Our friends in the north: the Yorkshire Party and the North East Party

If we travel over the Tamar and hurry on as fast as possible through middle England until we get beyond the Trent, we’ll find a relatively new phenomenon. English political regionalism made its appearance at the 2014 European elections. By the following year’s general election it came in three guises. In Lancashire there was a Northern Party. In Yorkshire there was Yorkshire First and in Durham and Northumberland, the North East Party (NEP). While the Northern Party soon expired, the other two are on their way to establishing themselves as permanent and serious presences in the northern political landscape.

Yorkshire First, which stood 14 candidates for the 52 Yorkshire seats in 2015, underwent a re-branding exercise in 2016 and is now called The Yorkshire Party (YP). Although it has yet to gain a councillor at the upper tier of local government it scored a respectable 11% average in May’s local elections, when it stood seven candidates for the two authorities in Yorkshire which had elections. Its candidate for mayor of Doncaster also won 5% of the votes and saved his deposit – just! This built on the 19 candidates who stood in the metropolitan and unitary elections of 2015 and the 16 of 2016.

Like MK, the Yorkshire Party is a full member of the European Free Alliance and its policies place it firmly on the centre-left. It calls for a Parliament for Yorkshire elected by PR.

Unlike the Yorkshire Party, whose candidates have been scattered across the historic county of Yorkshire, the North East Party is focused on the Peterlee area of east Durham. To the outside observer the NEP looks to be less professional and more conservative than the YP. Yet it has achieved greater electoral success despite far fewer electoral interventions. The NEP only put one candidate forward in the local elections of 2015 and 2016 in Tyne and Wear. It didn’t fight the North Tyneside mayoral election this year and its plans to stand for the Tees Valley combined authority mayor were dashed when it could only raise £2,000 of the £5,000 required as a deposit. This extremely high amount was promptly denounced by the NEP as an ‘affront to democracy’.

Nonetheless, the NEP has built up a power base at Peterlee, having won a by-election there to obtain its first town councillor only months after its formation. This year it won 20 of the 22 seats on the town council. It also returned three councillors to Durham County Council, all of them also from the Peterlee district. Meanwhile, the median vote of its 14 candidates in the Durham unitary elections compared well with MK.

Median Vote at recent elections

2015 GE 2017 local elections
Yorkshire Party 1.0% 10.6%
North East Party 1.3% 20.8%
MK 1.7% 19.3%

The NEP’s aim is to replace the 12 local authorities in the north east with an elected regional government, while devolving local government to the town and parish level.

The difference in approach between the two parties is reflected in next month’s general election. The YP is fielding 21 candidates, a 50% increase on 2015. But tellingly, only three constituencies contested then are being contested again this time. Contrasting with this scatter-gun approach, the NEP has just one candidate, a reduction from the four last time. But their candidate is standing at Easington, the constituency that produced its best result in 2015 and the one that includes Peterlee.

This will be a difficult election for all fourth (and fifth and sixth etc.) parties, as the clarion call to ‘vote tactically’ blares out from the old ‘progressive’ non-alliance parties. But in regions with safe Labour majorities like the north-east and parts of Yorkshire it may be less relevant or effective. We shall see.

When the fish, tin and MK have gone, what is the Cornish nationalist to do?

Manifestos are part of the hallowed ritual of general elections. The media report them, pundits pontificate and nerds (like me) might niggle, but for the vast majority they’re irrelevant, a far away country of which they know little. Moreover, if predictions of a comfortable Tory majority pan out, they seemingly care less. But as a public service let’s dive into the pullulating pit of platitudes that make up the party manifestos and see what they might say about one or two key issues. It’s a filthy job but someone has to do it.

First off, what do they offer the homeless Cornish nationalist?

Forward, you peasants, for our prosperous plutocracy

The Tories laud ‘our precious union’, but betray a serious problem of innumeracy as they go on to say ‘one nation made of four’. Recognising the Cornish as the fifth nation of these islands in 2014 was just a bad dream that’s thankfully been erased from their collective memory. Nonetheless, they’re in favour of devolving power ‘to improve local government’. This extends to giving ‘local government greater control over the money they raise’ (while reducing the money they get and directing lots of other money to unaccountable quangos such as the Local Enterprise Partnerships).

