#182 Primary Strategy: Growing a new voting paradigm in the South Devon Primary
How do we introduce genuine democracy to our broken voting system? South Devon Primary group have an idea that could change everything.
As you’ll know by now, one of our core motivators in creating this podcast was the realisation that the ‘democratic’ systems of the world are largely broken and are not a useful way to affect change. I used to be a political activist. I thought I’d given all that up, but today’s conversation has definitely re-awakened my political instincts because today I’m talking with two of the people who set up South Devon Primary: a group committed to changing the political system in the UK.
So the first thing to say for those of you who live elsewhere is that this episode is focused on the need for change in the Westminster Parliament. But the issues are worldwide and whatever your political system, it could probably do with being shaken up. We need to share best practice across the globe and what Simon Oldridge, Anthea Simmons and Ben Long have created feels like a template that could be replicated not just throughout the UK but across the world. The principles are basic and while it’s not going to take us to full democracy in one giant leap, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. If adopted around the nation (and the world) it could see us move away from the politics of hatred, fear and resentment to something a great deal more generative.
To look at these three in more depth and so understand where they’re coming from: Simon Oldridge was an accountant with Ernst and Young and then CEO of a manufacturing company. More recently, his awareness of the climate and ecological crisis has led him to engage with a group endeavouring to put forward a Climate and Ecology Bill to the UK parliament (he talks about this in the podcast) and to set up the South Devon Primary campaign which you’ll hear about in much more depth.
Anthea Simmons is Editor in Chief of the progressive online paper, West Country Voices, speaker for Devon for Europe and author of a number of books, including one for young climate activists. Before that, rather like Simon, she worked in financial asset management. She’s a passionate advocate for the South Devon Primary and invented the Democracy Meter, which you’re also hear about in the conversation.
Ben Long is an author and educator and currently helps his partner run her ceramics business in Devon. He didn’t join us on the podcast – partly because I think two extra voices is enough to contend with – but he’s a core part of the work of South Devon Primary.
And that work is practical, active, really intelligently targeted and if it were taken up around the country, could do more, I think, to shape the outcome of the next general election than anything else I’ve found. Listen, enjoy – and then make this happen as near to wherever you live as you can.
Manda: I used to be a political activist and I did think I had given all that up. But after today’s conversation I am definitely rethinking that. Because today I talked with two of the people who set up the South Devon Primary, which is a group committed to changing the entire political landscape in the UK, the way that politics is done. You will hear the details in the podcast, but it is fair to say for those of you who live outside the UK, this is focussed on the need for change in the Westminster Parliament and how we might do it. That said, I think the issues that we face of capture and hegemony by a financial and political elite are worldwide. And whatever your political system, it could probably do with being shaken up and that we in the progressive side, whatever we want to call it, need to share the best practice across the globe.
So this is what we’re doing. Simon Aldridge and Anthea Simons and Ben Long have created what feels like a template, that could be replicated not just throughout the UK, though I sincerely hope it is replicated throughout the UK, but also across the world. So very briefly, looking at these people in a little bit more depth. Simon Aldridge was an accountant with Ernst and Young and then CEO of a local business. More recently, he’s become so much more aware of the climate and ecological crisis. Or possibly it’s better to say that has become the driver of what he’s doing. And this has led him to engage previously with a group endeavouring to put forward a climate and ecology bill to the UK Parliament. You will hear about that in the podcast. And pertinent to this podcast, he has set up the South Devon primary campaign, which is what we’re going to be talking about in much more depth. Anthea Simons is editor in chief of the Progressive online paper West Country Voices. She’s a speaker for Devon for Europe Campaign and author of a number of books, including one for young climate activists. Before that, intriguingly, I’m going to do a study now on how people in high finance have changed. Rather like Simon, she worked in financial asset management, in this case for KPMG. She’s a passionate advocate now for the South Devon primary, and she invented the Democracy metre, which you will also hear about in the conversation.
Ben long is our third founder. He’s an author and educator and he currently helps his partner run her ceramics business in Devon. He didn’t join us on the podcast partly because I think two extra voices is enough for you to contend with. But he is a core part of the work of South Devon Primary, and that work is practical, it’s active, it’s really intelligently thought through and targeted. And if it were taken up in the rest of this country, I think it could do more to shape the outcome of the next general election than anything else I have found. I also several times mentioned Compass and I think I said Mark Lawson instead of Neil Lawson. I apologise profusely. Mark Lawson used to interview me when I was a novelist. Neil, I do know your name is Neil. Neil Lawson. That apart, people of the podcast get ready for change with Simon Aldridge and Anthea Simmons of South Devon Primary.
Welcome to Accidental Gods Anthea Simmons and Simon Aldridge of South Devon Primary. And thank you for turning out on Beltane. We’re recording on the 1st of May, people, and it’s a while tillyou hear this, but it feels like a good springlike thing to be doing. So let’s go to Anthea first and then Simon. Tell us a bit about who you are before you came to this and why it seemed important to you.
Anthea: Okay. I’m ex city and got completely disillusioned with the city and ended up in a more sort of campaigning mode and joined a pro-EU campaign and campaigned for a second referendum. And I suppose this engaged me politically and I began to see how many people had become what I call chuggers, people who’d given up and thought there’s no point in voting. You’re disempowered, there’s just no reason to vote, especially in safe seats. And when I heard about what Simon was planning, I thought, right, I want to get behind this. Because, you know, I want to see an end to apathy and a resurgence of engagement. So that’s how I got involved. And I edit a paper called West Country Voices that covers Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset. And it’s very much focussed on telling it like it is and saying what you don’t get in the general media. Giving a voice to people who have no voice. So it’s about empowerment, empowerment and engagement. That’s what motivates.
Manda: Fantastic. Thank you. So, Simon, you set up South Devon Primary. What brought you to this? Tell us a little bit about who you are, how you got here.
