Episode #150 Compass: Charting a Progressive Route through the Political Maelstrom with Neal Lawson
In a world where our ‘democracy’ is manifestly not fit for purpose, how can we turn the brief, bright fireworks of political sanity into floodlights of progressive values, of liquid democracy that leads to an equitable, regenerative culture? With Neal Lawson of the progressive campaign group, Compass.
Neal Lawson was brought up in an activist household and joined the Labour party at sixteen. After university, he worked for the Transport and General Workers’ Union and then was a speech writer for Gordon Brown during the New Labour years.
He has been helping to lead the political campaign group, Compass, since its formation in 2003. He is more focused than ever on how to make big transformative change happen. He works on strategy, relationships, funding and fronting Compass.
He writes for The Guardian, the New Statesman and OpenDemocracy about equality, democracy and the future of the left, and appears on TV and radio as a political commentator. He was the author of All Consuming (Penguin, 2009), which analysed the social cost of consumerism. Lawson’s writing has been heavily influenced by the late Polish Marxist sociologist Zygmunt Bauman who described him as “one of the most insightful and inventive minds on the British political stage”.
Compass itself is a home for those who want to build and be a part of a Good Society; one where equality, sustainability and democracy are not mere aspirations, but a living reality. We are founded on the belief that no single issue, organisation or political party can make a Good Society a reality by themselves so we have to work together to make it happen. Compass is a place where people come together to create the visions, alliances and actions to be the change we wish to see in the world.
In this episode, we explore the recent history of politics in the UK and then open more deeply into the routes by which our manifestly broken political system could be transformed into something that will – in Neal’s words – transform the brief flaring fireworks of hope into floodlights that can transform our nation, and the world.
Manda: Today’s episode is unashamedly political. In fact, it’s unashamedly British political. And I am well aware that over half of you aren’t actually resident in the UK. But we are at a point of really quite spectacular political turmoil, and it seems that there is a possibility for change. And whether that is change into something deeper along the lines of being ruled by the political wing of Q Anon, as we seem to be at the moment, or change into something progressive and decent and equitable that might actually bring us to the world that we need. It feels important to look at the possibility of this moment in the hope, if nothing else, that if we achieve change towards something progressive in the UK, then we might see ripples out across the world. So I’m sorry, this is rather parochial, but it feels immensely important.
And with that in mind, today’s guest is Neal Lawson. Neal grew up in an activist household. He joined the Labour Party at 16, and then after university he worked for the Transport and General Workers Union, one of the biggest unions in this country. He was a speechwriter for Donald Brown, and then he helped to set up and became director of Compass, a campaigning political group that is a home for those who want to build and be part of a good society, one where equality, sustainability and democracy are not mere aspirations but a living reality. Which sounds pretty good to me, and exactly what we in the Accidental Gods community are living and working towards. So with that in mind, people of the podcast, please do welcome Neil Lawson of Compass. So Neil, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast and thank you for making the time in what is an astonishingly busy political period in the UK and around the world. It does feel to me as if everything is moving towards a peak of some sort, and we have no idea what’s going to happen afterwards. So to give people a sense of perspective and where you’re coming from, can you give us the edited highlight bio of Compass, what it is, how it arose, and how you became its director?
Neal: So Compass has been around 20 years next year, which seems almost like a lifetime. It’s quite incredible that I’ve been involved in an organisation for almost 20 years. It came out of a frustration about where New Labour was going in the early, obviously in the early part of the turn of the century, a frustration that it wasn’t kind of doing the transformative stuff that we needed. And we started off as kind of, sort of New Labour’s critical friend, and became more and more critical, and less and less friendly. We’re always friendly at Compass, but kind of slightly less so. And we were an organisation that started with a belief and a desire for what we call a good society, which broadly speaking as a society, which is much more equal, democratic and sustainable. But we started almost sort of solely within the British Labour Party. To be a member of Compass, you had to be either a member of the British Labour Party or not a member of any other organisation. We sort of talked to other people and were open to other people, but we had that kind of perspective. As we became more critical, we started talking to more people outside of the ranks of the British Labour Party and working out. There were lots of people outside that we thoroughly agreed with and lots of people inside that we increasingly didn’t agree with. So having run sort of some campaigns and lots of thinking and ideas, etc., we then changed our Constitution in 2011 to say it didn’t matter which party or no party you belong to: did you believe in our kind of good society values? And that changed us dramatically. Brought in, in particular, lots of Green Party members. That was the time when the Liberal Democrats were in coalition with the Conservatives. So that was a bit more problematic. But since that time, lots of liberal Democrats have joined, and people of no party. And we see, you know, we talk about politics now in three dimensions, seeing more of the whole world. Our thing really is kind of pluralism and diversity, and how do you bring plural and diverse voices together in order to achieve that good society? Quickly run through… then obviously, Brexit happened and there was lots of interest in a thing called the Progressive Alliance, which is how to kind of a progressive unite and come together, both to stop things like Brexit and to counter the forces of conservatism and regressive politics. And we’ve been on that journey ever since of trying to work our way through: how do you change the political system in order to bring diversity, pluralism, around a kind of unified progressive demand for a good society? And maybe we’ll get into more details of that. And I’ve been a long term political advisor, thinker, researcher, bag carrier, strategist or whatever, and that’s what I’ve spent my life doing. Well, and I’m just so immensely grateful for the opportunity to work around a brilliant organisation like Compass and so many brilliant people.
