Political conjuncture series #1: Uncertain Terrain

The long-term trend away from the two-party model has been exacerbated by Brexit. First-past-the-post voting still artificially inflates support for Labour and the Tories, but we clearly live in a multi-party system.

Our new publicationUncertain Terrain by Ken Spours, unpicks the current political moment. It is the first in a series of irregular Compass publications assessing the fast-changing contours of UK politics.  

Cover page of the publication

The publication argues that today it makes sense to talk about political blocs: one being a Regressive Bloc mostly made up of the Tories and the Brexit Party, the other an emerging but far from fully-formed Progressive Bloc encompassing much of Labour, the Lib Dems, SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens – plus some newer political parties and groups.

Brexit has exploded the old Left/Right-terrain, not least because there are two progressive imperatives.

Many are driven by the first: an urge to stop a No-Deal Brexit and a Johnson majority Government at all costs – even if this leads to a restoration of the old centrist politics that helped get us into this mess.

But there is another progressive imperative: to build the cultural foundations that present a long-term alternative to the causes of Brexit and the challenges of a Regressive Alliance that is shapeshifting into a terrifying mix of ethno-nationalism and economic populism.

This is why we have been arguing that a truly Progressive Alliance is different from a Remain Alliance. The latter is starting to make waves and it looks very well-resourced. It doesn’t need spelling out that we share its objective to remove Johnson and to defuse the threat of a No-Deal Brexit – as we believe any progressive would.

But this historic moment calls for fundamental changes in how we decide and do things – and that has to be the focus of Compass. What that means for our approach of a likely election campaign is an ongoing conversation. We want to know what you think – please join the discussion below.

Also, if you want to comment on Uncertain Terrain, or suggest what we should examine in forthcoming Think Pieces in this series on the fast-changing political context, please tell us by commenting below, or by sending us an email.

42 thoughts on “Political conjuncture series #1: Uncertain Terrain

  1. I’m all for that Progressive Alliance. I hope we can work together to change our politics into something which will really work for the greater good.

  2. Our political system is broken and needs to change if democracy is to survive . The right wing populists have made fools of Britain. Makes you question the whole political system we live under. Trump in America, Boris in Britain and more comedians in Ukraine & Italy. Feels like a dying age of the western world.

  3. How can we make the authorities preoritise action to reverse or at least stop the increasing of threats to our climate and bioversity?

  4. Not sure what is meant by ‘the old centrist politics that got us into this mess’. What has got us into this mess is not centrist politics but right wing politics. By that I mean the political trajectory that started with the Thatcher administration and has continued under Cameron, May and now Johnson. One of its dimensions has been an attack on the institutions and the livelihoods of the British working class. Once these have been demolished or rendered effectively powerless, scapegoats have been created ( The EU and Immigration) to explain why this change has happened. It has been a successful but essentially right wing, and now far right, project. Johnson is playing straight out of the Steve Bannon playbook: to change a system you must first break it. The financial crash has intensified this process, but again right wing and far-right interpretations have proved politically successful. Existing politics of the centre and the left have not, so far, proved effective in countering this onslaught. One reason for this failure is undoubtedly a sectarianism on the Left, exemplified here in the distinction between a Remain Alliance and a ‘truly Progressive Alliance’. At the moment the political imperative is to get rid of the government led by Boris Johnson. Anything and everything that helps towards that needs support.
    I hope that the political alliance envisaged by Uncertain Terrain happens. I can’t see how this would lead to a restoration of the status quo ante if only because one of its conditions, namely a framing of what centrist politics means by en essentially two party system, will have disappeared..

  5. There is a mix of left leaning progressives. Labour and Green Party. I like much of the Labour Party but dislike the airport expansion and nuclear power support. The Greens would probably get my vote with PR.

  6. A progressive alliance can be brought together around a whole host of issues that unite the Many against the Few.
    One key issue is – to reproduce the sub-title of the recent “Land for the Many” report commissioned by the Labour Party – “Changing the way our fundamental asset is used, owned and governed”.
    This publication constitutes further evidence of lifting of the veil drawn so successfully and for so long by vested interests over any discussion of what massively unequal land wealth entails. With Lib Dems and Greens having long recognised the virtues of taxing unearned land value rather than economically productive activities like work and trade, it is encouraging to see the Labour Party coming round to awareness of this potentially game-changing source of revenue for the public purse. A progressive alliance could push this nascent conversation about the greatest repository of national wealth and the biggest source of inequality.
    Anthony Molloy, Chair of the Labour Land Campaign [www.labourland.org]

  7. I am continually amazed by politicians and media people saying things like “the British people voted for Brexit”. But how can they continue to say this without being challenged with “but they did not – when only 37% of those entitled to vote voted ‘LEAVE’

  8. As you know, I am a devoted admirer of Compass and what Compass has achieved. I loathe and detest the out-of-date rigidity of party politics, and I have many ideas I am trying to advance in favour of a new system.