Simon: Hi, Manda. It’s great to be here. My background is as a chartered accountant. I trained with Ernst and Young and then moved into business consulting. And my thing was boiling down complex systems into something simpler that people could understand and exploring ways to do things better. Which has parallels with what I’m doing now on climate and nature campaigning and sitting in between science and the public. I then moved into a manufacturing company, which I ran for 13 years. After that I had a bit of a change in lifestyle, with my wife becoming the the main earner as an anaesthetist. And we moved down to Devon and I got involved in all sorts of voluntary things and gradually became more involved in and concerned with climate change and the collapse in nature, and started looking for things I could do. I set up local groups, they grew. We formed a sort of a regional network to help other groups following in our footsteps. And I became involved with Zero Hour, the Campaign for the Climate and Ecology Bill. For several years I’ve been working there, at the interface between science and the public and talking to MPs, particularly my own Anthony Mangnall in the Totnes constituency.
Simon: And I think perhaps naively, I thought I could persuade him with the facts, the evidence, the science. I’ve had several meetings with him and he’s relatively young for an MP, he’s only mid-thirties and he assured me I didn’t need to persuade him about the climate science. But I sat with him for several hours, running through the evidence and showing where government policy fell short and it just didn’t cut it with him. And I’ve had several encounters with him since and I’ve become increasingly disillusioned that there’s any chance that he’s going to shift his position. And I feel he’s made his choice, that he’s going to pursue career. And that means falling in line with the Conservative Party position, which is dictated by the interests of wealthy donors. So I started to think, well, you know, we’ve got to change this government at the next election, not just for reasons of climate and nature, but for many other reasons. And so I thought, how can we help the parties on the progressive side of politics collaborate? Because there are many more people who support those parties nationally, and particularly in our constituency.
Simon: On the latest polling for the Totnes constituency, Anthony Mangnall is set to win the seat with around 36 or 7%. But you add up the support for the Lib Dems, Labour and the Green Party and you get to almost 60%. And that’s before you take account of the people who just don’t come out and vote. Because why would they, when we’ve had a Conservative MP winning this seat every time for 100 years? You know, it’s amazing so many people turn out. So, you know, I saw this impasse with the progressive parties incapable of forming any alliance. And I do understand it to a degree. I mean, how would you choose which party should stand aside? People have ambition. You can look at national polls. There are rarely very detailed local polls conducted because they’re quite expensive. And so no account is taken of the capabilities of individual candidates. And so how do you arrive at that decision? So I took inspiration from the selection of Sarah Wollaston, the conservative candidate before last here in Totnes. And she was chosen with a primary process, the first time that the Conservatives had done this, and I think maybe the last.
Manda: Because for a Tory she was quite a progressive candidate in the end.
Simon: Exactly. And I think that’s a product of the process. Everybody was allowed to vote in this process, you didn’t have to be a Conservative Party member. So I thought, well, could we do that with the progressive parties, so that we take the decision out of their hands? And it looked too expensive or difficult to mount a full scale vote, so I started thinking about whether or not we could we could make the selection another way. And that’s when I started looking at the possibility of conducting town hall Q&A sessions with the three progressive candidates and invite the public along to ask questions and listen to the answers. And then decide which candidate you think is best placed to go and stand against the conservative at the general election. And so that was the seed of the idea.
Manda: I have so many questions. Clearly there’s more to say on this, but can we just take a couple of steps back? You are now the third and fourth people I’ve interviewed in the last two weeks who have been in international finance at some level, at finance, at some level, mostly KPMG. But here you are, Ernst and Young, and Anthea I’m not sure where you were, but big finance.
Anthea: Asset management, yeah
Manda: So I don’t know how to phrase this that isn’t going to sound really down on financial people, but my concept of financial people is the giant vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity that is doing pretty much most of the damage. If it weren’t there or if everybody felt like you felt, the world could be different tomorrow. If they refocused, then the world would change. And so I am really curious to know whether you feel that you are the outliers, that you got out because it was a toxic system. Or whether there is room within finance to begin to get a momentum for change. Is it the case that most people get it but they’re in a system that doesn’t? Or is it not that? Does that make sense as a question. Let’s go to Anthea first, because Simon has just been speaking. Anthea, what do you feel?
Anthea: Well, I think that’s a very interesting question. I suppose the depressing bit of news is that I would say that I’ve lost contact with almost all my city friends because of the direction I’ve taken. Because I think part of it is that they feel it’s a criticism of them, it’s a judgement on them.
Manda: Which is fair to be honest.
Anthea: So yeah, that’s difficult. I mean, I think, you know, it’s that old phrase, isn’t it? Follow the money. It influences people’s behaviour, because there are lifestyle choices and school fees and all sorts of things that make people stay where they are. So that’s a very cynical view at a personal level. I think there are lots of people who would like to make a difference. I mean, look at somebody like Gina Miller, for example, who came out of a very campaigning angle to the whole city issue. I think a lot of people just don’t want to know. I mean, they don’t want to know about the money laundering and the corruption and the donor loyalties and the Conservative Party ties and the old school network and all of that. They just really don’t want to know about it. On the plus side, I would say that when I worked in the city, I felt it was one of the most meritocratic places for women to operate in, in some ways.
Manda: Right. How did that pan out? Because it doesn’t it feels like it’s just a testosterone soaked horror.
Anthea: Well I Think it’s gone backwards. I think there’s been a backlash because too many women got too far.
Manda: Oh, great. Can’t have that.
Anthea: Great, isn’t it? And I’m afraid also a lot of us had the attitude that if we’d climbed up a ladder, we were going to burn it to make sure.. you get your own ladder kind of thing going on. But we’re going a bit off topic there, obviously.
Manda: Yeah, well, we are a bit, but it’s still interesting to get the baseline. And Simon, you’re nodding agreement to all of that. I also want to say as a former anaesthetist, although I was a veterinary anaesthetist, I’m really impressed. I always thought it’s the one bit inside modern technocratic medicine where you’re moving into the dream with somebody or with a horse and moving back out again. And it feels like it’s got space for for a different way of being. But anyway, that’s that’s a whole other conversation. In terms of finance, did you also get that sense that everyone was burning their ladders after they’d come up and that they just didn’t want to see what was happening?
Simon: I’m a fair while out of that particular line of business, but I think the observation that I would add to what Anthea says, which I agree with, is that I draw a distinction between smaller, privately owned local businesses and large multinationals. I think large businesses which become so disconnected from local communities are part of the problem. It’s very easy for the execs of those businesses just to ignore externalities, because they’re not living in the community. And I think that also applies to climate and nature. Smaller businesses tend to take a longer view. And so if I was to pull some levers of power, I would be altering the taxation system to encourage the splitting up of large businesses. Give a big advantage to smaller, more dynamic, more entrepreneurial businesses. That’s where innovation comes from. And I think those people tend to take a more ethical view.