Manda: Well done that, man. Thank you. And it does seem to me, having watched you grow, because I was aware of you in the Blair years, and then became a little bit less so I suppose during the time when the Lib Dems were in coalition with the Tories. But then during the Corbyn years, it felt to me as if the Progressive Alliance had somehow coalesced behind Corbyn. And then after the catastrophe of Brexit and everything slid away after that, Compass feels to me to be much more alive in many ways, and to be leading the argument. So I wonder now that the Labour Party has voted at the conference for PR, do you think that that’s a step in the right direction and that we might see an incoming Labour government move more rapidly towards PR for the subsequent elections?
Neal: So let’s just trace back a little bit of that recent history. As an organisation, Compass found both Corbyn and Brexit kind of hugely confounding. We described Corbyn as, or Corbynism – we expressed our kind of deep interest and support for the wave. We were pretty unsure about the surfer, and about the nature of the surfer’s ability to recognise the rich ecosystem that propelled him and that project. And so felt kind of uncomfortable, and didn’t think it was going to end well. And that was, and there was huge amounts of enthusiasm, understandably, for some reasons, in particular for Jeremy and his personality, which is to say understandable. But we didn’t think that that project had the political skills, emotional and cultural depth to recognise how you made a virtue of that wave that got him elected. So that was problematic because we weren’t against it, but we weren’t really for it. And then Brexit was hugely problematic for us because we’re massively pro-European, internationalist. We’ve done a whole load of work on what a kind of good Europe would look like, you know, try to bring that home to Britain after loads of events and conferences and publications all around Europe, you know, in the ten years before Brexit saying, look, Europe’s got to be so much different and better, otherwise there’s a problem down the track.
And then you have the referendum. And if Compass is anything, we’re Democrats, you know, and there was a referendum and you can ask any questions about the nature of the question and the turnout and the whatever. But we found it really difficult to then say to people, no, you’ve got the wrong answer. Have another go at that. And I know there’s lots of questions in depth around that and the nature of the campaign, the lies and whatever else. But I think it would have been the death of democracy in this country if that had been overturned. As much as I want to have the best possible relationship with other countries. So we found those two things… our voice was quietened in that period. And then you get to 2019 general election and a massive Tory majority, and then the spotlight coming back both to a progressive alliance – how do people work together? Don’t forget, in 2019 there was a progressive majority in the country. 60 million people voted for, you know, voted for progressive parties, and only 14 million voted for regressive parties. But because of our electoral system, that turns into a big majority for the Conservatives. 62, what we call progressive tragedies, seats in which the progressive vote was bigger than the regressive vote, but you end up with a Tory MP because the progressive vote splits. And then roll on, we’ve been involved in a campaign in and around the Labour Party called Labour for a New Democracy, which is to get Labour to back PR, which it did at its conference recently in September in Liverpool. Now that is a historic move, that the grassroots membership of the party and increasingly the trade unions now back PR. PR always increases support within the Labour Party when it’s losing and doesn’t think it can win. And then as soon as it can think it can win or does win, it kind of falls away. This time it’s different. The policy has never been passed by conference, but if going to all the meetings and attending all the events and speaking to people, the reason why the membership backed PR this time was mostly because of the ”in principle’ reason. If you’re a party of social justice and economic justice, you have to be a party of democratic justice, too. Now, there is a problem in all of that, in that the leadership who pretty much write the manifesto are not yet persuaded of that.
So we have to do two things. Both try and persuade the leadership of that, and maybe we’ll get into what their opposition to that is in a bit more detail. And we have to build a campaign in the country that regardless of what the Labour Party leadership do, there’s a kind of citizen’s pitch invasion of politics that says, you know, yes, we want to change the government, but we really need to change the political system. Because if we are going to deal with the multiple crises that are heading our way… or they’re not heading our way, they are in our lap. The cost of living crisis in particular, obviously the climate and nature crisis, that we have to have a system which delivers the kind of long term radical settlement that’s going to allow us to deal with those things. Otherwise, we’re in real problems. I mean, not just we’re in the problems of those crises, but we’re in the problem of people turning away from progressive politics because it will fail, and we’ll end up with an even deeper swing to the kind of populist right. So this feels like a really important moment to build a campaign and a message that says not only do we want to change the government, but we need to change the system as well.
