Renew's Brogan Meaney explains her frustrations with the shift in government messaging and asks: when will we feel safe again?
The PM’s pre-recorded address to the nation on Sunday was meant to update us on the next stage of lockdown; instead, in what we’ve come to learn as classic Boris Behaviour, his vague, meandering rhetoric raised more questions than it answered. This was followed by a cacophony of conflicting messaging from various government ministers as they desperately attempted to explain a standpoint that they — in quite a distinctively separate level of clarity — did not understand either.
Of course, in the wise words of Boris Johnson, to make sense of the government “guidelines”, we simply need to use our “good solid British common sense”.
Needless to say, we shouldn’t have to rely on our “common sense” — which will greatly differ on an individual level due to our varied life experiences and perspectives — to establish how best to protect ourselves from an invisible virus.
What we all want to know, is when will we be able to hug our friends again, when will be able to kiss our grandparents, our grandchildren? And, the sad reality is, at least in my immediate echo chamber, that months of inadequate protection and guidance from this virus by the government has instilled a fear in the public that will prove hard to squash. Especially when attempts use methods of inexplainable maths equations such as “COVID alert level = R + number of infections” and wishy-washy messaging points like “stay alert” and "control the virus”. The government is trying to move away from the “stay home” messaging. But “stay home” is a clear instruction; the success of which ensures a polarising impact for any variation.
Throughout the pandemic, the government have continued to treat us like uninterested, badly behaved school-children. They’re following “the science”, science that, obviously, would be so incomprehensible to us that instead we’re presented with pretty, colourful graphs, censored reports, and short, unclear yet irritably catchy messaging. We are expected to blindly follow their rules — rules which remain unspecific and indistinguishable, even for the government ministers who have been prepped for the press by those creating these rules.
The change in government messaging, from the comprehensive “stay home” to the equivocal “stay alert”, does not signal an ease of lockdown restrictions; instead, it marks a change in narrative, and a shift in blame and accountability, from the government and the state to the rest of us. This, and Boris Johnson's talk of PPE shortages and the care home epidemic as though he hasn’t been the one in charge of these things, demonstrate the governments’ washing their hands (for at least 20 seconds) from the burden of responsibility.
And so, we’re turning on one another, blaming ourselves for the failings of the government who are meant to protect us. We’re blaming the couple out doing their food shopping, the group playing frisbee in the park, the mother with the stroller who passes us on the pavement within touching distance, the commuters piling on the tube during rush hour. It’s not inadequate PPE, it’s not the lack of testing, it’s not the mixed messaging and unreliable sources that lead to headlines across all mainstream newspapers just before a sunny bank holiday weekend such as “Hurrah! Lockdown freedom beckons”. No. We must “stay alert”, the government says. But stay alert for what, for who? Because how can one “stay alert” to an invisible respiratory virus, an infection from which many of us will be asymptomatic? The only interpretation (we should not have to discuss “interpretations” of government guidelines for an exit strategy from a lockdown caused by the spread of a global pandemic) of: “stay alert” I can think of, is: “stay alert to others around you”. It appears the only clarity in the governments enigmatic messaging is to distrust those around us.
In a nation already so divided and distrusting of others we share a land with, laws with, a national identity with, what will this further distrust do to us? This virus has reaped havoc on our globalised world — travel bans, suspicion and contempt for labels reading “made in China”, comparisons and critiques of other nations and their death tolls, the continuous global competition for protective equipment and tests. And, on top of this, Nigel Farage has attempted to reignite his soggy, stale, discriminating debate on illegal immigration, travelling to the coast of Dover to demonise the most vulnerable of all, at a time when our daily death toll was rising exponentially.
Keir Starmer stated in the HoC on Monday: “what the country needs is clarity and reassurance. And at the moment both are in short supply.” But what he left out was responsibility.