Manda: So in effect, what we’re doing is Christian Felber’s Economy for the Common Good model, where we stay within the current system but we use regulatory taxation to change behaviour. Do you think that would work in the long run? Just out of interest.
Simon: I Think we need more than the carrot or stick of taxation. I think we need hard limits imposed through regulation and that’s one of the reasons I campaigned for the Climate and Ecology Bill. We need to understand that we’re working to a limited carbon budget and we have to stay within it. This should not be optional. It’s about survival of our civilisation.
Manda: Not just survival of our civilisation. I would suggest survival of our species and a lot of other species, if we really hit 5 or 10 degrees C of warming, then then we’re looking at 97% die off at the optimistic figures and it won’t be the large mammalian bipeds that are surviving in the remaining 3%. Okay, So let’s then move back into politics. And both of you have alluded to the fact that we have an existing system which is designed to keep the current powerbrokers in power, basically. And yet you believe and I’m terribly encouraged that you do because I had given up on this, that the current system can be changed from within. We could use the tools of the current system to modify the current system. Simon, Let’s go back to your original idea with South Devon Primary. It came from the election of Sarah Wollaston. For those of you not in the UK, she was a Tory MP but she had been a medical general practitioner, and unlike some of the other medics who end up in Parliament, she seemed relatively humane. And I think it’s worth saying that South Devon has always seemed to me one of the most progressive areas in the UK. Totnes is in your constituency and Totnes is where the transition town movement started. You’ve got Dartington, which is where Schumacher College is. You’ve got huge numbers of people who really get it. How do you end up with Tories elected for the last 100 years?
Simon: Well, the constituency also includes Brixham, part of Paignton, Dartmouth, Kingsbridge, and so it’s very mixed and and includes rural areas, lots of farming. So it’s a real cross-section of society. And it being renamed actually from Totnes to South Devon, I think will help with the false impressions that people tend to build from the Totnes name.
Manda: The constituency is being renamed at the boundary Changes?
Manda: Okay. And do you think in this constituency, have they gerrymandered the boundaries such that you have more people likely to vote Tory Anthea?
Anthea: I don’t think it’s a cut and dried case in this particular one. I think it’s a bit swings and roundabouts actually on the boundary changes across the country as a whole. But I think in South Hams and South Devon I think it’s marginal. But I think the thing that people forget is that there are some pockets of real poverty and deprivation, in the constituency and they are forgotten and overlooked when people focus on Totnes, because of the name.
Manda: Yes. Do you include Plymouth? Is Plymouth part of it? No. Because there’s huge poverty in Plymouth. But do you find now, because it used to be the case when I was young, let’s say middle of the last century; that Labour was urban working class, and Tory was upper middle class, upper class, but also as you said, the farming areas all voted Tory. I never understood why, except that Labour had somehow framed itself as as urban and they were rural and this was a tribal division that seemed really solid. Now that that set of certainties is breaking down, are you seeing differences in how different demographics are spreading across the, let’s call it, progressive/reactionary divide? Is that a reasonable divide?
Anthea: One of the big shifts that’s happened, I think, in the last 20 to 30 years is that voting conservative is now seen as aspirational. And for a number of people, it’s seen as a mark of I’m not stuck in labour working class, I will not be labelled in that. I am aspiring to get up the ladder and go higher.
Manda: Okay. And this is a predatory capital ladder where more money means ascent up the ladder, more stuff equals ascent up the ladder.
Anthea: Exactly that.
Manda: So who then is left voting for progressive parties. Either of you, whoever is best placed to answer that.
Simon: I would say that the majority of people in this area do want the progressive parties. And there’s a misapprehension amongst many people that safe seats like this, rural safe seats, are conservative areas. People disengage and they think, well, it must be a conservative area because it’s always voted that way. And so everyone probably doesn’t think like me and I’m in the minority and I don’t really have any power and I can’t do anything about it. So we see this disengagement and what we’ve been doing over the last few months, in order to build awareness of The Primary, as a lead up to running town hall voting sessions, is we’ve been out to the market squares and the high streets with this fabulous invention of Anthea’s called the Democracy Metre. Which is a large A1 sheet of paper on a board with about six questions and two columns, yes or no. So we have questions like Do you trust the Conservatives with the NHS? Do you think the Conservatives will act effectively on the climate and nature crisis? Etcetera. And you give people coloured stickers and they stick them onto the yes or no, or question mark in the middle. And it’s amazing the results we get. It draws people in, because it’s colourful and interesting and different and quirky. And the results, the answers to the questions, follow such a clear pattern. There’s an incredibly strong message there that the vast majority of people are extremely unhappy with the government, extremely unhappy with the direction they’re taking and they don’t trust them. We see almost unanimous results. Now some people say, well, it’s self-selecting because people only stop if they support us. But I can say from doing this that people don’t know what the questions are when they walk towards us. They see something’s going on, they come over to have a look. They have to start reading the questions. And I don’t think we’ve had a single person who then walked off and said, Well, I don’t want to answer them.
Manda: And you must get some Tory supporters who want to say, yes, the Tories are doing amazingly. They’re not really pouring raw sewage into the rivers, honest guys. Anthea how did you choose the questions as you designed the democracy Metre?
Anthea: Well, we tried to gear them to the issues that we sense that people want to express their opinions on, you know. And what’s very clear is that the the level of anger and frustration is high and it’s high amongst voters who traditionally voted Tory, conservatives. So it’s not just confined to progressive voters or supporters. But I think the more important thing in a way is not so much the answers to the questions, but the fact that people are appreciating and grateful for the opportunity to express that view, because they feel it’s not reflected in the media, that they’ve been ignored. This goes back to the old theme about being ignored and disenfranchised and disaffected. And so they want to say and they they stick their stickers on with real vehemence, because they’ve got a lot of pent up anger and frustration. So in that respect it serves another purpose. I mean, it’s almost like therapy.
