I was beginning to despair about the state of our politics and voter apathy. The multiple assaults on democracy, the poor, the environment and the truth perpetrated by successive governments under Johnson, Truss and Sunak, voted in by a minority, have left our democracy looking very weak indeed. Many have tuned out of politics altogether. Some have ceded control of their opinions to the largely right wing mainstream media. Some of us are in a permanent state of outrage at the corruption, cruelty and incompetence. A few of us want to take that anger and channel it into something positive. Shrugging is not an option. Without action, nothing will change.
We are ill-served in this country by the first past the post voting system which has made elections a two horse race and allowed governments to be elected with a huge majority of seats won on a minority of the votes cast. The Johnson government is a dire example of this – an 80 seat majority (before they started dropping like flies) on around 43 per cent of the vote… too much power, hideously abused in the interests of cronies, donors and the super-rich. In 2019, a majority voted for progressive parties, yet we ended up with a government of far right extremists and ideologues.
Tactical voting had some impact at the margins, but the concept has tended to land only with those who are already politically engaged. The Tiverton and Honiton by-election, overturning a massive majority in one of the UK’s safest seats, showed that it is possible to mobilise voters behind one candidate… especially if you throw enough manpower and resources behind the campaign. It’s hard to muster that scale of effort in a general election and the consequence is that a split opposition vote just lets the Conservative in by default.
And there’s habit to overcome, too. So many seats in our four counties have always been Conservative. People joke that a blue ribbon on a cowpat would get elected. The sense that this is how things are and will always be disenfranchises many voters who conclude it’s not just not worth bothering to vote. This in turn means people disconnect from politics, ignoring the massive impact it has on their lives, directly or indirectly.
Let me clarify that it is this far-right, corrupt incarnation of the Conservative party that, in my view, justifies outspoken resistance and criticism. I am sure there are hundreds of thousands, even millions of old-school One Nation Conservatives who feel politically-homeless as a result of the party’s direction of travel. The polls are spelling that out loud and clear.
In my roles at West Country Voices, Devon for Europe and as a writer of middle-school and young adult fiction with a campaigning twist, I am really very concerned to find ways to engage people in politics and mobilise them to DO something! I am not interested in party political tribalism. I am interested in truly representative democracy so I was very excited by the South Devon Primary project, conceived and set up by Simon Oldridge, an experienced climate crisis campaigner. I have joined him and another activist, Ben Long, in developing his idea to shake up the political scene and reinvigorate democracy to whatever degree we can.
That’s the context. The mission is simple:
Uniting [and mobilising!] voters behind the best opposition candidate at the next general election.
The method can be summarised simply…but we do not underestimate the scale of the challenge:
The South Devon Primary process will mean that constituents can select the best-placed person from the three main progressive opposition candidates to challenge the Conservatives in the Totnes & South Devon constituency.
It’s a step up from tactical voting and it’s coming from the grassroots!
So far, so good. But here’s the REALLY exciting bit…we are seeing evidence of a real appetite for engagement. I introduced the democracymeter to our Devon for Europe campaign and it’s been clear in every one of the seven towns in which we’ve run this street democracy exercise so far that people want to have their say, want to express their frustration and anger, want someone to listen and want democracy championed.
We took the version of the meter you see above to South Brent on 30 November and stood on the road in the dark and wet outside the entrance to the car park for the Christmas Fair.
To our enormous delight, people were not only prepared to stop and talk to us, but they actively wanted to get involved. They are hungry for change! AND we had a great response from young people! This is especially important given the voter suppression tactic being employed by this government, requiring ID which potentially disenfranchises younger and poorer voters. Yes, it was a small sample, but it was a genuine cross section and a very high percentage of the passers-by took part.
Subsequent outings for the democracymeter have produced the same result: fury and despair and what we have got and hunger for change.
Information and education will be key to the project’s success and we are running a series of sessions in towns and villages across the constituency. We are also running ambassador training sessions (we trained 40 people in two sessions last month) to go out and spread the word.
There is a real benefit in this for the opposition parties – they get to explain their policies at the hustings we organise which will be attended by people already fired up to get stuck in. If their candidate is chosen, they’ll have an army of enthusiastic volunteers from beyond their pool of party members and supporters at their disposal. The losers can divert energies and resources to other seats where they have a chance to win, which makes political and economic sense.
You can find out more about the project on the website. Please sign up for more information and, if you can, get involved.
Anything that gets people talking about and animated by politics has got to be a good thing, hasn’t it? And anything that pokes us out of our complacency about the state of our democracy is long, long overdue. “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up”*. I’m up for that. Are you?
PS: we’ve made the website and materials easy to clone and adapt so that other constituencies can run the process locally. Get in touch for more information!
*David Orr, Professor of Environmental Studies, Oberlin College.