The government refuses to acknowledge the devastating effect years of austerity has had on our public services, our economy, our livelihoods, the inequalities it has stretched and stretched and stretched. There are many factors to blame for the UK’s huge, regrettable death toll, and the majority of fingers point at the government. Yet, onwards, they continue, with this strategy of deniability.
But there will be no “going back to normal” until the public feels safe. And, I for one, find little interpretation within “stay alert” that makes me feel safe.
Deputy Leader James Clarke reflects on Renew's roots as we look towards the future.
Rather than talk about the current political situation, perhaps we can talk a bit about how we got here, then to the future and what we can do to help shape it.
We started Renew as a vehicle for those politically disenchanted people and groups (like us) who were no longer prepared to support failed parties in a failing system and who wanted to get involved and participate in politics more actively. We wanted to bring in fresh faces, fresh blood and harness the skills of those with real experience outside of the standard, politically ambitious classes and tribes.
But, as we know, the best political plans tend to be knocked off-course by, (in the likely apocryphal words of Harold Macmillan) "Events, dear boy, events."
Whilst Macmillan had to contend with the 'Profumo affair' (such a beautifully understated use of the word 'affair'), Renew (and the rest of the UK) had to contend with Brexzilla, as it ran rampant, transforming from a merely terrible political idea to an all-consuming national identity crisis.
Somewhere along the way, our goal of growing a challenger, start-up, grassroots political movement got swept up in the tornado, even at the same time as all our potential goodwill, publicity, donors and voters were dragged back from the centre to the extremes, as the Brexit stakes and the country's temperature got higher and higher.
At a time when faith in the two main political parties was at an all-time low, 82.3% voted for them in 2017 (and 75.7% did in 2019); politics became a game of attrition. We contested election after election where people on the doors loved and respected what we stood for and what we set out to achieve, but simply had to vote Conservative to keep that awful man Corbyn out, or vote Labour to stop those unconscionable Tories (even in seats which were not remotely marginal): "Next time, we'll vote for you.", we heard, over and again.
And then came...
The TIGgers, who came, saw and scarpered.
The Lib Dems, who got lit up then extinguished like a crap firework.
GE2019, which loomed like a dark portent and then left like a bad smell.
And now, the virus.
Half of the country on lockdown and the other half frantically working to save lives and the economy.
Events, dear boy.
So what happens next?
There has been a great deal of talk about tectonic shifts socially, a new normal, a quiet revolution, downsizing, a new capitalism (or socialism), UBI, homeworking, even a climate breakthrough. In the UK, the Government has veered from crowing about their Withdrawal Agreement and announcing lavish spending on new Tory-voting constituencies to underwriting the biggest social and financial bailout in UK history. Labour have elected a credible leader that their bitterly divided party doesn't deserve and the Lib Dems are stowed away in witness protection.
As for Renew, we must now refocus on our identity and return to our core values and our raison d'etre. As I often say, the fundamentals have not changed; the system remains broken, the parties are dysfunctional and the legions of disenchanted voters (and non-voters) haven't gone away. We need to go back to the reasons why we started a party called 'Renew' and did not simply join a campaign group or form a single issue anti-Brexit party.
We need to differentiate ourselves from both the mainstream parties and the smaller ones.
Renew was, and is, about Reform, Renewal, Inclusion, Civic Participation, Systemic Change, Electoral Reform, Modernising, Fresh Faces, Supporting Political Activity, Openness, Harnessing Technology, Transparency, Fairness, Competence and Doing Things Differently.
Renew is about Something New.
To this end, we need to talk less about policies, elections, constituencies, leaders, left, right and (forgive me) 'centrist politics' and all the terminological traps of a political game rigged to reward the incumbents, and present ourselves as what we are, a welcome place for people who want to get involved in politics without all the repellent, fusty, childish paraphernalia associated with the reds, blues, yellows, greens and other exclusive, tribal clubs.
We need to give a voice to those who have no medium, to those on the periphery, to those turned off by the politics of colours, people from all walks of life. We need to be the vehicle for those who want to get involved and Get Heard.
