The story of South West Surrey Compass

The birth and formation of South West Surrey Compass (2015 – 2016)

Saturday 18th July 2015

 The inaugural gathering of South West Surrey Compass was held on this Saturday morning in July. It attracted keen interest from individuals who were politically active in the Labour Party, the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats, as well as a substantial number of local people who regarded themselves as on the left, but who did not belong to any political party. Following some limited publicity (mainly by word of mouth!), around 50 people attended on Saturday 18th July 2015 at the Unitarian Church Hall in Godalming.

The theme of the meeting was “Radical Hope for South West Surrey” and Baroness Ruth Lister, Chair of the Compass Committee, spoke at the meeting and this was followed by small group discussions that addressed issues of how to move forward in terms of campaigning, promoting the progressive cause in an area dominated by Conservatives at every level of government and promoting collaboration between the parties of the left (in practice, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens).

Saturday 5th December 2015

The third main gathering of the South West Surrey Compass Group took place on Saturday 5th December 2015. This was quite a full meeting:

  • A discussion of the cuts to further education and the future of further education in Surrey led by David Adleman, Principal of Godalming College

  • An input from Jacqui Howard, then National Organiser of Compass

  • Feedback from the Compass local organisers’ meeting held in November.

However, through the recently established website and local Facebook page, set up by a member of the Steering Group, local Compass supporters were sharing details of local campaigning and local participation in national demonstrations and rallies.

A number of individuals signed up to the various working groups (later becoming known as “Research and Action Groups”) with the intention of meeting between the main Saturday morning gatherings taking place quarterly.

Saturday 12th March 2016

With the Research and Action Groups now established, this meeting on housing was led by Stewart Edge who convenes the Housing Research and Action Group. The meeting established the now familiar pattern of the Saturday morning meetings.

  • A key topic with input, then discussion, often in groups

  • Feedback from Steering Group and the Research and Action Groups, sharing what they have been doing and future work and campaigns

  • Open forum for participants to share news of any other forthcoming events or actions

  • An opportunity for any participants who would like to carry on the discussions, have a drink and possibly lunch in the pub opposite the meeting hall.

 Saturday 4th June 2016

The main topic of the meeting on Saturday 4th June was “Designing Democracy for the Twentyfirst Century”, led by Neal Lawson of Compass, which inspired the group to focus particularly on this issue, particularly in view of the under-representation of the left at all levels of local government in the South West Surrey area, and with the whole county of Surrey hardly ever returning non-Conservative MPs. 

With the growing concern amongst local Compass supporters about the “democratic deficit” and with there being a very active Democratic Deficit Research and Action Group, chaired by Susan Ryland, and in the context of the unexpected result of the EU referendum, it was decided that the September gathering would discuss in some detail core principles and key policies on local issues for a progressive agenda – and a kind of local “manifesto” was drawn up. Notwithstanding areas of disagreement, it was noted how much agreement there was on the really important issues.

Wednesday 5th October 2016 

The public meeting “Where now for progressive politics?” was set up at very short notice but attracted around 250 local people, who listened to keynote speeches by:

  • Caroline Lucas, Co-leader of The Green Party

  • Howard Kaye, former Labour Party parliamentary candidate for SW Surrey

  • Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat and former Business Secretary

  • Sue Goss, writer and Compass Associate.

As a result of the meeting, many more local individuals were inspired to become local Compass contacts, and attention was focused on whether a progressive alliance would be possible locally. 

THE DEVELOPMENT OF A PROGRESSIVE ALLIANCE IN SOUTH WEST SURREY (2017) 

After over two years of working together, building trust and forging local campaigns on key issues, we had, by the start of 2017, reached the point where we felt able to propose to the main “progressive” parties in the area – Labour, LibDems and Greens – the notion of a “progressive alliance” for the Surrey County Council elections and thence the general election held on June 8th.

In November 2016, the South West Surrey Compass Group had asked each of the progressive political parties (Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens) to support the following:

  • The notion of a progressive alliance in principle

  • The setting up of a meeting between the various progressive political parties in order to agree ways of putting a progressive alliance into practice

  • Postponing the decision to contest any Surrey County Council seat in the Waverley area until after such a meeting between the various political parties has taken place

  • A meeting between the various progressive parties with a view to developing joint policies and agreeing a progressive alliance for the 2019 Waverley Borough Council elections.