Manda: Okay, thank you. I would love to go back to the Corbyn bit because I was a very enthusiastic Corbyn supporter, but I don’t think we’ve time, and I don’t think it’s what matters at the moment, given we are where we are. I’ve got a number of theoretical questions. Because I’ve just finished writing a novel that’s endeavouring to take us forward to a future that works. And I came very quickly to the conclusion that politics in this country was not fixable in time, and what we needed was to create a completely separate democratic process. You, as far as I can tell, think that it is fixable in time, because that’s the whole of what Compass is going to. So then we get to the question of what constitutes ‘in time’. And on this podcast, we talk quite a lot of people, particularly about the climate and ecological emergency within which our cultural and social equity emergency is folded. And we’ve had a number of different time concepts. Have you got a concept of ‘let’s assume the ship of state is accelerating towards the edge of a cliff and there is a possibility of turning it away from the edge of the cliff?’ And I understand that metaphor has its limits, but let’s go with it. How long do you think we’ve got? How many electoral cycles do you think we’ve got before it’s actually too late? Climate-wise, more than anything else.
Neal: I mean, obviously, I don’t know the answer to that. And as I get older, I kind of relax into this stuff a bit more, which doesn’t mean to say that I’m not completely agitated by the climate and nature crisis that’s clearly unfolding. But I guess I’m not sure whether ramping up the urgency, you know, and furiously shouting at people to say, look, we’ve got to do something, is going to get us there. I think that we can do what we can do. I’ve just read Oliver Burkeman’s 4000 Weeks. If anyone hasn’t read it, I would strongly suggest you do. We live for for 4000 weeks. And what Oliver helps you understand is that there is an infinite number of things that we can do, you know, in the world. And we’ve only got a finite amount of time. You can do what you can do. Do it patiently. Do it with energy and force. But, you know, and persistence. Samuel Johnson said great deeds are done not by brute strength, but by perseverance. And I think that’s right. And you need a theory of change that has kind of solid foundations, that builds and builds and builds, you know, and has the ability to adapt and move quickly.
You know, when events happen. Burkeman helped me understand a bit about just being a kind of speck of dust in the universe. And you need a kind of politics and the theory of change, which brings all of those specks of dust together so that when there is a moment, like Corbyn had his moment, and Brexit had its moment. And there will be a moment when we need to change our political system, and have we got the message and movement available and right, ready for when that moment happens? And it might happen in the next electoral cycle, it might take success or failure to do that. You know, I might be alive or not. Who cares? But we run around quickly in a kind of chaotic way, and I feel less compelled to do that. I feel more compelled to build slowly and gradually and purposefully. And who knows what’s going to be right. It’s going to have to be quick, and it’s going to have to be slow. I’ve just learned over the last, you know, years of me doing campaigning and the work that Compass does, that actually, you know, being a butterfly and jumping from one thing to another doesn’t actually lead you anywhere.
I want to build local groups, movements, ideas, networks and connections that can respond to the scale of the crises that we face and offer alternatives. I know that sounded really kind of waffly and vague, but I think it’s hard to encapsulate that. But I think that kind of steady movement building is the most important thing to do, with all of the messaging and framing and argument that goes with it, and focus on that stuff. You know, focus on doing that well, and you may leave a corner of the jigsaw done. Other people need to do other corners of the jigsaw, and put in the blue sky. But you know, Compass is doing its thing around changing the political system through our Progressive Alliance work. We’re going to continue to focus on that in a kind of laser beam fashion, you know, and hope that when the music stops, we’ve got our chair ready. The bit that really kind of keeps me going energetically is thinking, well, what if the music stops and we’re not ready? And I want to be ready for that, and that requires some patience and perseverance.
Manda: Brilliant. That wasn’t waffly at all, actually. It’s one of the most succinct answers we’ve ever had. So we need a theory of change. You need to have your chair ready for when the music stops. In this country it does look as if the music might stop quite soon, that the current government looks as if it’s collapsing in real time. In an ideal world, what does your chair look like? If the music were to stop today, or if the music were to stop at any point? Where does your theory of change put the ideal chair? Where does it go, and how do we get the kind of flexibility of government, how do we get the people who are the brightest and the best in government actually thinking about big pictures? How does Compass get us there? How would you get us there?