This is going to mean a lot of things. It will mean reaching out to like-minded groups, especially those involved in Electoral Reform, it will mean Renew people participating in local community and action groups, building credibility, giving Renewers a good reputation. It will likely mean offering our support to those who wish to stand as Independents. It will mean not giving up regardless of the odds. And it will mean developing good habits that start here, at home.
As someone once said, 'there is no us and them, there's only us'.
This is a series of personal stories and experiences shared by friends of Renew during this pandemic. Carla Burns is an NHS worker, and she tells us what it's been like supporting those working on the front-lines.
The last few weeks have been very strange.
As news emerged from China about a new respiratory illness, our infectious diseases colleagues began to get twitchy. I work in an NHS trust that has a specialist unit for infectious diseases and we are used to dealing with high-risk illnesses, including monkeypox and other terrible things, so when these specialists say they are worried you know to pay attention.
For years NHS trusts have struggled to prepare for major incidents due to chronic underfunding and shortages of staff. There was little time to ensure systems and processes were in place. Planning for a global pandemic should have always been coordinated and funded from the centre. But, of course, this did not happen.
The focus of my work has been to coordinate the provision of mental health support for staff who will be facing the inevitable horrors over the coming weeks. On top of the huge increase in extremely unwell patients, the NHS will also have to limit the availability of all but immediate life-preserving treatment whilst facing high-levels of staff sickness and self-isolation. The lack of early available testing has placed huge limitations on the planning phase of the pandemic, even before the patient numbers began to increase. On top of this staff are anxious about the conflicting and shifting guidance around Personal Protective Equipment, with NHS guidance currently not reflective of that advocated by the WHO. News of the first deaths of healthcare workers from COVID-19 is hitting them hard.
To attempt to mitigate some of the potential impact on staff, work has been taking place with a team of in-house psychologists whose day job is working with cancer and pain patients. Together with them, we have developed a training programme to upskill as many staff as possible to be able to provide Psychological First Aid to their colleagues, which is a model of mental health support used by the WHO in war and disaster zones. Along with this we have partnered with a local university to provide training in the prevention of PTSD – which we hope will have a positive impact. In addition to this, staff can access counselling and specialist support via a temporary service.
Many support offers have been made available to staff from all places - apps, guidance, advice etc. and we have been attempting to pull them together into a coherent offer so staff are not overwhelmed. Alongside this staff are being provided accommodation if they wish to keep away from their families to reduce the possibility of bringing the virus home. The majority of our staff are female and have caring responsibilities and this is hitting them particularly hard. All we can do now is support the front-line, rotate the staff between the more and less stressful areas and keep them rested and fed/hydrated and with adequate PPS - their physical needs are inextricably linked to their ongoing mental health.
And when this is over we will pick up the pieces as best we can.
The silver lining to this has been to witness teams of people being assembled and addressing tricky and complex issues in new and innovative ways. People working off-site are finding technology to enable this to happen when it was previously believed to be impossible. What cross organisational work with reduced boundaries and a shared common goal can achieve.
All of these things remind me why I work for the NHS - passion, determination and for some, a willingness to pay the ultimate price.
It has been a truly humbling few weeks.
In the second of our series of stories and experiences from this unprecedented period of infection and isolation, Renew member Julie Alexander-Cooper shares how she's been coping with the social and business restrictions imposed upon us all by COVID-19.
Goodness, what a week. I have hardly slept over the last 12 days. Not great for a Sleep, Health and Wellbeing Specialist!!
I am involved in the running of two businesses, and during the last two weeks we have been busy focusing on adapting quickly to stay afloat and move forward. I had begun replacing my old website with a new, more modern-looking offering, and this was already taking up much time. So, when the announcement occurred last Monday, the businesses had to evolve quickly, fortunately in similar ways.
