Tag Archives: Progressive Alliance

How the system hurts UK democracy

My article in Global Discourse is temporarily available for free.

Shortly after the UK general election of December 2019 I wrote a policy article for the spring 2020 edition of Global Discourse, setting out what my involvement in politics has taught me about the UK’s flawed democratic system. Now, until the end of November, the article is available free to read as part of Bristol University Press’ Populism and Democracy Collection.

Read my article for free before 30 November 2020 (click the ‘Download PDF’ button on the right-hand side of the article title).

Image of the Global Discourse journal cover page

In the article, I argue why in my view the UK system undermines rather than delivers democratic outcomes. The piece explores the many negative consequences of the system and focuses on that most blatant of all flaws, the first-past-the-post system used for general elections. But it isn’t all grimness: I end with some reflections on how politicians and citizens can work together to overcome the injustice that’s hard-wired into the voting system.

Many of my reflections are informed by the organising and campaigning work I have been doing as an active member and occasional candidate for the Green Party of England and Wales, and a staff member of the political platform Compass, that works across progressive parties and organisations to create the political preconditions for a Good Society.  

Through both, I have had the privilege of experiencing first-hand the potential as well as the complexity of alliance-based politics, which I would describe as a temporary arrangement between two or more political actors to prioritise a joint ‘bigger picture’ objective over immediate narrow party-political objectives. 

Looking at how the first-past-the-post system works and how it disadvantages smaller parties by design and progressive parties as a result of the national political landscape, it’s not difficult to see the potential of ‘progressive alliances’. Collectively, with their respective votes adding up instead of cancelling each other out, progressive parties have a much stronger chance of achieving a House of Commons majority.

Yet, the simplicity of the maths can easily obscure the complexity beneath, the often historical and cultural differences that affect relationships between political parties and their activists, even when their broad political aims are aligned. Mutual understanding, trust and generosity are key ingredients of a genuine alliance and these take time as well as perseverance to build. 

This is where my article turns from despair to hope: by looking at the people and organisations who have shown how to overcome the political tribalism that the UK voting system prescribes, and by arguing that the successful alliance-based politics that they are putting in practice can lead the way to a revival of genuine democracy at a time the country needs it more than ever.

Let’s not be complacent, though. To achieve what is needed, to win, progressives in the UK have a serious challenge to overcome. In the article I put it this way:

“To be successful, the next chapter of progressive collaboration will have to start from an acknowledgement that we all have things to learn. Everyone will have to understand that past behaviours – our own and those of our potential allies – cannot shape how we treat each other in the present and in the future.”

Betrayed by the system: how the UK’s inadequate democratic system thwarts grown-up politics, and how we can begin to change this appears in Global Discourse, vol 10, no 2, 395-399. Global Discourse is a publication by Bristol University Press. Due to its inclusion in the ‘Populism and Democracy Collection’ the article can be read for free until 30 November 2020.

Linking directly to the article is disabled by the publisher. After following a link from this blog, you’ll need to click on the blue button that says Download PDF on the right-hand side of the title. Apologies for that.

Dutch social democracy has hit rock bottom. Rejoice!

Why a progressive alliance is the key to renewal for the PvdA.

Across Europe, social democracy is in unprecedented decline. The French PS was irrelevant at last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections and in Germany’s recent general elections the SPD lost yet more ground to rivals left and right. While the Labour Party in the UK may look like an exception to the rule, its 2017 election result owed a great deal to tactical voting – a last-resort strategy adopted by voters whose first-preference candidate or party was effectively disqualified by the first-past-the-post voting system. This article focuses on the Netherlands, where local elections on 21 March resulted in yet another downturn for the Partij van de Arbeid (PvdA). It argues that much like progressives in the UK, the Dutch left needs a progressive alliance, and that building such a pact offers social-democrats a path back to political relevance.

Only 12 years ago the Dutch social-democrats of the PvdA enjoyed a resounding success in nationwide local elections, winning almost 25 percent of the overall vote, and celebrating victories in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht. The party seemed to have overcome its difficult moment of the early 2000s, when large chunks of its traditional voter base had turned to populist parties instead.

Now, three electoral cycles on from that day, the PvdA has seen more than two-thirds of its vote share across the Netherlands evaporate – a fall from first to fifth among the national parties. Looking at the results of last week’s Dutch local elections, one would be tempted to think that their 2006 victory was their last. It may well have been.

While at the national level the collapse of the social democrats (in the 2017 general election) was abrupt and spectacular, their demise in local councils has been a gradual one. Take Amsterdam, where between 2006 and 2018 the PvdA went from 20 to 15 to 10 to 5 seats on the city’s 45-seat municipal council. The picture is similar (if less linear) in other places, and begs the question whether time is up for social democracy in the Netherlands.