Neal: So I don’t want to kind of overload too much on this. But we do think that changing the electoral system is key, not because a world of Proportional Representation necessarily builds a good society, but we think that in Britain in particular, First Past the Post is the kind of glue that holds together a very centralised political system, and a system driven by elites who can dominate that central system very effectively for their own ends: build their power, build their wealth, recreate their ability to dominate even more. That is swung and moved only by the few swing voters in a few swing seats, and because of its kind of duopoly nature, just locks out – both within the party, so I’m interested in the Labour Party, I’m a member of the Labour Party, kind of locks out so many voices because it’s just about factional control of the Labour Party, which then can grab the state and then pull the levers of the of the state, in order to deliver for people. I mean a) that whole kind of Fordist linear command and control model doesn’t work anyway in the complexity of our society. That’s why we see chaos in government because, you know, the system isn’t mature enough or deep enough. There is a thing called the law of requisite variety, and the law of requisite variety just simply tells us that any complex entity has to be governed by something equally as complex as it.
And we’ve got a complex world being ordered and governed, supposedly, by an old linear, Fordist command, centralised command and control system. And it can’t work. It absolutely can’t work. And we have to break that system open. We have to make it complex, diverse, plural and decentralised. And the route to that, or the first stage of that, is introducing Proportional Representation, because then that pluralises the system, allows challenge talent, creativity in, and stops the domination of the elites, and the swing voters and the centralisation. Now the question is, how do you do that? How do you do that in a system where the turkeys vote for Christmas? That’s the central problem: that the people who benefit from First Past the Post, the machine element of the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, but mostly the Conservative Party, because First Past the Post benefits them. How do you break that? Because they set their own homework and they’re the people who regulate the system. So somehow we have to hack the system and both change the government – because the Conservatives are never going to do it. We know there’s a groundswell in the Labour Party, and how do we move that groundswell to changing the leadership, and bring in Liberal Democrats and Greens and every Democrat and every campaigner who wants change? Because whatever it is you want in the world today to deal with climate, to deal with the cost of living, to deal with human rights and civil liberties, to deal with immigration, with tax justice, whatever it is you want, you’re not going to get anything meaningful and transformative under the current system.
So our argument is that democracy isn’t the only big issue, but it is the first order issue. Unless we change the system, then we won’t get all the things we want, anywhere near them. And if we don’t get the things we want, if democracy isn’t stopping the planet burning and isn’t stopping the poor getting poorer, then we’re on the route to authoritarian populism as we’ve seen in places like Sweden, in Italy, etc. So the stakes are really high and somehow we have to deal with that conundrum of changing the government but also changing the system. Because if the polls are anywhere near right, and Labour can win next time, that’s great in the sense that they’re not the Conservatives and they’ve got some better policy ideas, but we’ve got to get them to change the system. Unless we do that, then we’re stuck.
Manda: So what kind of PR would you advocate for? What would be the most democratic, the most efficient, and the one that would work best?
Neal: We’re kind of relaunching the Progressive Alliance campaign as something called Win as One, which we think is nice, succinct, tells people what we want to do, and how. We won’t be advocating a form of PR because that’s divisive. We are going to, all we’re going to do is say that we will try and help create a parliament able to pass or enact Proportional Representation, the nature of which should be decided by that parliament or another way, a Citizen’s Assembly or a route to do that. I don’t think it’s very likely or feasible that we’re going to get a system of PR through the Labour Party that doesn’t keep some kind of constituency link, and I’m actually quite supportive of that, and there are ready made systems to do that. The German Alternative Member system, which is very similar to the Scottish system, for how they elect their members of Parliament in Scotland, that works. It keeps the constituency link which – place matters, and a connection to place, and accountability of at least the majority of MPs to a place. I can see that that’s important, but you top that up with a Proportional List system which brings those other voices and other challenge, and gives us equity in, greater equity in the democratic system, but challenges and brings in new talent and new ideas. So I think that’s probably a good compromise. But I’m willing to look at STV or other models as well. But it has to be proportional. We wouldn’t accept anything less than that.
Manda: It has always seemed to me that all of those systems, if there are party lists, then the party apparatchiks still control who’s on the list, and that that’s going to keep the factional control within the parties. That is so evident within the Labour Party. But I hear you that this isn’t necessarily a conversation for now.
Neal: There are ways around that. I mean, you can have open list systems that don’t allow the bureaucratic control. And PR is just a route to unblock the system. And then you can, then you’ll get proper decentralisation. then you’ll get a proper second revising chamber. And then you can start getting into the much more interesting concepts of liquid democracy, which are the kind of mish mash of direct, deliberative and representative, you know, that places like Taiwan and others. So putting ‘go faster stripes’ on a clapped out kind of Victorian Democratic model is only necessary in order to unlock the control of the centre and the elites. Once you’ve done that, then you can bring a whole load of interesting 21st century concepts of democracy onto the table.
Manda: So the first question is how do we persuade the leader of the Labour Party who, from my personal factional point of view has moved straight back to Tony Blair, New Labour without the charisma – how do we persuade this guy and the people around him to bring PR into the next manifesto, when self-evidently it’s going to break their hold over the party and politics?