    But no, no, no, dear Compass. Please do not at this terrible juncture try to draw a distinction between a Progressive Alliance and a Remain Alliance. Unless we can stop Brexit altogether, we are lost as a country; the United Kingdom will disintegrate, and we will simply not have the cash to help the dispossessed. Now we are confronting the beginnings of a vicious dictatorship. Remember: both Mussolini and Hitler achieved power by legitimate means.

    We cannot afford the luxury of distinction between Progressive and Remain. Think of the 1930’s. Stop Brexit. Then start building Jerusalem.

  9. For those of us who voted remain, it is hard to know why so many voted leave. Any kind of progressive alliance has first to try and understand the reasons why Europe got blamed for leavers’ discontent. Starting a new political party in our country is so hard- yet Farage managed to do it, and helped create the great divide which threatens us all. How can that divide be healed is something progressives need to think about.

  10. We should press all the progressive elements to commit to a minimal common-core set of policy principles before the probable upcoming national election. At the same time they should commit to electoral pacts, where feasible, like the one which won the Brecon by-election. The common core principles would be (i) ask the EU for a substantial pause while we work out a way to deliberate on our Brexit position in a better informed, less divisive way; (ii) major action on climate change; (iii) restoring depleted public services (not just NHS); (iv) developing inclusive participatory mechanisms for deliberation on local and other public issues in a co-operative climate to make democracy a living experience for all and reverse current alienation.
    The political parties would still differ on deails and on other issues but people could vote for any of them in the confidence that they were committed to work with all others of goodwill on the major issues. The Labour Party may be the least inclined to subscribe to this agenda, clinging to its possible potential to form a government on its own terms, but such a government, doubtless elected by a minority vote, would be tarred with the same brush of unrepresentativeness as the Johnson administration. Far better to sacrifice some seats where it is in any case unlikely to win, and to come in as the largest group within an alliance which has a clear overall mandate based on common values.

  11. I voted for PR when it was a referendum matter several years ago. More than ever, I feel it’s time to revisit this issue. A fairer system with truer representation would be possible. I know extremist parties would then get more of a say, but they would be more exposed to criticism and ridicule in The Commons. This would be no bad thing as they would be out in the open. PR worked so well in the EU elections.

  12. Very interesting snappy paper. But as Leo (earlier comment) says this isn’t just a fight between regressive and progressive viewpoints – it is existential. The far right leadership’s whole purpose is to change the rules of engagement through trashing of our EU mandated social rights and so to disable incremental implementation of the progressive vision. In that sense, I disagree with use of the term ‘restoration alliance’ (p6) and its implications of sterility – it would be better described as ‘foundation alliance’ – maintaining the basis on which Jerusalem can continue to be built.

  13. The only thing that will heal our politics is proportional representation, so that everybody’s vote is meaningful. I happen to live in a constituency where a gorilla wearing a blue rosette would get elected as an MP. Anyone who thinks Lib Dems are a progressive party lives in cloud cuckoo land. They showed that post 2010 by reneging on university fees and helping bring in bedroom tax and so on. At local level in elections when it comes to dirty campaigning, the Lib Dems make all their opponents look like saints. They are a bunch, who like Thersites in Troilus & Cressida prefer to sit on their own little dung heap rather than halfway up the Tory one where they really belong.

  14. Yes, we are in a period of multi-party politics and are trapped in a FPTP voting system which only favours the big two. However, the assumption that the big two will always be the Labour and Conservative parties maybe incorrect.

    We are living through fast-moving times. For some time we have had four parties that are registering about the same in the opinion polls. Depending on how Brexit plays out the big two favoured by our haphazard FPTP system might soon be the Brexit party and the Lib Dems. Once that was clearly in place people would then vote for those two in increasing numbers for fear of wasting their vote by voting either Labour or the Tories. FPTP could make that changeover permanent for the foreseeable future.

