At one level last Thursday was an un-expectedly bleak night. The way the daily lives of so many will now be crushed feels almost unbearable to countenance. But anyone reading the runes of Labour, not just for the last parliament but also for a long time, might have seen something like this coming. The great loss is not just measured in seats and what the Tories will do next set free from any Liberal Democrat shackles – but how far adrift Labour is from cultural relevance. If anything ‘first past the post’ exaggerated the party’s performance and protected it from utter meltdown. For the Liberal Democrats the meltdown occurred. Plaid Cymru made little headway but the Greens quadrupled their vote after they quadrupled their membership, retained Caroline Lucas’s seat and offered a radical alternative. At the same time they haven’t managed to influence the national debate from the green-left in an equivalent way as UKIP has from the right. Arguably more positive was the rise of the increasingly social democrat SNP and the growing political confidence of the people of Scotland. How much does any of this show us the grounds for radical hope? The answer is found in more than just parties.
The evidence of just how broken the whole political system has been played out on our screens relentlessly over the car crash of a campaign that was as compelling as it was horrific to watch. Both the real issues and the voters were absent. While a few swing voters in a few swing seats were targeted and precision bombed with retail sugar rush policies, the rest were ignored. ‘Better plans’, ‘hard working families’, ‘competence or chaos’ – the same awful focus group tested lines were rattled out and simply revealed that the less control the political machines have in the real world the more they opt for pseudo control in their shrinking campaign world. It was ‘triple lock’ this and ‘etched in rock’ that in a bloodless and technocratic pursuit of just enough votes to fall over the line first.
Closing the gap
Particularly where the Labour Party is concerned the real gap was not between what was proposed and what might be delivered – but between what was proposed and what is needed. Not enough was on offer that would have confronted our major challenges – not enough to stop the next banking crash or from temperatures from rising, not enough to stop the gap between the rich and poor widening and most telling of all, not enough that would kick start the political processes necessary to ever do what we desire. Not enough hearts or hopes were lifted.
This sterilised and stale politics will of course turn more people off and the downward spiral will continue – the less legitimacy and control the political class have the more they will try and control what remains of their shrinking Westminster bubble.
The more shriveled this old politics becomes, the greater the space for the new. The sight of the three female leaders embracing on our screens to oppose austerity and trident offered a glimpse of that new politics. The Question Time audience with the knowledge and the confidence to briefly hold the three male leaders to account was another. New parties bubbling up like the Women’s Equality Party, Yorkshire First and the National NHS Action Party, a thousand campaigns on housing, pay, public spaces, community owned renewable energy, anti-trident and more – all filling the gaps and the spaces vacated by the old political class. This and more is where radical hope lives.
While this rich diversity is essential it needs to be formed into an ecosystem in which the sum is greater than the parts. The danger is that it dissipates as people talk across each other. A new progressive alliance will still need political parties to legislate and provide the resources, but those parties are going to have to behave and relate in very different ways too. They’ll need a relationship based on reciprocity and vulnerability inside and outside of parliament.
This is a huge challenge to Labour in particular. Its tribal, ‘only Labour’ culture is at odds with a modern sentiment that is open and relational. But some existing and many new MPs want a new politics. In local government Labour is showing how electoral power can make things better. Strong voices in the union movement are starting to make the call for Proportional Representation. This plural future, in which Labour is the biggest but not the only tent in a progressive campsite, can be shaped and moulded to fit our good society purpose. If it resists, Labour’s fate in Scotland will befall it everywhere. That is why Compass, working with others, is looking at the feasibility of an independent committee of inquiry to assess why the Labour Party lost, before it decides how it might win.
All progressive parties need to start to work to together. Clearly there is already a desire for this from progressive voters. That is why Compass gave its support to the independently set up Red /Green vote swap site, which encouraged over twenty thousand to use their vote effectively without damaging the national share of their first party. We need much more of this kind of activity in the future – bringing progressives together to create a 21st century moment for change.
Votes that count
The other big stumbling block is of course the ‘first past the post’ electoral system. Its primary goal was to bring about strong single party governments by exaggerating the seats of the most popular party. Its unfairness was justified by the certainty of the result. The flowering of multi-party politics doesn’t look temporary but structural. In a networked and complex world, binary choices make diminishing sense. You cannot shoe horn seven parties into a system designed for two. With UKIP and the Greens getting over five million votes between them but only two MPs, the case for proportional representation is now overwhelming. But the political crisis won’t be fixed solely through fair votes once every five years. This is a crisis that takes us beyond representative democracy to real democracy every day in every workplace, community and public service.
Our capacity to be rounded citizens and fully human has never been greater. The possibility of a world in which together we can build hope for all, educate all to their full capacity, to do work we believe in, have the time for the people and things we love and to have a climate in which all species can thrive – this is all in touching distance – but only if we get the politics right.
Values before party
The new radical politics is a politics of openness and kindness, a belief in the best of people and the willingness to negotiate a future and not impose it. If you want to be a rebel, be kind.
Compass has moulded and prepared itself for these times – for a time when the project, values and people matter more than the party. We knew that Labour on its own would not be enough and that Labour only ever really changes from external pressure. In this sense, can the SNP be the new SDP? And we were right to say our membership rules needed changing if we let in, say Peter Mandelson but shut out Caroline Lucas. Ours is the open tribe of the future – one that links progressives of all parties and no party affiliation in the pursuit of a good society that is much more equal, sustainable and democratic.
The priorities of Compass in the days, weeks and months ahead will be to help forge a progressive alliance out of the scattered and siloed forces that want largely the same thing; to push in every way we can for proportional representation and a citizens led Constitutional Convention; to use the new democratic spaces opening up now in London and elsewhere to test new political alliances and to use a referendum to explore what Yes means for a radical and democratic Europe. We just lost a battle – but the spaces are opening up everywhere for a new politics to flourish.
We must never endure such a narrow and sterile election again. That may feel a daunting task but we should remember this – who on the 8th November 1989 would have said that tomorrow the Berlin Wall will fall? Who on 19th September 2014 after a ‘no’ majority would have said that a politics of hope would lift off in Scotland; that Podemos would rise from the ashes of youth unemployment in Spain, or Syriza from debt and national humiliation in Greece? The mood of a country shifts and then its politics follows. So many people were so dismayed at the result – but therein lies grounds for hope as well – in every heart, home, community, workplace and organisation that knows we can be so much better. The Tories have a slim mandate because we failed to offer anything more convincing. So lets do better. As the old politics dies and a new politics is being born, our job is to help ensure that our country has a real choice next time.
Join us this Saturday in London for Radical Hope – an afternoon with politicians, activists, academics and journalists and hundreds of people to collectively reflect, analyse and plan what we do next. Click here for tickets.