The next general election may be no more than a year away. Polls tell us Labour is likely to win. But there is a growing understanding that even a substantial Labour swing might not deliver the transforming government that many think the country now needs: a government that can address the urgent issues of the climate emergency, the cost-of-living crisis, the unravelling UK constitution, the desperately underperforming public services, and the Brexit-damaged economy.
If even a substantial Labour swing might not deliver the transforming government that many think the country now needs, why is this?
- The current first-past-the-post boundaries are stacked against Labour – it needs a swing larger than 1997 to gain a majority of one.
- Constituency boundary changes to be announced soon could give the Conservatives at least another five seats.
- The government’s new Voter ID requirements will suppress the votes of groups less likely to vote Conservative, notably younger people.
- There are a lot of Don’t Knows in the current polls – normally these fall towards conservative.
- The polls still favour Sunak as the best prime minister and voting usually trends towards party leaders’ individual popularity (source: BMGResearch).
- The polls usually narrow in favour of the current government once formal campaigning begins. When the Conservatives unleash their full culture wars assault, this trend could be exacerbated.
A hung parliament, or perhaps a tiny Labour majority, is the most likely outcome; one which would give the new government little scope to do anything substantial. This would be a poisoned chalice for Labour: unable to achieve much and yet getting all the blame for the earlier years of underinvestment and confusion.
Across the country, activists and ordinary voters are considering their options and pushing for creative action to achieve a more progressive outcome. They believe radical, long-term solutions will require a broader shoulder to the wheel than Labour’s tribal traditions can muster on their own. They start from the position that collaborative politics is central, before and after the election.
Compass ready to make some waves
There are many activist groups pushing for more a united approach, sometimes called a progressive alliance. Some of these groups cohere around promoting more or better democracy as a means to more substantial change: Make Votes Matter, Electoral Reform, Unlock Democracy, Labour for a New Democracy and others. But one in particular, Compass, is making significant ripples in Sussex with good turnouts at meetings and much positive feedback around the basic message.
Compass describes itself as a home for those who want to build and be a part of ‘a Good Society’, one where equality, sustainability and democracy are not mere aspirations, but a living reality. It was founded on the belief that no single issue, organisation or political party can make a Good Society by themselves, so we have to work together to make it happen.
Compass has identified 62 so-called ‘progressive tragedy’ seats across the country. These are constituencies where there are progressive majorities already (non-Tory voters exceed Tory voters) but a split in the progressive vote (Labour/Lib Dem/Green) has let in the Conservative candidate. In Sussex, there are three such constituencies: Lewes, Eastbourne, and Hastings and Rye. There are also three further constituencies where a moderate national swing would deliver victory to a concerted campaign by the progressive parties: East Worthing and Shoreham, Crawley, and Mid Sussex.
Win-as-One in Sussex
To cut through this confusion, Compass aims to inform the electorate and mobilise the progressive vote. Its national ‘Win-as-One’ campaign is a step-by-step plan to win the 62 seats but more excitingly, and quite explicitly, to acquire real power and to change the shape and distribution of government in this country for good. The first step, via this mobilisation, is to deliver a progressive government. The next step, intended to cement the changes needed, is to establish a fair voting system. Unavoidably, this means ditching so-called first-past-the-post.
Last year, in May, as the pandemic receded, Compass in Sussex re-booted, kicking off with the instigation of a series of regular bi-monthly ‘progressive politics’ coffee mornings in Brighton. At the most recent one, Jess Garland from the Electoral Reform Society and Lena Swedlow from Compass HQ led discussions. A packed room heard the arguments for proportional representation and learnt about the various different electoral systems that exist already in the UK: in Scotland, Wales, and London. Campaigning tactics were discussed in groups. Representatives from Labour, Liberal, Green and non-aligned traditions agreed, in a spirited conversation, that the current system doesn’t work and that tribal loyalties impede real change.
Compass talks about the goal of ‘the Good Society’ and it was evident that people at this gathering have a real idea what they mean by this. But there were also hard-headed discussions about tactics and strategy in which all the non-Tory parties were engaged. Inevitably, much time was spent on the position of the Labour Party as the dominant player. Something is definitely brewing on this. At the last Labour Party conference, the membership and the unions overwhelmingly endorsed PR, meaning in theory that PR should now be party policy. But the leadership is stubbornly resistant, seeing PR as a threat to the traditional ‘one more push to victory’ Labour vision.
A new kind of politics…
Compass is unapologetic: the old Labour vision is not enough; a new kind of politics is needed. While this makes some people nervous, Compass sees part of its task as walking audiences through the options and providing reassurance and encouragement (and congenial company and decent coffee).
In the previous Compass coffee morning last October, Green councillor Martin Osborne chaired a conversation between Davy Jones, former Green Party candidate and Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown, on the challenges around collaboration between the Greens and Labour. Reviewing the decisions that each party took in the last three general elections, and the pros and cons of parties standing their candidates down, there was a shared recognition that the Green decision to stand down in many seats in 2017 was a largely unrewarded sacrifice, leaving a difficult legacy which has to be faced next time around.
Lessons from previous attempts at collaboration will be important when general election campaigning begins. Compass in Sussex is focused on the six winnable seats in the county with Lewes near the top of the list. The challenge in Lewes is that all three progressive parties can make a good claim to have the inside track. This is delicate stuff for campaigners who give generously of their time and may be passionately committed to, their respective (tribal) traditions.
A first step in reaching across the divide was taken when the Brighton Compass group took its banner to the Lewes Labour Party’s recent Demolishing the Sussex Blue Wall event. On the basis of the enthusiastic and welcoming reception that day, Compass has initiated plans to set up a new Lewes group. The omens were good. Organisers said the response that day was deeply thoughtful and very far from tribal.
Meanwhile, the Brighton and Hove Compass group has engaged some 800 local individuals and organisations to sign up and get on board with cross-party engagement.
While the progressive parties may not agree on everything, their long-standing positions on key issues such as social democracy, transparency and green/environmentalism have far more in common than anything that divides them. They know they urgently need to build relationships of trust. They also know who they need to appeal to: progressive voters aren’t only activists in the progressive parties. They are just people who want to see the end of the shameful shower currently in government.