Neal: Yeah, it’s a big tough ask. I would say that Starmer is slightly more complex than the caricature that you offered of him. If you look at his speech that he made in Liverpool, then there was a complex mix in that of yes, some Blairism, but also I would say some Brownism, some Millibandism, and certainly some Corbynism. You know, British Energy is not something that would have come out of the Blair playbook. So I think he’s on a journey. A sympathetic argument would be that they’ve secured their base, they’ve established a 33% lead in the polls. It’s not a bad place to be. But if this is a big if, it has to be a big transformative 1945 moment, you know, in 2025, then clearly they need to do an awful lot more. And that lot more is based on that democratic renewal of our constitution and our political system. And it is a challenge to them, because it does, PR does threaten that command and control model of politics. And that’s an internal command and control of how you discipline people within the party. But it’s also a model of how you discipline the electorate as well, because it says, First Past the Post says to people, we don’t care what you really want, we’re going to provide you, you know, the alternative is, you know, a shit party, or a kind of slightly less shit party.
And we know that you have to vote for us because you have to vote for the lesser shit one, you know, and that isn’t a very attractive proposal, I would suggest. But if you are a control freak, you know, then you will go for that, because you don’t want challenge, you don’t want contestation, you don’t want variety. And I guess we’ve just got to kind of keep hammering away with both the instrumental argument that if you want people to vote tactically, you’ve got to give them an incentive to do that. Who knows where the polls will be? That 33% lead won’t last. The Tories won’t kind of allow Truss to kind of lead them back into the wilderness. They’ll do something. What they’ll do will be quite interesting, I think, and may be quite purposeful. So there’s that kind of instrumental argument. But the ‘in principle’ argument to say that if you want to govern effectively in the 21st century, you have to do it by that plural diverse model. And if the Labour Party membership, which was always pretty tribal, you know, and pretty narrow in its thinking, can be won over to that kind of pluralist approach, and if the trade unions can, then the Labour Party leadership can.
And whether that happens before the election or after, that wave of kind of trusting people and believing in people, and recognising that change will only come when you trust people and believe in them, and they become agents of, collective agents of their destiny for for themselves, their family, their communities, the country. That is an undeniable wave. And it will either be that one, or it will be the authoritarian populist: let’s vote for a kind of a leader who tells us who to follow and who to hate. And that choice is becoming incredibly stark. And we just have to keep pushing away, you know, persevering with that argument, and hoping that they will change. And if not, they will be, I mean, I think in time they will be swept away by history. You can only keep the pressure lid on for so long, you know, before people, you know, just as Labour lost Scotland and then they lost the red wall. If they don’t change the system, they’ll lose, you know, another wave of people and won’t be able to withstand that. So I think they have to change. We will try and make them change. And if they don’t change, then they will pay the price. And we will. But, you know, we have to keep building because political system change is is the thing that matters. We have to make it happen.
Manda: Okay. Yes, that all makes a lot of sense.
Neal: And then so practically, you know, we’re not going to wait for them. We will build up that argument. But our Win as One campaign is based in the seats that we need to win to change the government. And in those seats, what we’re trying to do is build up the levels of of voting activism, money, resource and pressure to get those candidates to back system change and back PR, so that we both get the change of government, but we get candidates who want to change the system. And can we end up with a parliament with a kind of cross-party caucus who prioritise systems change and in particular PR? That’s what we’re trying to do. So if Starmer comes on board, brilliant, great. If he doesn’t, we’re not going to wait. You know, we’re going to build up that pressure for, you know, and build support locally and nationally for the people who do want systems change.
Manda: Brilliant. Thank you. And it seems to me that this is happening at the ground level, anyway. I’ve spoken to a couple of people in various constituencies where one or other of Labour or the Lib Dems has already decided to stand aside, effectively. Even if they’re not – their leadership is not agreeing to this, it seems to be happening on the ground. So I’d like to explore where we get to when we’ve got this. Let’s assume that we can. Let’s assume that the best of all possible worlds has happened and that not the immediate election, but the subsequent one is held under an intelligent form of PR that works for people. I would suggest extending the voting franchise to younger people also. In my book that we did an age cut-off at the top end as well, which of course was incredibly controversial and was part of what brought everything crashing down. But where do we get to then? What does our more plural, more diverse, more emotionally literate form of government look like? Can you cast us ahead? I realise this isn’t necessarily where Compass goes, but where you, as a human being and a political thinker go. Where could governance get to, in a way that would help us to address the multipolar, highly complex issues of our time?