By mid-January 2017 these four pointers to a progressive alliance in practice were agreed by South West Surrey Constituency Labour Party, Waverley Liberal Democrats and the two Green Party organisations covering the local area. The parties elected representatives to take this process forward, and a meeting was called to bring together these representatives plus two progressive independent councillors to agree a statement of principle, a strategy and mechanisms for ensuring that progressive candidates are not opposed by other progressive candidates in the Surrey County Council elections in May 2016. 

The outcome of this process was that the representatives agreed to put to their respective parties in Feb / March: 

  • A proposal for a statement of principle and a protocol for the Surrey County Council elections

  • A proposal that, of the eight Surrey County Council wards covering the South West Surrey area,  other progressive candidates should be asked to stand aside in four in favour of: 

          –   Liberal Democrats for Godalming North

          –   Labour for Godalming South, Milford and Witley

          –   Green Party for Waverley Western Villages

          –   Independent for Haslemere.  

Nonetheless, like many best laid plans, things did not exactly work out in the way intended. Whilst the local Labour Party and the local Green Party agreed with the statement of principle, the protocol and the distribution of seats, the local Liberal Democrats had reservations, and, while supporting the principle of a progressive alliance, did not support the proposals agreed by their representatives at the cross-party meeting, though they did support standing aside for the incumbent Independent in Haslemere.  However when she decided at a fairly late stage not to stand, a suggestion of attempting to choose another agreed candidate came to nothing. Accordingly the Liberal Democrats contested every seat, and the Greens contested every seat except the one where it was agreed that Labour would carry the flag for the progressive alliance. Labour did not oppose the Green candidate in Waverley Western villages as agreed, and, after much debate, declined to select a candidate for Godalming North against the Liberal Democrats, despite the Liberal Democrats’ last minute change of heart. This was because the candidate selected was someone who had been fighting for the progressive alliance within Compass and within the Liberal Democrats for a period of over 18 months, Penny Rivers.

On hearing that there was a progressive alliance in the offing, there was an attempt by the Labour Party Regional Office to impose candidates on the local party by sending a team into the area to collect signatures to nominate Labour Party candidates from other parts of Surrey to contest the seats for which the local Labour Party had not nominated a candidate. They failed in all instances except one – namely, Haslemere, where Labour often secures significantly less than 10% of the vote. It was an astonishing waste of resources. When the one Labour councillor on Surrey County Council was needing all the support he could get in order to enable him to retain his seat, party officials were rushing around trying to get nominations for a Labour candidate in one of the most challenging seats for Labour in the county!

Separate to the discussions at the cross-party meeting, there was also talk of some progressive candidates seeking election in Farnham under the banner of the Farnham Residents. Although this was not part of any formal agreement, many felt that this process, if followed through, could potentially result in at least half the Surrey County Council seats in the South West corner of Surrey being wrested from the Conservatives, producing a result much more reflective of the politics of the area. However clumsy our attempts may have been, in seeking a realistic mechanism to oppose the monolithic Tory monopoly on Surrey Council, we were fighting not just for a progressive alliance; we were fighting for democracy.

In terms of the outcomes of the Surrey County Council elections in the South West Surrey constituency, three progressive candidates were elected – namely Penny Rivers (winning Godalming North for the Liberal Democrats) and Stephen Spence and Andy McLeod in Farnham (standing as Farnham Residents). 

Meanwhile the local South West Surrey Compass group had held a meeting on Wednesday 19th April 2017 on “Progressive Politics Moving Forward” – a public meeting with national speakers including Baroness Kate Parminter for the Liberal Democrats, Jonathan Bartley (co-leader of the Green Party), Neal Lawson (chair of Compass) and Andree Frieze (campaigner and former Green Party candidate in the Richmond Park by-election). This happened to be the day on which the general election date was formally approved by parliament and, as a result of the debate, there was a resounding call for a single candidate to contest the general election against Jeremy Hunt, the assumption from many in the room being that this would be a Liberal Democrat.