Manda: So I love the idea that this is beginning to engage people, that it feels like therapy, that they’re actually feeling heard. When a lot of our political process seems to be designed to make sure that the MPs are not in any way in contact with their constituents. There was a French philosopher and I can’t remember who it is, a long, long time ago, who said two parliamentarians, one of whom is a socialist, will have more in common than two socialists, one of whom is a parliamentarian. So this is not a new feature, but it does seem to be accelerated. And the fact that you’ve got a guy now who’s decided that his political career is more served by sticking his fingers in his ears and shouting ‘Baa!’ than actually engaging with people, is a really good testament of why we’re in the state that we’re in. So you’re setting up primaries presumably in order that the candidates get to speak to and listen to the people who come. Inevitably, the people who come are going to be a self-selecting group again. But then I’m guessing the people who vote are already a self-selecting group. So, Simon, how are you getting the word out on this? And what has been the response so far?
Simon: Well, the the key thing that we need to do is that we need to spread this by word of mouth, through physical contact. It’s not about social media or the more digital ways of communicating, although we, of course, have a presence there. The power of this is to take politics back to a more town hall public way of carrying on a conversation. So we are, as I mentioned, going to market squares with our democracy metre. But beyond that, we’re looking for people who want to be involved. And this is catching people’s interest and excitement because they can see the power of this new idea to create change. And whilst we wait for all the candidates to be selected and gear up to start running the town hall voting sessions, we are conducting a kind of roadshow around the constituency and with the democracy metre and looking for people who are interested in learning more. So that they can learn how to talk about the primary and communicate it to friends and family and colleagues. And so we’re going to be running what we’re calling ambassador workshops starting from next month. We’ve got two scheduled and we’re starting to build attendee lists. And these are just going to be informal, fun sessions. We have a friend of mine who’s a drama teacher who’s going to come along and help you know, break the ice. These things shouldn’t be heavy and too serious. It should be about connecting and building enthusiasm. And then those people can go away and they can just talk to the primary. They can they learn about the best way to describe it and how to answer questions. And so we’re aiming to set up a kind of cellular network of expanding groups around the constituency. And a little bit inspired by the Teals in Australia and the way they created an upset overturning the Conservative government.
Manda: Tell us a little bit more about those, for people who aren’t familiar with what that was.
Simon: So they were a group of of women in Australia who were very concerned about climate change and the fact that their right wing government there was not listening to the science or taking action. And so they set about trying to overturn safe seats. So there’s parallels with what we’re doing. And they did it very much by word of mouth, by having people round for drinks to their house and talking about it and and sparking an expanding movement of people. And they did it. It created a huge upset.
Manda: Yes. I’ll find a link to the teal conversation on the Compass podcast and put that in the show notes. Because it was incredibly inspiring and it felt like a kitchen table movement. We’re just going to have a bunch of people around for coffee 11:00 in the morning. And we’re just going to talk about why it is that we’re so disenfranchised from the political system. So you’re going to be educating your ambassadors who can then go out and hopefully talk to their friends and family. It seems to me that if I were a hard core Tory, I would be quite afraid of this. Even though the Tories held an open primary in South Devon in the first place. You know, it was kind of they kicked that ball into action to begin with. What has the response been to that?
Simon: So first of all, I’d say that I think quite a few conservatives are interested in what we’re doing because they feel they’ve been left behind by a government that’s lurched to the right and has moved incredibly far from the kind of ground that these people used to feel affiliated with. You know, I think a lot of the traditional conservatives around here would respect people like Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve, and those people have all gone. And I think the Westminster Party, it might still be called conservative, but it’s very different. I mean, of course there are many conservatives who will just vote instinctively, perhaps without thinking about it too much. They feel tribally affiliated. But I think a lot of people, well, in fact, a lot of people we speak to have approached us and said, look, I’ve voted conservative all my life and I’m really interested in this. Can I be involved? So we’re speaking to everybody. And of course, there will be some people who won’t like what we’re doing. And in fact, our MP, Anthony Mangnall said it was anti-democratic when asked for a quote by the local newspaper. But the answer to that is it enhances democracy. It’s engaging far more people with democracy, and it will for the first time give people the chance of change. It gives them the possibility that if they go out and vote, they might see a different MP rather than have their vote just fall into a black hole.
Manda: Brilliant. Yes, I love the idea that they’re calling it anti-democratic. What they mean is it might mean he doesn’t get elected, which is just fine. So, Anthea, I saw that you had your hand up. Did you have something to say on that?
Anthea: I think that’s one way we can energise people. Is to say, why not just for once break the habit of not bothering to vote and actually get out there and stir things up. You know, make trouble, give them a hard time. And I also think the whole sort of primary process of interviewing these potential candidates, because picking somebody to represent you and stir things up and shake up the system also gives people a sense of ownership of that candidate. And sort of like, you know, you’ve made these promises to us and we’re giving you our support. And we’re lending you our support maybe by not voting for a party you’d normally vote for, or taking the trouble to rock up and vote at all. And I think that kind of direct connection and that kind of – I don’t mean you owe us – but there’s some kind of moral obligation then on that candidate. I think it’s all good. It’s all empowering for the electorate.
Manda: It is. Providing the system in Westminster gives individual MPs any power at all. And it seems to me, I think what you’re doing is amazing, but you have an existing Tory MP who started off saying to Simon that he was going to listen to him about climate change and then has decided that his career is better served by not doing. And as a disaffected former member of the Labour Party, I was a corbynista and left the day that Starmer was elected. I don’t know. I used to be a Lib Dem, but it seems to me that Lib Dems are what the Tories used to be and actually Labour is trying to take over that ground as well. Everyone is becoming essentially a cameronian except for the Greens. You could bring out a lot of new people who could be voting for somebody that they really believe in. And that person gets to Westminster and they’re one of whatever it is, 650 MPs. Is it 600 in the new thing? And unless they’re actually in the executive, they have almost no power, or the chair of a select committee. And even if they have that, it’s very diluted. And Keir Starmer has already said he’s not going to support PR, which would be a way of getting people in that could make change. We spoke on the podcast about six months ago to Neil Lawson of Compass, who obviously I’m sure is really interested in what you’re doing here. Have you ideas yet of how to empower your MP once they’re in place? Or are you assuming, and it’s not a bad assumption, that having had a primary gives them much more moral authority and therefore more power once they get there?