    All the Brexit party politicians are former Tories and therefore that party replacing the Conservatives doesn’t alter the fact of still having a party which mainly represents the interests of the wealthy and the employer being one of the major parties of British politics. Although, admittedly, it would be a move towards the more extremes of conservatism.

    Far more serious is the possibility of the Lib Dems replacing Labour. This would represent a disastrous shift to the right in our country’s political landscape. Labours’ strong connections to the trade union movement will be vital in any discussions to persuade workers that future employment opportunities will from now on be found in working towards a sustainable society.

    Trade unions will want a Just Transition Strategy to ensure comprehensive policies are in place and the necessary re-training so that employment levels are maintained during the change. For this they will need the Labour party.

    Only Labour has the necessary connections and ability to make it happen. The Lib Dems are certainly not in the right place politically with their neo-liberal agenda.

    Surprisingly, neither are the Greens who recently adopted a new party constitution which will have no green trade union presence on its council or executive. Their previous constitution had a Trade Union Liaison Officer executive position.

    The campaign and policy development for a future sustainable society is the work of the Green party, this it does very well. But for the final implementation of such a society, the Labour party is required. And I say this as a Green party member.

    Labour should quickly adopt proportional representation as its policy. We are well into the 21st century now and they are the only social democratic party in Europe to back FPTP. That is undemocratic, but also foolhardy because they could very easily soon lose their position as one of the big two and be left with very little influence. With PR they would continue to be a major player and, working with a consequently bigger Green party and others, would play a very necessary and historic role in what comes next.

  15. Clive Hewitt’s comment is idiotic. What percentage of those entitled to vote voted Remain? Clearly, it was a lower percentage than the Leave vote, therefore the 17.4 million people who chose to vote Leave were and are in the majority. What those who chose not to vote wanted is irrelevant. In a General Election a 37% turnout for one party would be a triumph. Remainers are losers but can’t come to terms with it. Grow up and shut up, please. Historically, you are on the wrong side.

  16. I think that when the present situation has run its course there could be an alliance between the more progressive parties, particularly between Labour and the Lib Dems.

  17. The UK no longer has an Empire and is too small to compete with America, Russia, China and India. Stay in the EU and help influence their thinking.

  18. I don’t agree that Clive Hewitt’s comment is ‘idiotic’. He was not disputing the fact that more voted Leave than Remain, simply pointing out that the government’s constant references to ‘the British people’ in the context of the referendum result is misleading. I don’t think the tone adopted by Pamela Preedy is helpful. We need co-operative discussion, not destructive comments. Once we start telling each other to ‘grow up and shut up’, there is not much chance of this!

  19. We need the Labour Party to take a full part in an electoral alliance, a progressive alliance, standing aside where necessary for Greens, Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru etc. to get their fair share of seats. We need Labour to do this to implement a coalition government to implement voting reform. This would preferably be proportional representation but even AV or STV would be a huge improvement.

  20. I was dismayed to hear Ewan Davis on radio 4 this evening remarking that the steam seemed to have gone out of the movement for a second referendum. All the media seems to talk about is the frenzied attempts by Johnson and Cummings to thwart parliament and go for ‘no deal’. Air time and newspaper columns are so busy with this new bone to pick at that the assumption is made that the battle is now between ‘no deal’ or ‘May’s deal’. No way! We need our voices to be heard for a second referendum and the case still to be made strongly for revoking article 50. I do not understand why parliament is not going to sit during the summer to sort this out. Come an election I will vote Green or Labour or Lib Dem or anything other than Brexit or Tory but I foresee yet another election where these parties will split the progressive vote again.

  21. A progressive alliance which includes “much of Labour”?
    Which bits of Labour are you leaving out?
    If this is based on remain v leave you have a viable political bloc for as long as Brexit is an issue, but if it is meant to be an alliance based on anything else it won’t hold water.
    Jo Swinson and many of the Labour centrists are embedded in the old neoliberalism, which (as you rightly say) got us into this mess. The Greens, the “not-much” of Labour, all the Nationalist parties and many grass roots Lib Dems, want radical changes (not always the same changes as each other) to our economy, social and national organisation and relation to the environment.
    I am quite sure the centrists want to hijack the energy, commitment and sheer numbers of the radical movement, but the trick has been pulled too many times before. Left wing Labour in particular will not let it happen again. Do you really think, once Brexit is resolved, that centrists and radicals can bind together in one “progressive” movement?