However following this meeting it became clear that Louise Irvine of the National Health Action Party was willing to stand again in S W Surrey.  What emerged subsequently was both fascinating and unprecedented, not just in South West Surrey, but across the UK. A “Progressive Forum” was held on Saturday 6th May, two days after the county council elections, Louise Irvine of the National Health Action Party was overwhelmingly endorsed as the preferred progressive candidate to contest the general election in South West Surrey against Jeremy Hunt as the incumbent member of parliament. Although Susan Ryland, the Green Party parliamentary candidate graciously stood down in favour of Louise, we did not manage to persuade either Labour or Liberal Democrat candidates to stand down (though at the last minute the LibDems did offer to stand down if Labour did).  This  meant that, despite Louise Irvine’s considerable success in the election, the progressive vote remained, to some extent, divided.

The work of the South West Surrey Compass group since the 2017 general election has been focused on reflecting on the achievements and setbacks of the Surrey County Council elections and the general election, The parties agreed representatives to meet to continue to attempt to achieve a progressive alliance, initially   with a  meeting in November 2017 – to try with more time than was available at the snap general election to move forward by seeking a common set of principles and a common programme to help the next phase of our development. 

In the 2015 general election, South West Surrey was the 7th safest Conservative seat in the country. It is now 151st in the rankings of “safe” Conservative seats. If all the forces of the progressive left were to successfully unite behind a single candidate in the next general election, South West Surrey would, almost certainly, be no longer seen as “safe” for the Tories at all!

The events leading to the spectacular success of the progressive alliance in the 2019 local elections

Cheered by the success of the progressive alliance in the Surrey County Council elections in 2017 and the spectacular success in the 2017 general election, the next electoral target was Waverley Borough Council where, in 2015, the results were that, out of 57 councillors elected, 53 were Conservatives, 3 were Residents and there was 1 Independent. 

Before discussing the development of the political collaboration that led to a dramatic turnaround in the Waverley Borough Council election results in 2019, it is important to spend a moment or two reflecting back on that situation back in 2015. In that election there were no Liberal Democrats, no Labour Party candidates and no Green Party candidates elected. Our antiquated and undemocratic First Past The Post voting system meant that Tories had 60% of the vote and 93% of the seats, with many progressives feeling that their fortunes could never be revived.

That was the backcloth that brought together representatives of the progressive parties with regular meetings of key personnel from Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens being held. Some of these meetings were hopeful, others painstaking and tortuous. Although there were many bumps in the road, the complacency and political bankruptcy of the ruling Tory administration kept things on track. Any political differences between the progressive parties were dwarfed by the differences between the Conservatives and the progressives. Various cross-party campaigns took place and letters jointly signed by Liberal Democrats, Labour and Greens over issues such as a proposed local school closure cemented the alliance.

When nominations closed for the 2019 elections for Waverley Borough Council, there were some unresolved clashes, but, in essence, most of the multi-member wards contested showed a match between the number of seats and the number of progressive candidates contesting those seats. On election day, the results were as follows: 

Waverley Borough Council Election results 2019

  •     Conservatives 23 (down 30)

  •     Residents 15 (up by 12)

  •     Liberal Democrats 14 (up by 14)

  •     Green 2 (up by 2)

  •     Labour 2 (up by 2)

  •     Independent 1 (no change)

Much of the switch occurred in the Godalming area and the concurrent election for Godalming Town Council showed a shift from a situation where 20 out of 20 seats were Conservative in 2015 to one where Conservatives were down to 3, with Liberal Democrats securing 10 councillors, Green Party securing 4 councillors, Labour securing 2 councillors and Independent securing 1. The council is now run by a progressive coalition, with a Liberal Democrat Leader and green Deputy Leader.

As a result of the switch in Waverley Borough Council, when the council’s new Executive met after negotiations between the various parties, it felt not too dissimilar from a South West Surrey Compass meeting; progressives round the table knew they could work together because they had done so before. And, three years on, the Conservative predictions that the “coalition of chaos” would fail were proven completely wrong. Indeed, this was a remarkably stable administration with mutual respect between the representatives of the different progressive parties, working on the basis of a corporate strategy, not a million miles away from the common programme developed by South West Surrey Compass prior to the elections. 