With regards to the Sleep, Health and Wellbeing Clinic, all private consultations and group programmes went online. This change might sound simple, however, it wasn’t. Extra to the usual consultation times, each client was allocated a session time to learn how to use and access the platform, to iron out any glitches. Much time was spent on assisting those less computer/tech savvy to become confident about what to do.
The second business, construction, involved an equal number of complexities. It was unclear whether or not construction would continue or cease during this time of social distancing and lockdown. As with the Sleep, Health and Wellbeing Clinic, the face-to-face meetings shifted online. However, everyone had a different “favoured” platform, so this involved a steep learning curve for all. As construction workers are now on the key worker category, much work is anticipated. Consideration of the health and safety of staff being key, each area of operation has been analysed to find the best practice to prevent COVID-19 transmission.
Sleepless nights were understandable.
There may have been stresses, however, there was much laughter too.
The interesting experience of online communication, visits from the family dog or child. The family domestic happening in the background of my Zoom meeting, heard by all because I forgot to press the mute button! With our limited downtime we have exercised, practiced yoga and painted the garden fence — all very positive. We socialised online with our friends and joined the Virtual Pub Quiz too. I also became a volunteer for Kenilworth COVID-19, a local initiative set up to help and support residents in isolation. I delivered lots of leaflets for the community venture too, trickier than I expected, as there are some scary dogs! On Mothering Sunday, we FaceTimed our sons, who live in London. We chatted, laughed, drank wine and played online games, not too different from “normal times”. As we go forward we do not know how much longer this will continue or what will happen.
I wish everyone all the very best of health in this difficult time!
Councillor John Bates advocates coming together with other like-minded groups under the banner of a Reforming Alliance.
We are a very small party, and history has shown us that small parties fare badly under our FPTP electoral system. This has ever been so and the only new party which has enjoyed meaningful success in the last 100 years has been the Labour Party - and much of that success was owed to the mass trade union movement providing support.
There has been much talk of a “Progressive Alliance". Such alliances have been tried in the past and failed for a variety of reasons. Progressive policies can be wide and varied in intent and implementation. For that reason alone it is difficult to agree coherent policies for a manifesto and even more difficult to inform and convince the electorate of the effectiveness of a "Progressive Manifesto".
Nonetheless, an alliance is necessary if smaller parties are to succeed and if the status quo is to face a serious challenge. What is needed is a manifesto around which all smaller parties can coalesce and which the electorate can readily understand and endorse with their vote. I can think of only one idea which can attract the necessary strong level of support to be effective.
The one thing which all small parties can agree about, and which many electors would receive well if it is presented properly, is the idea of reform. Electoral Reform is the obvious feature of such an idea but it is not the only reform needed. Alongside ER should sit reform of the House of Lords, the need for a written constitution and almost certainly decentralisation. Of course, most politicians could think of many other areas for reform but these are big, central issues which the problems of the last few years have shown to be in need of radical change.
None of the larger parties will address any of these issues and larger small parties, such as the Green Party, will be unlikely to spend time on these issues at the moment. This is to our advantage. Although the idea will not be easy to sell to other small parties it is worth our while trying to do so. If we can begin to bring other parties on board with the idea, we place ourselves in the driving seat of reform and we have a few years in which to work at it.
One of the problems associated with previous attempts at reform is that they have always been discussed and debated from within government time. This has given the vested interests of the status quo massive opportunities to tell lies and mislead people with regard to the merits of any suggested reforms. A manifesto for reform can present the electorate with fully developed reforms, reforms which suit us to the greatest possible extent. The small parties will have worked out the reforms and begin selling them to the public before the larger parties can begin their lies. Make no mistake, the larger parties will seek reforms which suit them best and which will be least helpful to us. We must take the lead.
No party working within the system has yet succeeded in changing that system, and I see no reason to suppose that we will fare any better. What is needed is a radical, imaginative idea. I think the choice is simple: we either choose to work within the system, or work with other small parties. As a party seeking to renew faith in politics and to change our country for the better, we prepare those changes ourselves and offer worked-out solutions to the electorate as part of a “Reforming Alliance”.
