Small Revolution

A remarkable political innovation in Devon could be the beginning of a new politics.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 20th March 2024

This is what democracy looks like: hundreds of people queueing in the rain, seeking to take back control of a political system that treats voters like an afterthought. Last weekend, a remarkable democratic experiment reached its first conclusion. A process that began here in South Devon and is now spreading to other constituencies has allowed voters to reclaim the initiative from centralised and self-interested political parties. It directly confronts our unfair electoral system.

Ours is one of many constituencies in the UK known as “progressive tragedies”: places in which most people vote for parties to the left of the Tories but which, thanks to our iniquitous first-past-the-post system, end up with Tory representatives. The Conservatives have ruled here since 1924, often without majority support.

The Labour and Conservative leaderships conspire to sustain this system, in the hope of absolute majorities. But it works, like other such truncations of democracy (think of our political funding arrangements) much better for the Conservatives than it does for Labour. As Neal Lawson of the democracy campaign Compass argues, of the 11 general elections since 1979, “eight were won by the Conservative party and only three by Labour. But cooperation among progressive parties could have averted all eight Conservative majority governments bar 2015.”

Both within the Labour party and in the country at large, there’s an urgent desire for a fairer system. Unfortunately, this desire is thwarted by the Labour leadership. The result? As Lawson points out, of the 15 wealthy nations surveyed by the ParlGov project, voters in the UK are the most left-leaning, yet suffer the most rightwing governments. Sometimes it seems that Labour strategists would rather possess control than power.

This is not going to change in the near future. All pleas to work for the greater good, even when Jeremy Corbyn was leader, have been met with stony refusal. As someone well-placed in the party told me, our undemocratic system, and the prospect it offers of gaining an absolute majority, “is like the ring in Lord of the Rings. You know it harms you, but once it’s within your grasp, you can’t give it up.”

The simple and brilliant idea of a group of people in the South Devon constituency was to take these decisions out of the hands of the parties and return them to the people. The UK’s first “people’s primary” involved seven meetings held around the constituency. Candidates for progressive or vaguely progressive parties were invited to explain to voters why they would be best placed to evict the Conservative. After each meeting, constituents voted by secret ballot to choose their champion. When the aggregate result was announced, everyone in the constituency could see who other people believed was the most promising challenger.

Without this help, we have to guess other people’s voting intentions, and we often guess wrong. The people’s primary overcomes the prisoner’s dilemma, ensuring we are less likely to waste our vote. The decision the constituents make doesn’t prevent the other parties from standing. But, by selecting a common champion, it reduces the chances of letting the Tory back in.

Labour, thrown into chaos by the leadership’s attempt to control their choice of candidates, has yet to field a contender, so was unable to participate. The party leadership would have blocked its involvement anyway. Their loss. The Liberal Democrat and Green candidates battled gamely across two weeks of meetings. The Lib Dem, Caroline Voaden, won decisively. So now we know that our best chance of helping to eject the dismal Tory MP is to vote for her.

I chaired the first of these meetings. Tickets sold out two days after they were issued. The questions were searching and pertinent. Whatever the results at the general election, this is already a victory of sorts: bringing people back into the political process, showing how democracy could become a living proposition, rather than a dry and curling parchment locked behind a portcullis with chains.

Now the process has begun in five other constituencies, including those represented by Kemi Badenoch and Danny Kruger. The South Devon pioneers have identified 57 progressive tragedies in which the Conservatives are still predicted to win and there is some uncertainty about who the most effective challenger is likely to be. They’ve offered to share their model with these constituencies, but not with those where one progressive contender is clearly ahead of the others. In those cases they recommend a different system:

All the big political parties hate these primaries. The Tory response is understandable: they know they can’t survive a fair democratic process in a progressive constituency. Most shocking and self-destructive has been the reaction of Liberal Democrat party managers. After the South Devon process had begun, a letter to candidates from the Lib Dem chair in England instructed them: “Under no circumstances are you to take part … any candidate who ignores this instruction, and participates in a primary, risks having their approved status rescinded and the withdrawal of party support and resources.”

The letter revealed an almost comical misunderstanding of what the primary process is and how it is conducted. It claimed that the primary could put candidates in breach of election law on both process and expenses. In reality, the process has been closely scrutinised by the Electoral Commission, and applies a long list of safeguarding rules. The spending (which is very small, as the primaries are created and run by volunteers) takes place before the champion is chosen, so, as the Electoral Commission has confirmed, doesn’t eat into the candidates’ capped election budgets. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by such reactions: any process involving a transfer of control, however beneficial, will be fiercely opposed by those who are losing it.

Out of adversity comes better tactics. The Isle of Wight East constituency, after the refusal of both Labour and the Lib Dems to play, is designing a new process that doesn’t rely on their involvement.

The primaries won’t deliver a perfect system. We’ll still be stuck with a centralised and coercive politics, unmatched to the needs of the complex system we call society, based on the illegitimate concepts of presumed consent and remote decision-making. We will properly reclaim that power only when our representative politics are accompanied by participatory and deliberative decision-making.

But it’s a start: a small, slow revolution in a country whose people have long been deprived of their democratic rights. Enough of command and control. Enough of tricks and truncations. Enough of lies and evasions. While they dissemble, we assemble.