Neal: So I think we can get into the structures of that. I think the emotion of it, and the cultural sell is the most important. Because broadly we see democracy as a bit of a chore, something you have to do and grind your way through it. And you can understand that given the nature of debate, and the nature of the kind of dry, narrow culture, the climbing up the greasy pole, etc. Mostly we have to switch our emotional relationship to democracy from being a chore to being a joy, to having the joy of collectively deciding the future and fate of your neighbourhood, community, country, society, etc. That as human beings we fully express ourselves and develop ourselves as those kind of autonomous, in the true sense of the word, beings who decide our fate, you know, in a in a democratic, plural, collective way. And that brings that, that intrinsic value is one that will, as I say, people will find joy through the expression. So if that’s the goal, then you need structures which are going to enable that to happen. So the kind of, you know, the broader thought process is that you get a system of PR, that pluralises is the system, it equalises the system. You get new voices and new ideas in which unblock and glue the centralised, kind of, I don’t want to use the word constipated, but it was in my mind, so I’ve used it, you know, that kind of unblocks all of that and allows a kind of new politics to flourish and that, you know, so what that looks like…
So the term liquid democracy, which we used earlier, is that kind of mix of, yes, we will still have representatives, but your relationship to those representatives will be wholly different – that you can say to those representatives, I’ll give you my vote for a limited time, or on a range of of issues. And I would take that back when I want to take it back, and I will give it to someone else if I think that they are going to use it more effectively. It’s about bringing in deliberative democracy. So Citizens’ Assemblies which have proven themselves that the wisdom of the crowd outbeats everything else. So we would build a Citizens’ Assembly systematically into the decision making process. And yes, there would be kind of, you know, direct democracy, you know, referendums probably held alongside Citizens’ Assemblies. And you see that working in places like Ireland, where they’ve kind of looked at very difficult cultural issues like abortion rights, you know, and dealt with those in a mature fashion. And then there’s loads of other things. You mentioned the kind of age range stuff, that’s really interesting. I’m not sure if I’m a fan of compulsory voting or not, but you can bring that in.
There’s also fantastic ideas like quadratic voting. So how, when you vote, do you begin to kind of express a stronger preference for some issues over others? So you have a kind of a kind of basket of votes in a sense. And if you want to put them all on one issue, you can put them all on one issue, but you can’t put them on others, because you’ve used them up, because you feel so strongly about something. So there’s all of that can be done and there’s lots of other, you know, structures and methods as well. There’s a rich panoply, particularly in a kind of much more digital world where you can, democracy can be a regular expression. And it’s really about people having that when they need it. Can they have a meaningful, purposeful democratic voice? No, I don’t want to go to meetings all night. I want to sit and binge-watch things on the telly, or go for a walk or cycle, or whatever else. You know, I don’t want people in meetings all the time. But what I do want them to feel is to be fully developed human beings who can express their cultural, social and political instincts in a way that is meaningful, and we can do that. We just have to unlock the system and start that journey to a better democracy, which is the underpinning of a better society.
Manda: Brilliant. I am so glad you brought up quadratic voting. It’s one of my really exciting ideas at the moment. I found that and thought, Oh, yes, yes, this would make a difference. And I think I’m really interested in exploring Citizens’ Assemblies, as someone who gets them. Because it seems to me that in Ireland, the Citizens’ Assembly model really worked well. They partly, I think because they brought in 30 people from the Doyle as well. So there was a kind of political input. The Citizens’ Assemblies decided the subjects, and then the wording of the questions. We fast forward to Britain, where a parliamentary committee set up a Citizens’ Assembly, not the government, looking at climate change. And it came out with the result that banning SUVs was the answer to fixing climate change, which is manifestly insane and toothless. And so somewhere between Ireland and the UK, we managed to create a Citizens’ Assembly that was a total waste of time, as far as I can tell. You may have a different view on it, but I’m interested in how we can redemocratise a process that our political structure managed to neuter very effectively.
Neal: Yeah, we have. I mean, there have been better examples of that with councils around the country that have run more effective local Citizens’ Assemblies. But I think the things you point out are, you know, essential elements of a successful Citizens’ Assembly. I think political buy-in and engagement is really important, and people see that. Agenda setting is really important. Who sets the question? And that should be done by the Citizens’ Assembly, as you suggest. But I see we just really have a you know, we have a political culture, particularly in the UK, which again is is embedded and entrenched by First Past the Post, which is really about control. It’s really about technocrats knowing what’s best. It’s a very paternalistic model of.. Even the, you know, the well-meaning. And most politicians are pretty well meaning, to be honest. Even those in the Conservative Party, not many of them want to do horrible things to people, to be honest, but most of them want to be in charge. Most of them don’t trust people, don’t recognise the wisdom of the crowd, you know, and worry about, well, what if right wing people get elected to parliament? You know, we’ll get fascists elected to Parliament. And you go, how right wing does this country need to be, you know, before you recognise that it’s much better those people being represented? You know, it’s just got to be open, grown up, mature, trusting, letting go, not holding, not abusive, you know, not dominating. It’s just a totally different culture. And it’s the culture of the 21st century, and it’s out there, and somehow it’s got to enter the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall, you know, and change it. And it will. It’s just going to keep, we just have to keep blowing, pushing, you know, charging, loving, caring, you know, all the things you have to do in order to get people to change.