Simon: So as Anthea mentioned, at the town halls the candidates are going to be answering questions. To be successful, they’re going to have to reach out beyond their narrow tribal boundaries and they’ll be making commitments to people. And unlike the norm at the moment of politicians speaking to different groups of people on social media and saying different things, and we don’t know what they’re saying. Or going and knocking on doors and making commitments. These commitments will be made in public, in front of lots of people, and we’ll be recording the events and putting clips online. We also intend to capture those promises and put them on our website and use them to help hold politicians to account. So that’s one way that we are going to try and enhance democracy. But I would also, as I often do, link this back to the Climate and ecology bill because that’s one of my motivations for setting this up. And I would be surprised if we didn’t see every candidate commit to supporting the bill in this constituency. The climate and ecology bill, just to give you a quick heads up on that, would create a legally binding commitment to make our fair share of emissions reductions consistent with 1.5 degrees, which would be transformative, as well as a commitment to restore nature. So in a democracy, there’s not much more that we can do than send a representative to parliament who’s committing to pass the most transformative piece of legislation imaginable. I think beyond that, you know, we may need more protests to hold them to account, but that feels like the biggest thing we can do. Because if that’s passed, it’s really going to change everything. And I’d love to talk to you more about that, but I think that’s another discussion.
Manda: Well, we can discuss it here. I’ve already put into the show notes the link to Zero Hour website (zerohour.uk). Let’s talk a little bit about that in a minute. But Anthea, I can see you want to come in.
Anthea: I think also that we mustn’t fall prey to a council of despair, which is that it’s not going to get any better, they’re all the same. I mean, this is something that I really, really worry about. And it’s something that we hear on the street. I mean, we were just canvassing recently and in quite a deprived area, council house estate, and the level of disaffection was very, very high. People thought, well we’re forgotten, we’re on the bottom of the heap. Nobody really cares about us. Doesn’t matter what you do, nobody’s going to take do anything that benefits us or looks after us at all. But if we don’t at least make a step towards change on the road to change, we’re basically giving up and saying, Well, the Tories can carry on and do whatever they like. And what I personally worry about is that if they get in again, that this might be the end of our democracy, actually, because we’re already seeing it shut down on multiple fronts. Right to peaceful protest. Climate change activists not allowed to mention climate change in their defence. Human rights under attack. The vilification of the other, you know, the people on boats telling us that that is our major issue; that every ill that this country has fallen prey to is the fault of a few hundred desperate people coming over on a dinghy and risking being drowned. You know, these are things which are not going to get any better.
Anthea: And I think we can’t just say, oh well, there’s no point because they’re all the same. We have to start telling the politicians that we’ve had enough of that kind of politics. And on the PR front, we have to keep pushing Labour, because the parliamentary parties want it, two thirds of the unions want it, people want it. We don’t give a stuff if the Tories split or Labour split, so be it. People can vote for who they really believe in and their vote can actually matter. But as I say, we’ve got to take a step on that road and this is a step on that road. And we want to bring people along with us to say, Yeah, we need a revolution; if we’re going to save democracy and we’re not going to be the last country in Europe; you know, we are the last country in Europe, bar France, with its two stage system and Belarus, to use this antiquated, polarising flip flop method of voting, where winner takes all and you’re going to have a Tory government potentially elected on a minority of the vote yet again. And with people not bothering to turn out and increasing disaffection and therefore they’re given a free reign to do what the hell they like. And they will. They already are.
Manda: They already are. Yes. There’s so many aspects of that I want to pick into. One of them, in terms of the existing power structure trying to hold on to power, I completely agree with you. I thought the last election was our last chance to save democracy. Definitely the next one is and I have to say, I’m all for forking the government, but if your way works, I’m up for it. One of the ways that the existing conservative government is trying to see that it gets in next time is by requiring voter ID. Which is on a scale not seen anywhere in the world, as far as I can tell. I’ve got friends in the US who look at our new voting restrictions and, you know, travel cards, student travel cards are allowable in US states. Student travel cards are not allowable in the UK, but old age travel cards are. Guess which demographic votes Tory. Are you guys going to include education about the need for ID and help to get the correct ID in what you’re doing? Anthea.
Anthea: Yes, we’re already doing that. And in fact in my other guise in Devon for Europe, one of the questions we’ve asked is, do you know that you need voter ID in order to vote, you know, photo ID? The fact is, there was a memo in conservative central office saying we have to cut down the number of people we’re sending to university, because we are breeding Labour voters. I mean, that just tells you everything you need to know about the voter suppression tactic. And I think Thursday will be very, very interesting. The electoral commission say they’re not going to be monitoring how many people were turned away as a result of not having the correct ID.
Manda: No they’re not are they. Not useful numbers. But we could be monitoring. Somebody else could be monitoring.
Anthea: We definitely could. And I’m definitely going to be seeing who, if anybody, has been has been turned away as a result of not having the correct identification. But it is scary.
Manda: And look at the demographics of that. Although I did see a piece of Tory campaign literature for the council elections which was telling people in print that they didn’t need ID. Which isn’t clever if they’re telling their own voters that. The whole thing is really quite nightmarish. But let’s leave that for a little bit. So, Simon, let’s come back to the potential candidates. As I understand it, at the time of recording, they haven’t all been chosen. Do you think this is a Labour Party strategy? Do they know this? Keir Starmer’s concept of the Labour Party seems pretty anti-democratic to me. Do you think they’ll just wait and not get a candidate until they absolutely have to? Or do you think that I’m just being unnecessarily paranoid?
Simon: There’s a pecking order for selecting candidates, from what I’ve been told by the local Labour chair, based on likelihood of the seat being won. And I think there’s also some rule for at least some seats about not selecting a candidate until after the boundary change. And so we’ve been told to expect the selection process to happen sometime from June or July onwards. In terms of Labour perhaps wanting to shut this down, we’ve been very careful to design this process so it doesn’t really need any commitment from the parties. Originally we thought that perhaps we’d ask the losing two candidates to step down from the ballot paper, but that was just going to put us in conflict with party rules and we didn’t want to open that battle. We don’t want to fight with the parties. We really don’t mind which candidate is elected. We’d be very happy with any of the three, just so long as we get a change in government. And so what we’re asking for simply is for the candidates to come to the the town hall meetings and answer questions, so that people can get a measure of them and so that they can hear from people what their concerns are, and perhaps be a bit more closely connected to their communities, and start to think about serving them rather than, you know, slavishly following party rules.