  22. Can we please stop teferring to a “Progressive” alliance?
    The Libdems are in no way progressive.
    I fully accept the need to work with Libdems to defeat the Tories, as do many of my Green Party compatriots, however we are facing huge opposition within the party to giving any kind of support to LibDems as they are fundamentally not progressive

  23. I’m not sure this is the time to start looking for differences within this potential alliance. It’s going to be hard enough to put together. I think we should just focus on our common goal – opposing Brexit. Sure, many of us are “remain and reform” but that’s just a position within the coalition, surely? It’s the coalition to fight Brexit that’s important. Let’s agree where we can agree and not look for differences.

  24. Time is now of the essence and an election is only a short time away.

    Enough time later to haggle, time now to unite and vote intelligently to block the Conservatives and Farage’s party.

  25. It seems to me that the fundamental change required is to have some form of proportional voting system, otherwise smaller parties will always be poorly represented.

    I would very much like to see campaigning for a proportional system as a central part of the Compass strategy.

    Kind Regards,
    Raymond Potts.

  26. Every political party has a contribtuion. To polarise the parties into groups of progressive and regressive is still promoting tribalism and alienation. Preferable if Compass could look at individual policies and encourage consensus across all parties including Conservatives. Universal Basic Income as the basis for the Economy and the Open Dialogue Approach for Mental Health are two policies which, with discussion and understanding, the majority in all parties could support win/win.

  27. At the moment are most pressing task is to stop Brexit and apply all our energies to that until it is achieved. For that we do need an alliance of all pro EU MPs, to work in unity to achieve this. Just as important but secondary at the moment because of the time element is the reform of our political system from the current FPTP and adversarial system to PR and consensus, which I my view would take our politics out of the 19th century and update them to the 21st. To do this there has to be a majority and an appetite in the H o C. Such could be attained by the formation of a progressive party formed from across the current party divides and this could pave the way for a fairer and hopefully more prosperous UK.

  28. I am a UK citizen who worked for IBM in Africa and now live in France. I am subject to and PAY UK income tax on my UK Pension. Because of the 15 year residency rule I have NO voting rights. Taxation with no representation!!

  29. The present electoral system is out dated and discredited. First past the post is fundamentally floored fuels devision and polarisation with the majority disenfranchised. We have to move to a system which is inclusive not one driven by winners and losers, adult debate to find solutions for a better society. Not the childish dishonest Power verses Opposition which we have now and which has led to a divided, disillusioned and disinterested electorate.

  30. There is, as you imply, the danger that a centre progressive alliance will in practice become a liberal Tory Party. Capitalism always seems to solve problems that way. Maybe acute issues will need that route, but we most remain clear as to our underlying values.

    The real future for democracy lies in devolution and decentralization combined with civic education for all, but particularly for the young.

    The Central State should enforce minimum standards.

  31. I do very much agree with Leo Aylen below that a Remain Alliance to stop Brexit is a necessary first step, even if those who support that goal do not all have the same vision of a progressive alliance. If we do not stop Brexit however we will all be so much poorer that other options will be off the agenda. However if there is a cross party alliance at all, it should embrace PR as a method to put an end to the polarised two-party system and allow a wider and more varied range of political voices to be heard. Even a ‘quick and dirty’ form of PR to break the mold should be considered whilst a Remain alliance is in existence. By this I mean that a Scottish style system of local constituency members supplemented by a Regional list could be undertaken without a Royal Commission or massive rejig of constituency boundaries (which takes a long time if done properly). This is how I think it could be done, and I suspect there is a majority amongst progressive MPs to do something! Existing constituencies could be paired with one elected member for each pair – thus electing 325 constituency MPs. Then regions could be designated for groups of 25 pairs, each to select 25 MPs by regional list. This could be done virtually overnight and enable PR to be introduced at very short notice. Thereafter Parliament could determine at leisure whether to amend this system to improve upon the initial outcome, including looking at constituency boundaries and the ratio of constituency to list MPs.

  32. I am well past retirement and have experienced most of my adult life frustrated that I am perennially disappointed by the outcomes of election which almost always ends with policies at the extreme end of the political spectrum, which either Labour or Conservative win. Our current difficulty is the chaos resulting from policy oscillations that have confused the electorate over the past 50 years.

  33. Agree that change is necessary and that cross-party alliances would be one way forward, but I am deeply concerned by the voting record of the current Lib Dem leader (and of her competitor for that post, Ed Davey) and much closer on a great % of issues to the right in politics.