THE GENERAL ELECTION (2019)

Alliance building had become easier in South West Surrey as a result of the 2019 local elections, but, of course, the focus had changed since 2017. While in 2017, the NHS protest candidate in 2015 contesting an election against the Tory secretary of state for health had become the obvious standard bearer for the progressives, it was clear in 2019, the candidate most likely to defeat the Tories was the Liberal Democrat leader on Waverley Borough Council, Paul Follows – then Deputy Leader of the Council, now Council Leader. 

The constituency was also one of those where there was an alliance between Liberal Democrats and Greens through the “Unite To Remain” electoral agreement, but the difference from any others was that Liberal Democrats were joined by members and supporters of other progressive parties in the campaign because of the strong motivation to unseat the sitting MP, Jeremy Hunt. As we know, this election was clouded by the deep divisions over Brexit and the Tories won a significant majority of seats in parliament, albeit on a minority of the popular vote. Nonetheless, the relentless growth of the progressive alliance in South West Surrey continued. The Conservative vote diminished still further and the alternative second party vote continued to rise. We are now in a situation where a 7.5% swing could return a Liberal Democrat MP for the constituency – and, in Paul Follows, a Liberal Democrat who is an avid supporter of progressive political alliances and coalition politics, this could well happen in the next general election.

So, in parliamentary terms, South West Surrey has moved from being the 7th safest Tory seat in the country to being a key Liberal Democrat target – and it is South West Surrey Compass that has been the key driver of this change.

General Election results, South West Surrey, 2015-2019

2015

Con                            59.9%

UKIP                           9.9%

Labour                        9.5%

NHAP                          8.5%

LibDem                       6.3%

Green                          5.4%

Something New        0.6%

 

2017

Con                            55.7%

NHAP                        20.0%

Labour                      12.6%

LibDem                       9.9%

 

2019

 

Con                           53.3%

LibDem                     38.7%

Labour                        7.9%

 

 ONGOING ALLIANCE BUILDING (2019 – )

Since the disastrous national election of 2019 leading to the corrupt and extremist government under Boris Johnson with the sinister overtones of authoritarianism and restrictions on basic rights and freedoms, the urgency of alliance building has become even stronger in this area, and this led in 2021 to the development of a Surreywide Compass group, building on the success of the South West Surrey group.

The Covid-19 pandemic led to a different way of working. There was some negative impact on the group arising from losing the capacity to interact socially over coffee and a croissant (and potentially at the pub after the morning session). However, we rapidly moved to more frequent, shorter, online Zoom meetings which were remarkably successful. We continued to publish the magazine “The Compass” in hard copy, albeit irregularly, funded by supporters’ regular donations; however, distributing it to over 10,000 households in the locality undoubtedly helped to keep the flame of the progressive alliance burning (and it continues to do so).

Since the easing of the lockdown, we have begun to meet again in person, and that has given a boost to the organisation again.

One of the more recent developments since the 2019 general election, has been to turn our attention increasingly to the country beyond South West Surrey. Inevitably, there continues to be considerable impetus to continuing the work on local campaigns across the different progressive political parties and build alliances which work effectively in local government; however, there is a strong feeling in the group that we need to be using the experiences of the past to help build the movement more widely.

While South West Surrey Compass had always contained within its ranks supporters who lived in constituencies other than South West Surrey and local authority areas other than Waverley, it has generally been dominated by the local politics of a relatively small patch of Surrey in the south west corner, bordering Hampshire and West Sussex.

The onset of the 2021 Surrey County Council elections set the pace for developing alliances across Surrey and building local collaboration at grassroots level across the county of Surrey. Spurred on by activists from South West Surrey and Gerry Mitchell, Chair of the Woking Constituency Labour Party and a former Compass employee, the Surrey Wide Compass was formed. Much of what was done in advance of the 2021 Surrey County Council elections was probably too little and too late, but nonetheless, there was a significant impact of this widening of the net of progressive collaboration across Surrey.

Want to find out more about the group? You can reach out to SW Surrey Compass via southwestsurreycompass@gmail.com and their facebook page

We have local groups throughout the UK, consider joining yours! for further information about local groups please check out Compass local groups or contact info@compassonline.org.uk 

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