Henry Bettley wonders whether the solution to the ever-developing "Scotland Question" lies in our Anglo-Saxon past.
As the Labour leadership election heats up (gradually, remember the winner won’t be announced until April 4th, so strap in!), the candidates are taking every opportunity to set out their stalls. Now the topic has moved on from the traditional Brexit/Corbyn questioning, and onto the subject of devolution. Starmer calls for a federal United Kingdom, with more power for existing devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and hints of an English devolved body. This echoes earlier comments from Long-Bailey where she calls for more power to be devolved out of Westminster to the regional and local levels, “where it belongs.”
These are familiar views both to those with a niche interest in constitutional reform, and to those looking for a solution to the Scotland conundrum: the SNP cannot be ignored forever. English nationalists have often complained about the sovereignty of Scotland being superior to that of England. A parliament for England would redress this imbalance, and allow for more powers to be devolved across the board. But the real problem is in Westminster, where the framework within which devolved powers must operate is dictated.
No matter how it is determined, any vaguely proportional system of representative democracy in Westminster will lead to a parliament that is, in line with population, around 84% English in make up, with 8%, 5% and 3% drawn from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland respectively. The sheer numbers of the English will lead to an inevitable dominance in any system which attempts to give equal autonomy to each of the four nations, without fudging the calculus in favour of the smaller members.
Over the summer, I attended a climate protest in Central London. All sorts were there: a lot of “crusties”, granted, but also children of all backgrounds, people of all ages, members of all nations. And a few political outsiders, seeking out people at the fringes of ideological thought who might just see eye to eye with them on their niche passion. I had a brief and entirely unproductive interaction with a man with a megaphone who accepted global heating, but denied that it was a bad thing that life on earth might go extinct. Another focused on the Second Coming as our last hope; a lot of the news recently might seem to corroborate his story. And standing in the wind on the flank of Parliament Square, loyally displaying his banner, was a representative of the Wessex Regionalists. As a sometime enthusiast of Anglo-Saxon history and occasional wanderer of Somerset, my heart went out to a man celebrating his quaint heritage in the face of English cultural homogeneity.
We spoke for a while about his project. He wanted to be independent from the UK, as one of a number of states set up in a loose association with others along the lines of the heptarchy. Under the heptarchy, England was comprised of 7 major nations - Wessex, Essex, Sussex, Northumbria, Mercia, Kent and East Anglia - alongside a handful of smaller regions such as Cornwall. An archaic idea, perhaps, but one that takes seriously the strong regional identities that exist not just between the nations of the UK, but its regions. Anyone who has spent time outside of London, for example, knows of the disdain and bemusement that is often felt for the city and similar sentiments are echoed across the UK.
The Wessex Regionalists are part of a growing movement of regional identity which is often presumed to be the preserve of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Much is made of the Welsh language and its role in the revival of Welsh nationalism. But more interesting is the Cornish language, Kernewek, brought back from the dead in 1904 by Henry Jenner after a 100-odd year hiatus. It is now a lively language as seen in names, schools and the arts. Electronic musician Aphex Twin has used Cornish words as track titles, and indie-popper Gwenno released Le Kov in the language in 2018. Cornwall has had a thriving independence movement for a while now, with a militant wing claiming responsibility for a fire that tore through one of Rick Stein’s restaurants. It has a cultural heritage distinct from England as a historically Celtic, rather than Anglo-Saxon nation (it was known to the Anglo-Saxons as “West Wales”).
