A Compass Think Piece Poses Key Questions

Progressive Politics regularly cross post from other Labour-orientated websites, but where are those — like Compass — who are more overtly committed to building a cross Party, progressive alliance?

Trevor Fisher highlights one recent contribution to the Compass debate which he feels all Labour supporters should be contemplating.


Review of Compass Think Piece #89 from Compass, Big But Brittle: Why One More Heave Is Likely To Fail Labour, by Matthew Sowemimo

“Whether the next general election is sooner or later, it will be hotly contested. Is Labour’s surprise showing in June 2017 a base to build from or a high watermark? Should the party go for a one more heave approach to get over the line or adopt a more hegemonic and alliance-based approach? This new thinkpiece by Matthew Sowemimo examines the evidence and suggests Labour may have reached a glass ceiling. This, he argues, combined with a new level of voter volatility, demands a fresh electoral strategy”.

The Think Piece can be Downloaded Here.

As the subtitle suggests, this timely think piece from Compass is not in the triumphalist camp currently dominating Labour thinking. While the result on June 8th was welcome and significant, it left Labour short of a majority and poses more questions than answers. It was unexpected, and as Matthew Sowemimo says, “many Labour MPs went to their counts expecting defeat, only to secure large majorities… the recent past shows how dramatically electoral sentiment can shift in this political environment”. (p16)

Very true, and this ThinkPiece is complementary to the pamphlet on Surge Politics published at the same time. From different directions the phenomenon of the Surges, and what they mean for progressive politics, are coming under scrutiny.

Matthew does not look at the wider development of Surges  which in 2015 meant  Labour collapsed in Scotland, the Lib Dems dropped from 23% vote share to 8%, and UKIP gained 4m votes,  partly in Labour heartlands – rightly so as  attention is currently focussed on the lessons of June 8th. What these lessons are is the most urgent priority.

Labour conference appeared to be dominated by one possibility, that it could win the next election by a 45% strategy, that vote share being enough to win if it can build on the 40% share gained on June 8th. The analysis in this ThinkPiece suggests that this is possible but that the obstacles are considerable.

The key lessons of the 2017 election were clear  within a week of the election. Labour gained in the metropolitan heartlands of England and Wales – but less in Scotland, which is now a different culture entirely – but had lower gains outside London. It lost working class support in the traditional ex industrial areas, and the 2016 EU referendum was a good guide to voting behaviour.

What was less clear was the age issue as a factor – the old increasingly voting Tory and headline gains with the young voting Labour.  Analysis is showing how  the younger middle aged were vital, the biggest gains being among the 30-44 age group (p12) thus  those who have families, debts and limited prospect deserted the Tories.

Overall the picture is that  that “Voter volatility is now high…. over 6.5 million people voted tactically on 8th June 2017 and party identification is now at an all time low” (p3). This is indeed the era of Surge Politics.

Four Key Areas Analysed

Matthew Sowemimo breaks the issues down  into four main headings. Firstly, he looks at Labour’s 2017 pe rformance in historical perspective – the longest and best section at five and a half pages. Secondly, he assesses the support for the two main parties  – three and a quarter pages of tight analysis very good on the Tory party, which has become the party of Leave, emphasising the key role of the 2016 EU referendum. Thirdly, he attempts to evaluate the Progressive Alliance which Compass advocated, and finally has two and a half pages of conclusion which are sketchy but logical and usefully thought provoking.

The first section is the most detailed and draws on the best academic research. He questions  the value of the Youth surge – youth has the lowest identification with political parties and cannot be relied upon for Labour.  The Tory strategy of going for the UKIP vote worked, but at the expense of losing the metropolitan cosmopolitan voter. It is a savage paradox, that this is the exact opposite of the New Labour strategy of going for the metro voter while ignoring the working class. Both parties neglected their core supporters and lost support. While the Scots Tory Revival attracts attention, there is little analysis of Labour in Scotland and none on Wales, progressives still taking the Celts for granted in my view.

The second section is less detailed but poses the key issue of  the cultural attitudes of Leave and generally right wing voting people rejecting cosmopolitanism. Britain is splitting into groups with little in common and many  poor  people actively vote against their interests. The former Labour MP for Stoke South, Rob Flello, stated early this year that people in his area felt they had nothingto lose if the country left the EU and later Labour lost Stoke South.

On future strategy the discussion of the Progressive Alliance is the shortest and weakest section. As Sowemimo says, “it is impossible to try to disentangle the work of the Progressive Alliance from other influences”. (P14) Tactical voting is inevitable, but  the role of formal alliances is debatable. Certainly it is foolish to blame Labour alone for there not being a formal Alliance, the Greens being alone in wanting to take this road. The Lib Dem behaviour in going into coalition – not merely alliance – with the Tories for five years is a factor Compass must start to address. Vince Cable and his activists deny this was wrong, but an anti Tory alliance with a party that kept the Tories in power for 5 years is a contradiction in terms.

The conclusion advises Labour that “the country is polarising …the party cannot expect to form a governing coalition in the way that it did in the Wilson and Blair eras”, correctly opening up the future debate.  The key  issues touched on include the EU issue, where Labour cannot fudge a decision as it did in 2017 because there will be at the very least a parliamentary  vote on the Tory proposals, on a take it or leave it basis. In my view the age issue will play an increasing role.  Youth is not firmly pro Labour while Age is firmly in the Tory camp. What progressives can do about this is central to the future. The analysis has to start looking at what can make a progressive electoral base when outside the big cities none of the alternative parties to the Tories and Labour have made any real headway – and in Scotland, the Tories had the biggest surge.

There is common ground that we now live in a Surge era and as the pamphlet says the main parties “face a highly volatile environment where class based voting has substantially retreated and partisan identification levels are low” (p16). How this landscape is traversed will decide the future of a great deal more than the next General Election, and this pamphlet is a valuable step towards mapping the terrain.

Trevor Fisher, October 2017

Surge Politics Download


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