In 2017 we set up a ‘progressive alliance on the ground’ to challenge Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health, in his safe Tory seat in South West Surrey. Our candidate was Dr. Louise Irvine (NHA).
Why was it ‘on the ground’ and not supported by some party headquarters? What did we learn from our experience? And how might we help other Tory safe seat constituencies around the country to bring back a semblance of democracy?
When I stood as the Green Party candidate against Jeremy Hunt MP in the 2015 general election I realised how self-defeating it was for progressives to stand against each other instead of standing side-by-side against the Tory candidate. This insight inspired a group of like-minded people to launch South West Surrey Compass, a branch of a national cross-party association with a vision of a good society and a more equal, democratic and sustainable future.
When the snap general election was called in 2017 South West Surrey Compass invited Dr. Irvine to return and challenge Jeremy Hunt again but this time with cross-party support.
In the end, in the few weeks available to us during the election period, we were only able to achieve a ‘progressive alliance on the ground’ with local party activists. Labour central office refused to accept the logic that a single progressive candidate standing against a controversial Tory minister was better than splitting the progressive vote. As a consequence, Labour imposed a candidate, saying that their rules gave them no room for discretion. Three staunch Labour activists – The Godalming Three - were expelled from the party for leading and supporting our progressive alliance.
The Liberal Democrat response was that if Labour stands a candidate then they must too. An even less plausible argument in my view. With that attitude, their party slogan could be ‘Never lead, always follow’. What the Labour and Lib Dem response demonstrated was that large, long-established parties are less able to adapt to evolving situations. As small parties the NHA and Green Party have the advantage of agility – key members are empowered to think on their feet and leaders are available at the end of a phone.
I stood aside for Dr. Louise Irvine because we shared the same views and I could not work against a candidate whose specialist knowledge meant that she was better placed to challenge the Health Secretary. I believe that until we have electoral reform and do away with the antiquated First-Past-The-Post system, forming progressive alliances in certain constituencies where conditions are right, is our best option.
Voters understood the progressive alliance stance. Whilst many people hadn’t heard about our progressive alliance their response, when we explained why a mixed group of Labour, Lib Dem, Green, and NHA supporters were all getting behind one candidate was often, “At last!”. Activists from across all progressive parties (and none) came out en masse to campaign for Louise Irvine because she was an inspiring, authentic, knowledgeable and likable candidate that we would have been proud to have as our Member of Parliament.
Louise came second. We didn’t unseat Jeremy Hunt, but we reduced his majority and we rattled him, and his party – a party that until then had been complacent in the knowledge that he was untouchable in his safe Surrey seat.
What did we learn? We learned that there are many potential leaders in our communities who will emerge, and flourish given the right circumstances and encouragement. That there is value in seriously challenging a high profile MP. A strong challenger will get airtime on national television and radio, and articles in the national press. They will become a significant player in critical debates.
They can expose the vulnerabilities of complacent ministers and they can generate national campaigns in support of important causes. With their raised profile they can crowdfund substantial sums of money. Furthermore, if there is a mood of discontent pushing people to reconsider their default voting position and they are given the opportunity to debate their concerns in public meetings or on their doorstep, with well-informed enthusiastic volunteers, trust and consensus can be built. Then, we have ourselves a revolution.
Dr. Susan Ryland is a Green Party activist, academic, lecturer and artist and will be a key note speaker at the 2018 National Health Action Party conference. Tickets for the conference are free and open to members of the public - you do not have to be an NHA member to attend. Get your ticket here.
Dr Ryland has recently published a book, A New Way Of Doing Politics: Working Together To Challenge A ‘Safe’ Tory Seat in collaboration with Dr. Louise Irvine (NHA), Steve Williams (SW Surrey Compass) and Penny Rivers (Surrey County Councillor). Dr Ryland's website can be found here.