But the Wessex Regionalists show that at least on some level there is a hunger for independence in other parts of the country. There is a similar movement in historical Mercia, whose platform is quite developed and whose constitution for the proposed nation is among the best that I have ever come across. The Yorkshire Party ride on a wave of regionalism perhaps inspired by the county’s showing at the 2012 Olympic Games, where they would have finished 12th if counted as an independent nation. I floated the idea of taking my native Essex on its own path to independence. The more independence the better, was the response. After a tense negotiation over whether it was those in Essex, Wessex, Sussex, Kent or Mercia who could lay claim to London (we agreed to shelve the discussion), we parted ways.
Is this man and the movement that he represents paving the way towards a solution to the constitutional imbalance that exists between the nations of the UK? Scotland on its own can have little power in a representative system, with only 8% of the UK’s representatives. The same goes for Wales and Northern Ireland - areas with their own distinct cultural heritage and particular political requirements, but only a minor voice in Westminster. Scaling up their power in parliament would mean steamrolling the principles of proportional regional representation. Scaling down the rest, however, might be the answer.
Balanced against the regional power of Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, or Yorkshire these blocs suddenly find themselves as partners in a system that is sensitive to regional sentiment. It would be strange for many to discover a new identity beyond the embedded, but eroding, “Englishness”. But stranger things have happened, and perhaps the future of our constitution really does lie in our pre-Norman past.
Boris Johnson has claimed the phrase “the people” for himself and his party. How has this been allowed to happen?
It is interesting how we choose to refer to members of states. Some countries employ the word “citizens”, which carries with it connotations of rights, powers and equality. Other countries, particularly former and current communist states, use “people” - People’s Armed Police in China, Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, for example. This functions as a useful branding technique to assert that bodies are acting on behalf of the people as an entire unit, when the reverse is often true.
Although in the UK we do have citizenship, we cannot correctly be termed citizens as we are technically subjects under monarchical rule. And we tend to shun the use of “the people” as being populist (the two terms have a common Latin root, populus). Generally, we have stuck to “public” or “general public”, which carries limited connotations and is an intentionally neutral term. It implies adulthood and membership of the state, but little else.
But “people”, has started recently started to crop up in British politics. One of the most notable recent applications was Brexit being branded "the will of the people," although no one could quite distil what this actually amounted to. This was inherently populist as, despite being backed by elites in government and the media, it was pitched as an opportunity for "the people" to take on "the establishment." In the following years, the People’s Vote campaign, which although anti-populist in nature, did attempt to turn itself into a populist movement, albeit with limited success. Its attempt to turn “the people” against the Brexiteers was undermined by the fact that it relied too heavily upon its supporter base of celebrities. Instead of targeting elites, it targeted what it perceived as the uneducated masses. It faced an uphill struggle as they were using the term “people” in an attempt to overturn what was, despite its shoddy foundations, a direct democratic mandate.
And in the preceding years, we had observed the phenomenon of Nigel Farage being branded a “man of the people” for no other reason than his chain-smoking and love of heavy, dark real ale. This was despite his private education at Dulwich College, and his background as (an admittedly not very successful) stockbroker in the city, like his father before him.
And now we have seen old Etonian Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson unveil his People’s Parliament, People’s Cabinet, and, most recently, his People’s PMQs. And in the wake of the mainstream opposition’s wipeout at the last election, there has been no one able to seriously challenge these outlandish labels. Whilst he holds the majority of the seats, only 43% of the population voted Conservative - hardly a “people’s mandate”. Perhaps he means to operate in the interests of all the people, regardless of who voted for him. But it is hard to reconcile this interpretation with an attempted steamrollering of the BBC and the devolved assemblies, along with the removal of workers’ rights and protection of unaccompanied child relatives of British citizens from the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.
And yet in the face of a Labour party distracted by internal elections, a Liberal Democrat party reduced to a murmur, and the SNP derailing debate to focus on their single-issue approach to parliamentary politics, the messaging from the Conservative party is able to cut through. They are the only major party that can currently claim, however outlandishly, to be acting on behalf of the people, and in hammering home that message it may well stick.