  34. In response to Diane C & Clive H: the term ‘the British People’ in the context of a General Election or a Referendum does not mean every man, woman and child in the country. It means, democratically, all those who are eligible to vote who bothered to vote and whose vote was counted in the majority. I cannot believe that something so fundamental and obvious needs explaining – twice. A majority vote in a one-issue Referendum is a powerful mandate for government to act in accordance with the wishes of the British people, far more powerful than a majority achieved by a party in a General Election where policies on multiple issues are at stake. But Remoaners can’t seem to grasp this because they have no respect for a democratic decision that goes against their wish to be ruled by a foreign power.

  35. Of course we need to consider the longer term and start a discussion about a constitutional arrangement that properly reflects the different interests in the country. But for now the paramount issue is stopping the no-deal Brexit and a steeper version of the recession than the one already in the pipeline, a recession that under our present electoral arrangements looks like having one of the two following results:
    1 a rightist populist government that will claim our troubles have been visited upon us by a vindictive EU leaving us no alternative but to rebuild by switching to an even less regulated and more US dominated market economy, or:
    2 a leftist populist government that reintroduces capital controls, destroys our financial services industry and thus makes it impossible to finance the type of social reforms and infrastructure programmes that were in the manifesto (a rerun of the 1960s and of either the return of the IMF or of a Bank of England imposed interest rate which will save sterling but further destroy swathes of our already BREXIT weakened industry)

    My fear is that Corbyn is insisting that he heads the government of national unity because he is a closet Brexiteer who intends either
    1 to force the centrists into his government of national unity then crush them when he appears to be the politically responsible person who saved us from no-deal or
    2 if the Lib Dems and Tory Left refuse to accept him as a caretaker let no-deal happen, blame both them and the populist right for what ensues, accept that labour is all-but finished in Scotland and so come to power with a SCOT NAT coalition.
    Both strategies may be miscalculations however because he remains electorally unpopular and will probably do no more than let in the right.


  36. In response to Diane C – the UKIP representative (I assume it is she) is not renowned for cooperative discussion. You should expect no better.

  37. Feels like many contributors here cannot accept the uncomfortable truth that Brexit revealed in the starkest manner possible, that many working-class voters are socially conservative, even authoritarian in outlook, but once voted Labour for interventionist economic policies. These voters have felt left behind (by Labour) and yet not at home in the Conservative Party. When Brexit came along, it was finally a chance to be heard. Whether we like it or not. I’d happily wager that if we’d had PR and 40-50 UKIP MPs in Parliament, railing against mass immigration and the EU…. there’d have been no referendum and certainly no referendum that Leave won.

    I look to a Progressive Alliance not to try to overturn the referendum (madness that it is) but to focus on how we engage in politics – citizens assemblies, PR, direct democracy, and so so. Conservatives and Populists won’t take this on – we must.

  38. Thank you for the comments – which just go to show the competing and complex views. There are two. issues – what needs to be done and what can Compass more uniquely do? The straight Remain ground is heavily taken and resourced – there is little if anything to be added there. The underlying causes of Brexit and the system shift we need to a new politics is under powered and maybe where we should focus?

  39. Thanks Neal. Perhaps we need a clarion call for this system shift to a ‘new politics’ which can truly inspire. Why not a call for much more democracy? Compass is in a unique position to work for this being both progressive as well as cross party. Let’s champion democracy in all its facets. So, of course, yes to proportional representation for all elections, but also yes to extending democracy into peoples’ very working lives. This means clear support for promoting an ever expanding workers’ co-operative sector into our mixed economy. Democracy at work. The Co-operative party supports co-ops but not PR, the Greens support PR but don’t have much to say about co-ops these days, the Lib Dems support PR and not much else. What about Labour, where do they stand on PR and co-ops? Let’s stir them all up! Compass should engage with the New Economics Foundation to bring this all together and meet with all the relevant parties . I think a more democratic and less hierarchical working life would naturally make everyone more confident, experienced and active participants in the political life of this country.

  40. The First Past the Post system is used for UK general elections. The Additional Member System is used for elections to the Scottish Parliament.I am Scottish I truly believe that the Scottish system is better.
    Sixteen and seventeen year-olds can also vote in the Scottish elections. Westminster is a museum piece!

  41. Excellent post by Gabriel Chanan. Sums up exactly what the progressives and Labour in particular should be doing as a matter of urgency.

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