Building a progressive majority in Sussex

Jeff Rodrigues reflects on his experience of working with Sussex Progressives on a progressive alliance in the county’s five constituencies. A key part of his role is as mentor to the core group focusing on building strategic capacity and devising large group engagement processes.

The PM’s snap election announcement quickly brought the tension in the group to the surface. Most were immediately focused on the need to convince local progressive party leaders to collaborate to exclude Tory candidates from success. But others, more attached to a values-based approach, were anxious about narrowing the focus of the work of Sussex Progressives to a simple question of an electoral alliance. This dynamic – between the shorter term/narrower focus on electoral/party relationships and the longer, broader aim of investing effort and resources in building a social movement of parties and civil society organisations – is one of the most interesting features of progressive alliances. It is not so much a division between individuals – all share both aims – as a tension about where to focus attention and imagination. The looming election date has ensured that the immediate focus will be on persuading parties to collaborate to stop the Tories winning Sussex seats. More of this later.

Sussex Progressives intentionally do not see themselves as a party. Thus they pay little attention to detailed policy issues whose distinctions they see as the domain of parties; instead they concentrate on the bigger issues that inform and frame policy, and evaluate options through the perspectives of their fundamental values.

The founders were mostly twenty-somethings who had been involved in campaigning for Remain. Some had been very much spooked by the xenophobic tone and mendacity of the Leave campaign, others wanted to develop further the positive experience of working together that the Sussex Remain campaign had provided. In interviews with me they express a palpable anxiety that progressive values have declined in the face of far right and populist advance in the UK, in the rest of Europe and in the US. The ‘threat to progressivism’ is seen to predate Brexit, and thought of as a longer-term trend that requires a renewal of progressive political values. They see themselves as progressives first and members of parties second. Initially independent of the Compass national initiative, the two now work closely together.

Membership and attendance at events has grown rapidly: flagship events aimed at generating support for the idea of a progressive alliance before the election announcement attracted large numbers (250 in Lewes and 160 in Brighton in the last four weeks, another 150 at a planning meeting just after the election announcement and a further 60 at a ‘barnstorming’ workshop led by people from the Bernie Sanders campaign [and with just twenty-fours notice]). The database of contacts has reached just under a thousand in a short period.

The aim is to give meaning to the group’s values in practical ways. For example, concern about democratic practice means that preparation for meetings is given a lot of thought, especially about how to create new forms of interaction, and this means that meetings often feel quite different from traditional political meetings. The process of the meeting – how a discussion or interaction is conducted – thus receives great attention as well as the outcomes.

But the pull of electoral coalition and tactical voting is understandably strong. The aim in Sussex is to elect only progressive MPs on 8 June, and this is feasible. Lewes and Eastbourne currently have Conservative MPs (both women), but both constituencies have some Richmond-like features – they are ex LibDem seats with strong Remain votes in the EU Referendum and small 2015 winning majorities. In Brighton Pavilion the Greens co-leader Caroline Lucas has built an enviable national as well as a local reputation and all progressive parties formally (LibDems will not be standing) or informally (Labour) seem keen to protect her majority from right-wing attack. In Hove, Labour’s Peter Kyle, widely seen as progressive (although reservations accrue from his opposition to PR), can probably only be safe if Green and LibDem activists withhold their efforts to prevent splitting the vote. In Brighton Kemptown, where Tory Simon Kirby has a 630 majority and where the Green Party has already decided not to contest, any LibDem holding back from their own party’s campaign in the constituency could help unseat him in favour of a the Labour candidate. Sussex Progressives have had key roles in brokering progressive alliances in all five Sussex constituencies. Labour, the most tribal and the least willing to enter formally into an electoral alliance, is likely to be the biggest gainer from a progressive alliance (assuming voters don’t backlash against their normal choice parties by refusing to vote). But from Sussex Progressives’ perspective, the bigger benefit is the progressive cause.

The prospect of Sussex electing only progressive candidates to its five constituencies is an enticing vision. The progressive alliance may be more attractive to many than party loyalty because of a perception of a meta-level threat, a threat to values – that it is not just a question of policies. It’s possible Labour tribalists don’t see the political situation this way. Or maybe they do but are blinded by an old paradigm, or perhaps they do but don’t care (‘I’d rather lose with Corbyn than win with a neo-Blairite’, as one local party activist put it). The Sussex Progressives’ following, especially among young people, is something of an antidote to this.

Jeff Rodrigues lives in Brighton and is a member of the Lawrence & Wishart board.

Soundings 65: Populism and alliances is out now.