Simon: But we’re not asking for the candidates to step off the ballot paper. They can stay there. And we think a model for that is the recent by elections in Tiverton and Honiton and Wakefield. I’m not quite as familiar with the results from Wakefield but in Tiverton and Honiton, the Lib Dem was tipped to be the candidate to win. The Labour candidate stayed on the ballot paper. But everyone knew that the game was to get behind the Lib Dem candidate and they saw an enormous swing there. So we think that’s fine. There will always be people who really passionately want to vote for their person and they’ll say that we’re taking away their democratic rights if we ask for candidates to step down. So we think we’re sidestepping all of that and we think it’s fine if a small number of votes go towards the losing candidate, whoever they may be. So long as the vast majority of people gather behind the ‘people’s champion’, as we’re calling the proposed winner of the Town Hall’s process.
Manda: And are you finding this idea being taken up in some of the other seats that Compass calls the catastrophe seats or the tragedy seats? Where exactly as with you, there’s a huge majority for the not Tories, but it splits. I’m thinking of Stroud, Reading, Bristol, places where the Tories snuck through the middle. And partly this was because some of the websites that were promoting tactical voting were saying opposing things. And I think if I were a Tory, I would be getting people into the administration of those websites exactly to make sure that that happened. So a number of questions. Are you talking to other seats and are you talking to the people who run the tactical voting websites to make sure that they support your people’s champion?
Simon: Well, absolutely we are hoping to roll this out to other constituencies and we are going to provide everything we’ve done for free. The website, the designs, the logos, the graphics, FAQs.
Manda: The democracy metre idea! Sounds grand.
Simon: Yes and so people can just pick it up and we’ll give them some support as well. It has to be, of course, for a seat that is suitable for the primary. We don’t want to be muddying the waters, where there’s a very clear contender. We will be targeting seats where the contender is ambiguous which party to get behind. And so the Conservative MP will win without something new. We’ve only just started this process and we already have interest from a number of seats. We have an Oxford professor over in Wantage I think it is, who is interested in running a primary. And already we have a couple of other people that we may be able to connect with. So that’s very much sort of hot off the press. And we’ll be pushing this. We’ve identified perhaps around 40 seats that could be suitable, which would be expected to be conservative wins. But we think with a primary could be, you know, changed.
Manda: And are you talking to compass? Because I think they said there were 63 seats at the last election. Were there tragedy seats? And so it seems to me that any one of those could be having a primary.
Simon: Well, yes, we are talking to Compass and we have drawn up the criteria for those seats that we feel would work best with a primary. And we’re also talking to some of the tactical vote aggregators. And also just to make listeners aware, there’s also a facility to swap your vote. So if you absolutely don’t want to vote, let’s say it’s a Lib Dem that gets picked in Totnes, for example, and you’re a lifetime Labour voter, you can swap your vote somewhere. So that you can you know that your Labour vote is going to count somewhere where it’s going to Land a result that you want.
Manda: I live in a constituency where the Tory gets over 50% every single time, so there would be no point in doing what you’re doing there. But on the whole, the Lib Dems are more likely to come second, so I vote swap with someone who wants to vote Lib Dem and I can then vote something else in a constituency where a different party might have a decent chance.
Simon: Let me just come back on that over 50% thing. Because at the last general election, our MP received around 53%, I think, of the vote. But on latest polling, that’s significantly less. That’s 37%.
Simon: So the last election probably marked a high point, where there were still a lot of people who thought Boris Johnson was a jolly good chap and that Brexit would offer riches beyond their dream.
Manda: Okay, so it might be worth it.
Simon: Yes, quite possibly. But the other thing also to mention is that at that election, the next biggest cohort after people who voted conservatives, was registered voters who did not vote. That was bigger than the vote for any of the progressive parties. And we think that by staging a primary, we can encourage at least a reasonable portion of those people to come out and vote. We can give them a real chance of change where they didn’t have it before.
Manda: And provided they’ve got the voter ID, they will actually be allowed in to put their cross on the box. Okay, that sounds good. Having been part of both the Lib Dems and Labour at elections back into the 80s, the toxicity between the people who actually go out and stick leaflets through doors, the activists who actually go out in the street, I have always felt that the antagonism between Labour and the Lib Dems actually in many cases superseded the antagonism between either of them and the Tories. It’s horrible. It’s a really nasty toxic soup. Are you finding that the primary process is going to lance that abscess in some way? Or is that just something we just have to learn to live with?
Anthea: I think unfortunately we’re not going to ever conquer tribalism, which in my view, has being one of the greatest enemies of democracy in this country, for sure. And I think we have to remember that the membership of these parties is actually a tiny percentage of the population. And the people we’re really talking to and really trying to get on board with this, are people who don’t have that tribal affiliation and loyalty. I mean, I’m always desperately disappointed if you talk to one of these, you know, dyed in the wool supporters of a party and they just say, I will never vote for that, you know, even if that’s the tactical choice, I will never, ever vote. So you say to them, well, so you’d rather that the Tory got in. I’m telling you now, I can never, never vote for that. There’s just no point having a conversation with those. It’s a bit like having a conversation with a dyed in the wool brexiter. You’re not going to persuade them. But for every one of those, there are 20 people who are not tribal and those are the people we’re speaking to.
Manda: Okay, beautiful. And then, Simon, you’ve said that you’re engaging people in person rather than online. And it seems to me we go back to Oscar Wilde and ‘the problem with socialism is it takes up too many evenings’ by engaging in person and not online. Are you cutting out the people who are basically keyboard surfers? Are you going to also have perhaps multi-person zoom calls as part of this process, or is it all definitely going to be online? Simon you can say whatever you wanted to say before, about the toxicity between the tribes.
Simon: Thanks. No, no, we absolutely are operating online as well through social media. And Zoom calls, I should imagine would be on the list at some point. So I think all channels. But I think we just want to put an emphasis on face to face, because I think that’s how you build and grow the movement.
