties here might work in that way. Since our public meeting last February, however, it has become clear that some will not enter into discussion, let alone cooperate, even to achieve common electoral goals. In part this reflects the view that they have a monopoly on the progressive vote but, more generally, it’s part of the stunted thinking exemplifying the dysfunction in our national politics.
Although voters generally have a choice from six or seven parties, no single party can ever represent the full range of identities and values even amongst its own voters. Within apparently homogeneous groups, there are marked differences of opinion on nationally important topics; voters for the same party can have progressive views on some policies but not on others. Examples include the economy, Europe and immigration. Often still categorised, misleadingly, as ‘left’ or ‘right’, these ‘contradictory’ preferences show the public to be more complex than our sound-bite politics would suggest. The differences are clear enough from expressed opinions but we can only guess the full range of unspoken views and this is partly what can make voting so capricious.
Neither Labour nor Conservative parties fully represent even their own voters yet our two-party tradition of Government continues to pretend differently even when neither has an overall majority. In the two parties that have alternately governed since 1945, electoral support frequently comes from those who have always voted in that way, often following family tradition even though once unquestioned views and traditions have not kept pace with societal change.
At one end there remains the belief in a struggle between earlier class structures that are now better described by groupings based on varying financial, educational and cultural capital. At the opposite end we see too many stuck in tropes of the the second world war; clinging to fantasies of national identity and seeing us still as plucky little Britain (increasingly, England) standing alone. A kind description for both groups would be as nostalgia but the reality can be rather darker. Ironically, our political poles come to resemble each other, both clinging to world views that were obsolete before most of today’s voters were born. Also, with a similar refusal even to listen respectfully to others’ opinions let alone to consider that some of their own opinions might conceivably be wrong.
Our more nuanced and fluid class structure has however, not solved the grossly unfair distribution of the nation’s wealth. Most reader are, like me, not economists but we can easily spot fallacies in the concept that wealth trickles down from the top to the bottom. The reality is that most national wealth accumulates in tiny packets from millions of people low down in the pyramid and is drawn upwards to the top. An analogy with the natural food chain and a few apex predators seems apt.
Perceived wisdom has it that good public services require continuous economic growth that in turn depends on our making and buying more and more disposable ‘stuff’ that we often don’t need. The need for large numbers of the low-paid to support this system results in huge personal debt that is causing great hardship for many. We urgently need better ways to measure the nation’s wealth and to distribute it more fairly. In part this requires a robust progressive tax system without loopholes for the super-rich but this needn’t mean fomenting hatred of anyone with more than ourselves.
I shall spare you thoughts on Brexit except to suggest that the farce indicates well how our political processes are simply not up to modern challenges. Too few politicians have the abilities and qualities to lead and too many lack the willingness and integrity to act beyond party dogma even when this damages the interests of many citizens. This criticism applies across the political spectrum. Serious discussions are drowned in the shouting and personal abuse against other individuals and groups. Social media, apparently essential for politics today, expose the alarming extent of stupidity and hate ‘out there’. Even in our so-called ‘Mother of Parliaments’, crucial debates are conducted with ludicrous farmyard noises that shame us all.
When people feel that their problems are being ignored or misrepresented, they become vulnerable to demagogues with ugly agendas. We should have learned this lesson after the 1930s but memories fade and we have forgotten how to recognise the signs. I include all shades of authoritarian rule in my condemnation; we must recognise and beware any party or movement that claims to be the nation’s saviour.
Against this background we might have been naïve to hope that cooperation would happen quickly here but, before we pack up and abandon the Alliance, we should remember that it always represented more than a formal bringing together of the official parties for voting purposes. We might have overestimated the extent to which a desire for social progress would take precedence over bunker mentality and dogma but we can still improve local democracy in ways that lie beyond party political conflicts. Interestingly, no parties claiming to be progressive have formally challenged the aims of the Alliance and these can therefore still be assumed to represent common values. Admittedly, a failure to challenge could signify apathy or a refusal even to engage in debate but those possibilities would have depressing implications.
I ask, therefore, that all those who claim to want better local politics and democratic participation take a few minutes to review the attached Local Constituency Compact.
Several individuals and groups have worked hard to refine this document that was originally designed by Gavin Barker. The Compact would be presented to all electoral candidates before the next General Election. It is in three parts: the first, requiring the successful candidate to attend an annual meeting of their constituents, is specifically drafted to be independent of any party or political affiliation. There can be no reason why any politician of integrity would refuse to sign up to this part. Parts two and three are more likely to appeal to some candidates than others but signing of each is optional.
It has been said that the public deserve the politics it gets but the odds are stacked in favour of those who manipulate voters rather than inform honestly. Voters are fed catchphrases, oversimplifications and lies that too often appeal to prejudices and myths instead of informing a critical weighing-up of alternatives. Tensions have always existed between an MP’s responsibilities to party, constituents or Country but the balance obviously shifts according to context. We often don’t know the distribution of views on any topic in a constituency but at least we can require our politicians to explain reasons for their Parliamentary voting and other decisions.
We have to acknowledge that difficult choices exist for our MPs but voters deserve a process in which constituents and MPs can discuss these tensions in public between elections. The Cornwall Progressive Alliance has little influence on National Politics but we can host better democratic participation here in Cornwall if the will is there.
Action is Needed
The outcome of this project will determine if the first word of my title should have one ‘h’ or two! It’s now up to you and your parties to decide what happens; it can be entirely a local decision; any party offices rejecting the essential first part of the Compact might prompt voters to reject that party at the next election. The Compact document has been sent to the offices of each Progressive Party office in the relevant area or centrally for Cornwall. A month has passed without any statement of support; in fact, without any statement either way. I shall regard that just as inertia.
My appeal is therefore that you lobby your various party offices on the compact, to explain, if you agree, that this is a worthwhile project that can benefit all voters without requiring any cooperation or pact with other parties.