A democratic revolt from below is bubbling up

No-one outside of a diminishing band of party bureaucrats believes our political and democratic system is working. Of course, the charade continues; of PMQ’s, of who’s up and who’s down, of polls and predictions. But this, in the phrase of Colin Crouch, is a post-democracy, a democracy in name only in which the game is played on a field far from the realities of daily lives, hopes and fears.

In his book Ruling the Void, the late Peter Mair talked about the hollowing out of western democracy and the yawning gap between the state and the citizen. Into this void steps the professional political technocrat to whom the management of the crisis could be outsourced. But this could only ever be a temporary comfort. Because they would inevitably fail and others would fill the void too, both good and very bad, offering either the deepening of democracy or its negation.

The latter is represented by the populists of left and right such as Nigel Farage and George Galloway. But others with bigger hearts and greater hopes are also trying to fill the void. A fortnight in early March saw an amazing attempt to pump life back into the veins of our body politic. Across the beautiful hills and coastline of South Devon, a democratic experiment has been unfolding. In a seat that could be a ‘progressive tragedy’ at the next election, one in which the right could win only because the left vote is divided, local citizens refused to accept the fate of either splitting the vote again or simply backing the least worst option.

To end the abusive nature First Past the Post, which forces us to succumb to the dominant non-Tory party where we happen to live, activists in South Devon organised an open primary so that a genuine people’s champion could be found. Over two weeks across the whole constituency public meetings were held to hear from and question candidates and votes were securely cast to find a politician progressive voters could enthusiastically get behind.

All the main parties were invited to participate. Losing didn’t mean you couldn’t stand, but there would be a clear favourite. In the end only the Green and the Liberal Democrat candidates took part.  The latter, Caroline Voaden, from what I saw on live streams of the events, has sound social liberal politics and a rich life story. Local Labour members wanted to take part but were overruled by party HQ. Disturbingly the Lib Dems, who are usually much more open and democratic, have ordered local parties and candidates not to participate in such primaries, but too late for Devon. Caroline won 78 per cent of the 1072 votes cast. Activists in other parts of the country are planning similar primaries to try and game the corrupting influence of First Past the Post.

Two other things happened over a recent weekend. First Sadiq Khan issued a plea to Greens and Lib Dems in London to lend him their first and only vote for Mayor in May now the Tories have taken away any second preference in mayoral ballots. If Labour leaders asks for such help, then surely the laws of basic solidarity means it must be returned? Second, Ed Davey at the Lib Dems spring conference said to renewal our social care system we need a cross-party consensus. He could have added we need such a consensus to end poverty, combat climate change and much else. But such a consensus without an underpinning electoral alliance is hard, if not impossible.

Underpinning all this is the crying need to shift our voting system for the House of Commons to proportional representation (PR). A February poll by YouGov had only 27 per cent saying ‘Yes’ to the question of whether the major parties represent their values; 58 per cent said they don’t.

The hypocrisy and the conceit in all of this is deep. The party bureaucrats, where they can’t win, want voters to back other parties who can. They just don’t want to admit that in public, and want instead to keep alive the lie that they are national parties and that every vote they get is a full endorsement of them. Meanwhile a poll last September had 60 per cent of Green voters, 48 per cent of Lib Dem and 37 per cent of Labour voters all saying they would vote tactically at the next election – overwhelmingly to stop the Tories. A democratic revolt from below is bubbling up.

Like a game of whack-a-mole, party bureaucrats will do anything to rule the void and crack down on people who are tired of the abusive nature of First Past the Post, people who in every other walk of their life are used to real choices and genuine participation in matters that impact their lives.

Open primaries are not right for every seat – they are complex and time consuming to organise and they may not build local power to put pressure on candidates and MPs unless they are followed up by Compass-style local groups – the power base has to be built and maintained. At Compass, we are concerned about large scale tactical voting which in effect gives the main parties votes for free – allowing Labour to say these votes endorse their anti-PR position. There’s no power in a tactical vote if it allows parties to run away from change and into the same Westminster system. Votes should be used wisely, and they should still have to be earned.

There are lots of seats where progressives should be pile their support behind a single candidate rather than risk splitting the vote, but only if something is given back – fighting to break this system, a commitment to PR. Innovations like primaries are welcome, galvanising activists in South Devon and nationally. These innovations show us what’s possible – but the also show up the cracks of our rotten system as it is. The long term goal is build a new democracy – one without the hypocrisy and bureaucracy the primary had to work around.

The danger in all this is that if our weak democracy is not renewed, in open, local and creative ways, as it was over those two weeks in South Devon, then it will be replaced by strong leaders. The Tories might well lose the next election, but without democratic renewal in which the shift to PR is central, it could just be a precursor to a journey on a bullet train to the populist right.