The far-right’s greatest con is to convince working class voters that people like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage are more like them than working class members of the opposition. Labour’s messaging which appeals to academics and liberals has cemented this illusion, and it will take a party that has the right message and can harness the power of real people - actual men and women of the people - to undermine the claims of the hyper-privileged far right. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are far from showing that they have this capacity. If we’re going to take on this image, we need something new - radically inclusive and open politics.
As Storm Brendan sweeps across the British Isles, it seems oddly poetic for the 58% of the UK who have embarked on a new decade with a government that they did not vote for, and that for the most part they vehemently oppose. How we react to this political deluge is crucial.
Picture this: you’re in a queue outside as the rain pours down. Some people have umbrellas, some don’t. Those who do, raise their umbrellas and weather the storm on their own. They’ll stick it out. Those who don’t will give up, and suddenly we have fewer people. Some umbrellas get blown inside-out by the rage of Storm Boris, these too give up. What are we left with? A depleted group each under their own umbrella. In close quarters and jostling for space, the umbrellas cross over, knock into one another, and people are going to get poked in the eye.
We need a different approach, otherwise most of those who oppose the Tory government will pack it in and go home. The remainder will be too easy to defeat. We need to share our umbrellas, share our resources, and remember that we have far more in common than we have that divides us. Or better still, let’s get a gazebo.
After the election result and the failure to overcome the Tory narrative, there are hundreds of groups that now need to find a renewed sense of purpose. The campaign that formed behind the second referendum encompassed hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom had never been strongly politically active before. And despite the fact that they now lack the clear unifying purpose that they had before, there are clear threads that run through their political identities. One of these is electoral reform, that we’ve been pushing since we formed. We want to see a proportional electoral system, and groups such as Make Votes Matter, that have recently climbed high in the public consciousness, have shown that the appeal is broadening (especially since the election, where only 42% of us voted Conservative). Another is a change to our political ethos. We formed with several driving motivations, one of which was to “stop the lies” in a post-truth age. Now we can be pushing for a post-post-truth age. Another thread is the desire to be an open, progressive and forward looking country, fighting against the culture of division and persecution that has overcome the Conservative party. The list goes on.
Once we realise this, we realise that the approach of hogging our own umbrellas and jostling for a position leads to a lot of eye-poking and not much progress. We need these groups, that only a few months ago looked to have the energy and organisation to change the course of British history, to come together and cooperate. We’ve been advocating this approach since day one. In Peterborough, we led a failed charge for a Remain Alliance, and in Brecon and Radnorshire we made it happen. In the European elections, we assisted Change UK. In the 2019 general election, we stood down all our candidates in marginal seats - if this approach had been adopted by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, we would be looking at a very different parliament, and future, going into 2020.
As as we enter the new decade, we are embarking on a phase of reaching out to all those groups who find themselves disorientated, confused (and soaked to the bone) and looking to cooperate. We are stronger together and until everybody comes to terms with this new reality, we cannot be strong enough to win.
There are many exciting models that can help fix our broken democracy, writes Henry Bettley, and proportional representation is just one of them.
Not since 1931, when in the wake of the Great Depression Baldwin’s Conservatives romped home with 55% of the popular vote, has a party managed to command a majority of the popular vote at a UK general election. Yet in 18 of the subsequent 21 elections, we have seen majority governments returned. Blair’s 1997 landslide was the largest of these, winning 63% of seats on just 43% of the vote. And most recently, we have seen Boris Johnson’s victory handing him a majority of 80 but with a minority, 44%, of the votes. What we are seeing here is not the “tyranny of the majority” that John Stuart Mill warned against, but rather tyranny of the minority. As I write, a party with the support of the minority of the electorate is being given near-complete power to set the agenda in the House of Commons and can ensure that their legislation will withstand even large-scale rebellions from their own party.