Manda: So before you go on to anything else, if it’s online I would join one of your Zoom calls and I would vote, but I’m not actually in your constituency. So it seems the in-person at least gets people have to get to a village hall. They might come from a long way away if they want to skew the results. How are you going to make sure that votes are from people who have a vote in your constituency?
Simon: Sorry, I think we may be at cross purposes there. I’m talking about using online methods to build the movement and spread awareness. But when it comes to the actual voting, we will be running Q&A sessions at 4 or 5 town halls around the constituency. And so it will be voting on a piece of paper with representatives from each of the parties there to monitor things. And we’re looking at the possibility of crossing people off the electoral register as well, which the parties all have access to. So, you know, we intend for that to be quite a robust process. Well, a very robust process, which it has to be.
Manda: And we’re still using medieval technology, but that’s because we haven’t yet got the quadratic voting on the blockchain on everybody’s phone that would allow us to move into the 21st century. I’m working on that one.
Simon: So if I could just add to what Anthea was saying before, in terms of reaching beyond the people who are very tribal. There’s a whole cohort of people that I’ve been connecting with over the last few years, as we’ve grown our group called Sustainable South Hams, which is a network connecting parish sustainability groups together. People are coming in from all walks of life really concerned about the climate and nature crisis. And these are people who haven’t been affiliated with with parties particularly, and they certainly haven’t been out campaigning or dropping leaflets. They’ve come in, maybe they’ve recently retired and they’ve said, Look, right, my time is yours now and we want to get together and make a difference. Now when you come to an election it’s very difficult to engage those groups, because they tend to split along party lines. And it’s very difficult for those groups to support one particular party. But by running the primary and narrowing the three progressive parties down to one, we expect to be able to bring this really huge resource of committed people behind the winning candidate.
Simon: My wife is one example. She’s an anaesthetist in the NHS and she’s absolutely appalled at the way it’s being run down. It was on its knees before Covid; we went into it in an absolute sorry state. She’s seeing her colleagues leave and people under desperate pressure. And she’s got to the point where for those reasons and also for concern about the climate and nature crisis, she’s prepared to go and knock on doors and say to people, look, I’m not someone who’s involved in politics. I’m not involved in any of these parties, but we’ve got to have a change from this government and we’ve got to move back to some more evidence based policy making. From people who are not jumping to the tune of donors. And I think there’s a real power in that. I expect that through running this primary process, we’re going to be able to vastly increase the number of people who are prepared to go out and deliver leaflets and knock on doors. And I think that’s how you create big change.
Manda: Right, because that’s exactly what happened with the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US. And they very nearly got him onto the Democratic ticket by exactly this. They would have town hall meetings and 30 people would stand up. But then those 30 people were educated to then go out and spread the word and spread the word. Brilliant. Okay. This is beginning to sound really hopeful. So either of you on this, let’s suppose we get to the next election. You’ve got your people’s champion and that people’s champion is elected and that is replicated in sufficient number of constituencies around the country, that people’s champions of whatever party make a significant block in parliament. Have you thought forward, other than the bill, Simon, you’re welcome to tell us as much about that as you want. What would you like those individuals to do? Because it seems to me they may be one of the three progressive parties, Labour, Lib Dem, Green, perhaps you might have some independents, who knows? But they will know they’ve been elected by this method. They in effect become a people’s Champions subgroup, I would hope. What would you like them to do? To shift our existing democracy to something where we won’t ever be in the position again that we’re in now?
Simon: Well, firstly, just to be be clear on how this process will work. The person, the people’s champion, if elected, and I hope they will be, because it becomes a lot easier for them to win the seat once we run this process, will still be standing for their party. We’re not creating an alliance here. We’re simply finding a way to help voters choose which party they’re going to get behind and vote tactically.
Manda: Yes, I hear you on that. But I was a Momentum member when I was a Labour member at the 2017 election, and I spent a lot of time, because I was at Schumacher at that point down in Plymouth, in a seat where the MP was, I would say hard right. I would say he was to the right of Sarah Wollaston by quite a long way. We flooded that seat with Momentum people. Just because we’d go onto the website, it would say the nearest winnable seat is this, go there. And as a result of that, it seemed to me, watching that MPs behaviour, they voted differently, they behaved differently, they recognised that they probably would not have been elected if several thousand of us had not turned up and had enough political awareness, enough talking points. The capacity to stand on a doorstep and hold a relevant conversation with people, which is exactly what you’re going to be training your cohort of committed potential ambassadors to do. I think it did change their behaviour. And so, for instance, I would hope that a people’s champion in South Devon would be pretty much committed to PR whatever the Labour leadership vote says and whatever is in their their manifesto. So therefore, even if it were a Lib Dem and even if somebody in Oxford is voted in on a similar basis and their labour or green, you are going to have people who get together in the coffee rooms and say to each other, you know, our leadership isn’t right on this.
Simon: No, actually, I think you’re quite right. I just wanted to make sure that listeners were clear that an alliance isn’t being created. But I think you’re quite right. And I do like the idea, and I hadn’t thought of it quite that way, the people’s champion subgroup. And I think absolutely these people will understand that they are there thanks to this process, and that a wider group of people have reached out and they’ve lent their vote to achieve change. And that’s where our idea of capturing the promises that they make at the town hall meeting comes in. You know, we want to hold them to account and help them remember that that’s why they’re there. So I think yes, totally Right. And I think maybe we should major a little bit more on that, because I think it’s a good thing.
Anthea: I think it’s key that for a lot of people we’ve spoken to have said I am absolutely up for getting behind this, but I want it to be the last time that I have to game the system. I want it to be the last time that I have to lend my vote to a party I don’t believe in. And electoral reform is absolutely key. It’ll be the biggest transformative change for our politics for sure, if we can get that through.
Manda: Which is exactly why the two major parties don’t want it to get through. Okay. We’re running towards the end of time. Other than putting a lot of things in the show notes so that people can connect with you if they are as inspired as I am to make this happen in their local constituencies and on the assumption that we probably have 18 months before the next election because they will run it as far as they possibly can. Apart from anything else they have an NHS to dismantle and a civil service to dismantle before they get there. Is there anything that either of you would like to say in closing, to inspire people further? Let’s go to Simon first.