Manda: Okay. And we’re heading near the end of our time together. I would love to know more about those councils. Maybe you can tell me about them afterwards, and I can get in touch with one and talk to them. So the final question, I think, unless it leads to another final question, is, it seems to me, looking from the outside, that a lot of our politics takes its tone from the media, particularly the tabloids. But we live in a kind of media ecosystem where the BBC takes its headlines from The Daily Mail, and the Telegraph then feeds in from another angle. And we have a very right wing media with a couple of exceptions, and I would not include The Guardian as an exception. And how do we break its balance? Because in order, I think, to get the current political state to accept PR. We had a PR referendum and it was lost, I would say, because a very heavy chunk of the media told people that it was a very bad idea with really interesting, for its time, appeals to people’s amygdalas. You know, they went to the base, the bottom of the brain stem, which is what happened with Brexit as well. And those of us on the progressive side have a tendency to explain things to people’s cerebral cortices, and the race to the bottom of the brain stem will always win that. So when you say that you want people to fall in love with politics, then that’s an emotional affect. And it creates a sense of agency and we begin to get the serotonin ticks and not the dopamine ticks. But in the absence of strong serotonin measures, the dopamine ticks are going to win. And the Mail, and the other tabloids and the Beeb and the others are very good at feeding the dopamine ticks. Have you got ideas of how we can shift the centre of gravity of our our nation’s media and our global media towards a more progressive, regenerative, flourishing, compassion-based concept?
Neal: So just a correction there. The vote on the 2011 vote on electoral reform was for a thing called the Alternative Vote, which isn’t Proportional Representation. And we have to be very clear about that, because people say that we’ve rejected PR. We haven’t. We rejected a minor change to First Past the Post, which could be even more unfair. And there would have been, you know, the forces of PR would have got behind that more effectively if there was PR.
Manda: So then why was that? Because, you know, it was the price of the Lib-Dems going into government with the Tories. I was a Lib Dem at the time. I had been a Lib Dem since student hood. I was horrified by what they were doing. I went to their conference and it was sold to us as, we are going to get a vote on PR. Why then did the Lib Dems allow it to become a vote on something that wasn’t PR?
Neal: I don’t know. You’d have to ask Nick Clegg that. It was definitely the wrong system advocated by the wrong people at the wrong time. Apart from that, it was it was perfect.
Manda: Do you think if they’d advocated something else that it would have got through?
Neal: It would have been different. I don’t think that this is why… message of movement matters, you know, and I don’t think they’d got the message of movement right for electoral reform. So it goes back to that. You can’t just dictate politics from the top. You have to build up movements and messaging and framing, as you were suggesting, that are going to be effective. And they hadn’t done any of that work, and the right had done a lot of that work, and they’d practised how to win referendums. Famously, there was a referendum to devolve power to the north east under Labour, and that’s where, you know, the right wing began to learn how to hone those kind of, you know, more primitive messaging skills. Then they run them again in 2011 for that AV referendum and they run them successfully again in 2016 over Brexit. So they’re very good at that. To come back to the big question is kind of how do we break the hold of that? The right wing are always in power. Sometimes they’re in power and in office, or most of the time they’re in power and office, and sometimes when they’re exhausted, they let the Labour Party back in for a short period of time. So how do we counter that? How do we do a version of 1945 in 2025? 1945 happened not just because there was a few, you know, there was a Labour government, although that was essential, but it happened because there was what David Marquand called a century long conversation about new thinking and new ideas.
Neal: There was the trade union movement. There was the threat of the Soviet Union. There was a Fordist production system which lent itself to a form of government. There were soldiers coming back from war who remembered the depression of the thirties. So it’s a whole load of forces that come together to recreate our society, you know, and much of it was pragmatic. The capitalist knew that, you know, there could be revolution, you know, so we didn’t want that. So you had to give the working class something to buy all that off. Now, what’s our version of that in 2025, given the scale of the economic and environmental challenges that we face? Well, we live in this brilliant, amazing moment, and we can only fashion things out at the moment that we live in. And it just depends whether you.. the glass is both half full and half empty. We live in essentially a different non-linear, networked, interconnected world, obviously because of the technology. And that technology is reasonably… well, I don’t think it is benign. I think it can lend itself to more progressive outcomes. This is our kind of central picture at Compass about what we believe. It’s written up in a document called 45 Degree Change that we produced a couple of years ago. And what that says is that in that digital, interconnected, increasingly flat world, of course, that can be skewed by by the Right. They can use it to communicate. They can use it for their echo chambers.