The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

Empty nest

As a party in its own right, the PvdA has little hope of regaining its status as the leading force of the Dutch left. The proportional voting system in the Netherlands has bred a diverse – some would say fragmented – political landscape. Voter loyalty is low: the electorate has seen all kinds of ‘landslide’ election results for the best part of two decades, gradually tempting even the most risk-averse voter into reconsidering their options. All of this has eroded the appeal of a traditional broad-church social-democrat party, which today to many voters just looks bland.

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Map of the Netherlands showing the largest party per municipality (Image ANP)

In Amsterdam and Utrecht, cities with large populations of young, highly educated voters, the greens of GroenLinks were winners in last week’s local elections, receiving upwards of 20 percent of the vote. In Rotterdam and The Hague, where the ‘traditional working class’ electorate is bigger, victory went to local parties with populist roots. Denk, a new party speaking up for migrant communities, took multiple seats in all these cities’ councils. The list goes on, the picture is consistent: the voter constituencies formerly united in the social-democratic mainstream have branched out to new, bespoke political homes, leaving the PvdA a near-empty nest.

Green surge

While to some this may sound like a tragedy, it needn’t be. Sure, the demise of a largely progressive political party with all of its history, institutions, networks, and people represents a loss to Dutch politics and society. One that many, inside and outside the party, will continue to feel for some time to come. Nonetheless, the view from rock-bottom could be a hopeful one, as long as the Dutch social-democrats choose an inclusive path to renewal, one that recognises the challenges and opportunities of the wider progressive left, of which the PvdA used to be nucleus.

Nationally, Dutch progressives are on the back foot, and have been for some time. The so-called moderate parties of the right, as well as most media, are obsessed with anti-immigrant politicians, which the former shamelessly (and successfully) parrot for electoral gain. But it’s not all doom and gloom. While the left as a whole has contracted, the Dutch greens are breaking through into the mainstream, with GroenLinks winning big not just in university cities, but also in suburban areas and even in the industrial town of Helmond. All of this without diluting their message of rigorous economic reform, firm climate action, and welcoming refugees – a narrative previously associated with the electoral margins.

At the same time, the political emancipation of minority ethnic groups in the Netherlands has found a new vessel. Frustrated with barriers to representation within the mainstream parties, a group of non-white politicians broke away from the PvdA to form Denk, and quickly gathered a diverse following. Their agenda is a progressive one, mostly, and one that is finding a warm reception across migrant communities. While it is regrettable, of course, to find that the traditional parties have largely failed to empower migrant voices, the rise of Denk has the potential to improve the political representation and participation of people the traditional left was unable to reach.

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Frans Timmermans   (Image Elsevier).

The diverse progressive left in the Netherlands further includes a socialist party which has proven to be a potent left-wing alternative to divisive populists, and which boasts a wealth of networks and support especially in (post-)industrial communities. It includes a green protest party, which focuses on animal rights and has steadily grown since its inception 15 years ago. It has a good deal of common ground with the liberal democrats of D66 and the social protestant party, both of which are currently propping up the country’s centre-right government. And there’s the PvdA itself still, with all its political capital and its swathes of widely-respected politicians, from Frans Timmermans (European Commissioner) to Khadija Arib (Speaker of the House of Representatives) to Ahmed Aboutaleb (Mayor of Rotterdam).

Rainbow pact

Of course, the internal diversity of this landscape of progressive parties is not without challenges. But in a nation which has the consensus politics of coalition in its DNA, it should not be beyond progressive leaders to build on shared priorities and confront the regressive right in a more unified manner. This is where a renewed PvdA could prove itself essential, and where it could find a credible raison d’être: in being the broker and architect of a progressive answer to 17 years of cagy, reactive politics, dictated by fear of the likes of Fortuyn and Wilders.

The lure of governing, of delivering the Prime Minister, has always made the social democrats averse to entering into alliances with other, smaller, forces on the left. Now that the 2017 general election has decisively freed it from those shackles, and with no other progressive party naturally dominating the pack, it’s time for the PvdA (and indeed others on the left) to give serious thought to a common agenda that is brave and robust in its ambition, and firm in its rejection of the reactive right narrative. It would require progressive parties to agree and communicate the political direction before an election, then set the policy accents on the basis of the result.

If successful, such a ‘progressive rainbow pact’ could change politics for generations to come. Firstly, its success would demonstrate that right-wing populism can be beaten in a proportional system without pandering to its agenda of identity politics and fear. Secondly, it would show that a highly diverse political landscape, nurtured by the mechanics of proportional representation, can produce not only a stable governing force, but one that delivers bold progressive change, encompassing the priorities of a diverse electorate. This should be the destiny of social democracy in the Netherlands – and arguably across Europe.

This article was written for Compass and originally appeared here.