Simon: Well, as I always do, I’d like to just mention the climate and ecology bill again, because I see that as a mechanism for driving historic change in this country, which which is required. We were told by the IPCC that we needed rapid, far reaching changes to all aspects of society, and I think they said unprecedented as well. Now look around you. We don’t see any evidence of serious action on the climate or nature crisis. Emissions have scarcely fallen, once you include our imports, since 1990. I think we’re down around 23% once you include our full consumption emissions. That’s less than 1% a year. That’s incremental, not transformative. What we need to see is a marshall Plan style strategy. So you would see whole streets of houses scaffolded to be retrofit. We’d have a huge expansion in public transport. We can’t afford just to switch all our cars to EVs. That’s going to cause a major problem. And there’s a discussion about resources. So we’re going to have to make some very big changes which actually will be beneficial for people. We’re going to clean our air, improve the health of all of us through changing our diet as we eat less meat and ultra processed foods. Reduce the chance of antibiotic resistance developing by increasing active travel, which is going to be necessary. That’s going to improve the nation’s health and take some of the burden off the NHS. We’ll have safer, quieter streets. Democratised travel with people who don’t have cars being able to travel more easily by public transport, which needs to be much, much cheaper.
Simon: And for survival we’re going to need to restore nature, which is vital for its own sake, but also has huge human wellbeing benefits. So by passing this bill, it will be legally binding. It will force the government to act. And if the government doesn’t act, they can be taken to court and forced to act. Now, the beauty of the bill is it doesn’t specify policies in detail. It’s a binding overall framework that would link action to the science, like a sort of mission statement. And we’re completely lacking any joined up mission statement for climate and nature at the moment. And if you think about it, no great things have been achieved without a mission statement. Think about the moon landings or companies that have achieved, you know, huge growth. They didn’t do it without a strategy. And at the moment, we don’t have a proper strategy. We don’t have that big overarching ambition set out. And that’s what the bill would do. It’s outcome based. So politicians would agree up front to pass it. They would agree on the basic things like, do we want to stop warming going over 1.5 degrees and do we want to stop nature collapsing and set it on the road to recovery? Those are not controversial aims. So we get that passed and then once it’s passed, that’s when it’s for government to work out a strategy. But crucially, it will be informed by a citizens assembly of people selected at random to hear from the experts and guide that strategy. Because there are lots of different ways of doing this and we need we need to have people engaged. They can’t feel like it’s being imposed from above on them. People need to be able to watch the process televised, see other people like them going into that process with the same doubts and concerns they have. And watch that all unfold and we need to bring the population along. So I think it’s a really exciting piece of legislation.
Simon: I was at the the climate protest last month, end of last month. There were so many people there calling for this sort of action, but still not that many people know about the bill. And that’s the mechanism by which we start to pull those levers and make those changes happen. So if you haven’t signed up already, please go to the website zerohours UK and there’s some information on there on what you can do. Writing to your MP. If you have a Labour MP or know anyone in Labour, ask them to put it in their manifesto, because if we get a Labour led coalition we could then see this legislation passed and we would actually doing something really great on the world stage. Because we’d be creating a blueprint for other developed nations to follow and inspiring action in other countries. And I think as the country that led the industrial revolution, there would be something quite fitting and symmetrical about the UK being the country that set a path forwards that is consistent with a liveable future and bring our climate and nature back under control.
Manda: That’s brilliant. I would still like to have you back on the podcast to talk about this in more depth, but that was an extremely good and in-depth look at that. Thank you.
Anthea: Yes, I just wanted a message to people who have kind of given up on democracy and just say, look, we’re apathy has got us. And even if you are cynical about it and even if you think, oh, well, the parties won’t play along or anything. If we don’t join this revolution, it won’t happen.
Manda: And it’s a peaceful revolution. That’s a good thing. Let’s get on board while it’s still peaceful. Yes.
Anthea: A peaceful revolution. Exactly. So I’d say if you’re thinking I’m not going to bother, why not just bother just this once? Just bother.
Manda: Lovely. Oh, goodness.
Anthea: Because if you care about social justice, human rights, democracy, any of these things, and you don’t want your life run by fossil fuel companies and media barons and you want to stick it to the man, join the program. Yeah.
Manda: Or people who put their friends in the House of Lords. You don’t want them run by them either, so.
Simon: I probably should say that I’ve pulled back from zero hour because it’s very much a cross-party campaign, designed to reach out to Conservative MPs as well. And I’ve made the decision that I want to focus more on changing the government. So it’s probably important that that’s mentioned. I mean, I’m still strongly advocating for the climate and ecology bill, but I don’t want to jeopardise the campaign’s ability to build its support amongst Conservative MPs.
Manda: Yeah. If they can find any who are not putting their career ahead of the things in the bill. Yeah, we have locally a guy who’s gone from… I sat in 2010 in 1 of the hustings where he said he didn’t know if anthropogenic climate change was a thing, to he’s now chair of the Climate something or other committee and he really gets it. But he still votes for dumping sewage in rivers and all the rest of it. Because once you’re a Tory MP, you are basically a sheep and that’s what he does. And unless we can change the system, that’s not going to change. So yeah, I’m really looking forward to starting a primary system up here. I think it would shake things up very nicely. Simon We’ve lost Anthea again, but I think we have to stop anyway. I’ll say thank you to Anthea in absentia. It’s been wonderful. And Simon, thank you so much for engaging on so many different levels. Anthea I just said thank you and goodbye.
Anthea: Yeah, Sorry. I don’t know what happened there. Thank you very much for having us.
Simon: Thank you, Manda It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Wasn’t that inspiring? I found it inspiring. Please be inspired because this is real, this is actually happening on the ground and you could do this in a constituency near you starting tomorrow. All you need to do is get in touch with Simon or Anthea or some of the team and they will give you the resources, help you to see what to do, and you can kick start something that could potentially change the outcome of the next general election. And that could mean the difference between us getting through this crisis and not. So definitely ‘just bother’, exactly as Anthea said. Just bother. Whatever you do with your world, however you live, this is something that you could make happen. So please do.
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