But flatter, by definition, lends itself to equality, I think. I don’t think the good society was ever going to be built by a hierarchy, by paternalistic, top-down technocrats who were going to give us what they thought they wanted, which was the 1945 model. Now, at least we have the chance in that flatter world, in that world of infinite connection, infinite access, infinite dialogue, to be able to organise, think, talk, learn, move en masse. We’ve got to learn the art of all of this: the culture of the swarm, and how it moves around from one thing to another. But in that flatness there is the hope for a more democratic equal society, and that will by definition create one that is able and willing to deal with the climate crisis. Now, that’s the terrain we live in. Marx said, we make history, but not in conditions of our choosing. That is the terrain that we operate in. We have to learn how we use that terrain effectively to mobilise messages and movements to do the things the democratic, egalitarian and sustainable things that we need to do. We can do nothing else. There is no other world we live in. It’s this one. But I am hopeful and optimistic in the real sense of those words that we can adapt the moment, the culture, the technology, to progressive ends. And obviously we have to.
But my optimism comes from that belief that, you know, given enough connections, given enough voice, given enough collectivity, we can counter the hierarchies and elites of the Mail, the City, Murdoch, etc., through all the plethora of new community organisations. You know, this is a rich thing going on out there of people realising neither the market or the state can give them what they want. So they’re behaving in a network collective way to try and find their way through. We talk about all these these fireworks that light up the sky of community activity, of environmental activity, of media activity, the whole By-line Times kind of thing that’s going on. These are all the fireworks of a 21st century. The job of politics is to change those fireworks that light up the sky and you see the future, but then, you know, transcend back to darkness because they’re not sustained. How do we sustain them through a political system that recognises they’re the energy and forces of the future? How do we move from fireworks to floodlights? How do we change the design of the system so that it’s all about those people, all about their energy, their creativity and their collectivism? That’s what we have to do. And I think we live at a moment where that’s possible. If we have the energy, the vitality and the perseverance, we can begin to do that. So, you know, let’s see. But I think there are grounds for hope.
Manda: That’s fantastic. Neal. That’s one of the most inspiring political speeches I have ever heard. So, yes, fireworks to floodlights. I think that’s beautiful and fantastic. And I would encourage everybody listening to head off and join Compass, and see what we can do in our own communities to make that happen. And you never know. There might be an election around the corner in which we could all begin to put all of this into practice. Thank you so much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast. This has been fantastic and deeply inspiring.
Neal: My pleasure.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to Neil for everything that he’s doing with Compass, and for taking the time out of an incredibly busy schedule to come and share with us the visions of the ways that we could turn the fireworks into flood lights. I love that metaphor. And so that’s your homework for this week, people. If you’re not already a member of Compass and you live in the UK, then please do consider joining. Neil hosts the Compass podcast called It’s Bloody Complicated. And in a recent edition somebody commented that early donations are the yeast that makes the bread rise. And however close or far we are from a general election in the UK, anything that we can do now to bring progressive values to the minds of more people is a good thing. So please join if you can. And if you’re not in the UK, then please consider setting up something similar in whatever jurisdiction you’re in because there cannot be too much decency, integrity and emotional literacy in our politics just now. So be creative. Send up a few fireworks. And join us again next week for another conversation. In the meantime, huge thanks to Caro C for the sound production and the music at the head and foot. To Faith Tillery for the website and the tech and the conversations that keep us moving forward. To Gill Coombs for this transcript, and those on either side. And as ever, to you for listening, we wouldn’t be here without you, and your enthusiasm and your support are definitely what keep us going.
And a particular shout out to those of you who sent in ideas of people that we could talk to. I’ve got them all on file. I am, however, at the moment booked out until next March. I’m not entirely sure how that happened. I think largely I got to the end of the book and I got enthusiastic and sent out a bunch of emails to people inviting them to be guests, and they all said Yes, which is grand and wonderful and I’m really happy. But if you have any ideas, could you sit on them till probably about January? Because otherwise we’re at risk of booking people a year in advance, which feels probably not very kind for other people’s calendars, and also means that we don’t have the gaps for when really exciting things are happening in the world and we want to interview somebody at that moment. So if you’ve got good ideas or thoughts, I’m on Manda@AccidentalGods.Life, and you’re always welcome to write to me. But please: ideas next year. And in the meantime, please do share the links with any and all of your friends who you think want to live in a better world, or even to know that these kinds of conversations are happening. You don’t have to agree with everything that we say. But if we can open up the conversation, if we can create emotional literacy, if we can begin to hear each other rather than just shouting into the void, then every conversation that we have is worthwhile. So that’s it for this one. See you next week. Thank you for being there. And goodbye.
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