Clamours to do away with first-past-the-post (FPTP) and replace it with a more proportional system have recently grown, but the debate is not new. Between 1917 and 1931, a shift to the single transferable vote or the alternative vote (AV) was debated several times in the Commons, but was never adopted. More recently in 2011, the British public were offered a departure from FPTP in favour of AV. Voters could rank their preferences, with second, third, fourth and so on choices being taken into account until any one candidate gained an outright majority. However, even the leader of the campaign for AV, Nick Clegg, had described the mechanism as a “miserable little compromise”, as it was not truly a proportional system. Needless to say, it was resoundingly rejected at the ballot box.
But now there is a new wave of supporters for real, proportional electoral reforms, vocalised through groups such as the Electoral Reform Society and relative newcomers Make Votes Matter. They have gained support from most parties from across the spectrum, with the exception of Labour and the Conservatives. This can be seen as acute gerrymandering, cartel politics at its finest. There is a growing movement within the Labour party to overturn FPTP, but there are suspicions that the hardline left-wing elements of the party feel that to implement rapid and seismic change, they would need an outright majority that could only be delivered by FPTP.
Changing the voting system would instil the most fundamental constitutional change to our political system since universal suffrage was granted in 1928. Proponents claim that it would reconnect the millions who feel disenfranchised back to the political system. It would certainly be fairer, and we would see an end to majority governments, instead seeing the rule by consensus that has come to characterise the Nordic states amongst others.
But the case for democratic reform does not stop with the voting system, although this is the largest possible upheaval, why stop here? Proportional representation is still a manifestation of representative, rather than direct, democracy. Attempts to assimilate aspects of direct democracy into our political system has so far been via the blunt instrument of referendums, with their associated ambiguities. There are lots of ideas that have the potential to give serious democratic power on a local and national level, harnessing the power of communities and online platforms.
One of the most exciting models that has been applied is participatory budgeting. It was trialled in Porto Allegre, Brazil, between 1989 and 2004. Citizens were given complete control over the allocation of the local budget for the city, and some 50,000 of them participated in the process. In a region that had been racked by mafia and cartel control, resources were diverted towards health, sanitation and education - areas that needed support the most. And with no parties seeking quick returns in pursuit of reelection, policies became less short-sighted.
Citizens’ assemblies have also burst their way into headlines, in no small part due to their support from climate activist group Extinction Rebellion. The model, under which a representative cross section of the public based on geography, age, gender, race, income, class among other factors is then informed by a balanced panel of experts before making policy recommendations, is not new. In fact, it was used in the UK in 2018 in an enquiry on Social Care, but its possible applications are broad. Rory Stewart advocated its use to break the Brexit deadlock, due to its ability to provide an independent analysis that also takes into account representative viewpoints. Few other tools have that power. It remains to be seen whether people would ever believe in the legitimacy of a citizens' assembly, but they tend to provide recommendations rather than legislation. And they can be used to breach divisive topics, such as the issue of abortion in Ireland. There, it had an ability to remove partisan entrenchment, instead instilling a sense of rational and independent debate.
And in an increasingly interconnected age of the internet, politics and democracy have been slow to react. Whilst e-petitions have been popular for campaigners, their leverage is limited. The petition to revoke Article 50, for example, which gained over 6m signatures, was only debated in the Westminster Hall chamber rather than being given time in the Commons. The problem with e-petitions is that, unless they gain the support of over half of the population, there is an open question as to their real popularity - they only tell one half of the story. Far better is the example set by the Better Reykjavik forum (which is not unlike Renew's Digital Democracy platform). Citizens make suggestions on the online platform, where citizens can up- and down-vote each proposal and leave comments. The most popular are passed on to the local council for their consideration. It is used by over 56% of the city’s population and as of 2017, $2.2m had been spent developing over 200 citizen-generated proposals.
There are hundreds of models like these, some of which may hold the answers to the problems we face. As we seek to fix our broken political system, eliminate the democratic deficit and bring people back into the decision-making process, we need to be ambitious. Proportional representation is a step in the right direction, but it is only the start of a long journey towards real empowerment for people and communities.