But never let a few inconvenient facts get in the way of a vague promise. The Tories live in their own strange, topsy-turvy universe. This is a place where saying things often enough is the same as actually doing them. When we look at the actual votes of our six, sad Tory MPs, working hard for hard-working folk, we find a very consistent record of voting against handing down more powers and resources to local government, as the West Briton has pointed out in some detail.

Turning to another traditionally centralist party, Labour promises it will set up a convention to consider the option of a ‘more federalised country’. If that looks a little too bland to get the towns and villages of Cornwall ablaze with enthusiasm, the priority they give this, which appears on page 102 of their (admittedly very long) manifesto, isn’t high. The only concrete policy they offer is to ‘restore regional offices’. Will someone please tell them this means re-centralization, not de-centralization, when viewed from Cornwall? Labour is careful to use the formula the ‘regions and nations of the UK’, but, as they ignore Cornwall, it’s not clear which, if either, they consider us to be.

It’s the good old Lib Dems, with Cornwall ‘sort of’ coursing through their veins according to the late Nick Clegg, who daringly utter the word Cornwall in their manifesto. Cornwall pops up as an example of a promise of devolution of revenue-raising powers to regions on page 44. The Lib Dems’ ‘devolution on demand’ is part of a rather quaint package of ‘home rule all round’, harking back to the days of Gladstone. The seriousness of this nostalgic offer remains in doubt however, when we read that they intend ‘greater devolution of powers to councils or groups of councils working together, for example to a Cornish Assembly or a Yorkshire Parliament’. This curious wording reads as if they’re still equating Cornwall Council with a Cornish Assembly. It suggests they still haven’t learnt the difference between devolving powers to an unfit for purpose local authority and creating the new institutions that will help to reinvigorate democracy in Cornwall.

Not surprisingly, Ukip doesn’t mention Cornwall by name either. ‘Our nation’ crops up 11 times but then we read of a promise of ‘a fair deal for all four [sic] nations’ which are to have ‘broadly similar devolved powers’. In Ukip’s utopia Cornwall will therefore be trapped in England. As England’s first colony, any Cornish claims to self-determination are likely to receive even shorter shrift there than within a multi-national UK. Meanwhile, the Green Party’s ‘Green Guarantee’ makes no explicit mention of devolution. Perhaps they think their commitment to localism covers the point.

Confessions of a bored psephologist

Is it just me, or is this general election the most tedious on record? Perhaps I’m getting jaded. Maybe the meaningless of the electoral ritual, after which the government always wins, is finally getting to me. But it’s proving difficult to get enthused, or even engaged.

Two weeks before polling day and we’ve had just one leaflet through the door from our complacent Tory MP, grinning like a Cheshire cat at the prospect of an easy return. Things on the streets seem eerily subdued, as if the people are sheep-walking to the inevitable Tory victory. Switch on the TV news and all we find is the BBC transformed into an extended Conservative Party Political Broadcast, wheeling out any old right-wing Labour has-been to fill a spare slot to have a go at that evil softie Corbyn.

As the BBC subtly hammers home the implicit contrast with the ‘strong and stable’ prime ministerial quality of the TMaybot, the only thing of interest left is how big a majority it’ll be. Will it qualify as a landslide? Will Labour survive? Will Tony Blair rise from the dead to reinforce belief in globalisation and greed?

On the right ex-Ukip voters appear stubbornly determined to punish Theresa May by ensuring she sees out the brexit negotiations and ultimately becomes the most reviled British prime minister ever. ‘Strong and stable’ fools nobody but the starry-eyed forelock-tugger.

Meanwhile, in the centre, as the likelihood of a Tory Government passes beyond inevitable, political discourse goes little further than a near hysterical call to the faithful to vote ‘tactically’. No matter whether it makes little psephological sense and ignores the numbers. No matter who the candidates are. No matter if it’s a blatant cover for tribalism or not. Just ‘stop the Tory’! I said ‘STOP THE TORY’!!

In Cornwall things are even more febrile. The number of candidates in this election is – at an average of four per constituency – the lowest since 1987. Furthermore, it’s easily the lowest of all the nations of the UK. In two constituencies the choice is confined just to the three old Westminster parties. Somehow, I can’t get that riveted by the prospect of a return to the 1950s and the politics of nostalgic deference. We seem to be drifting hopelessly towards a Gilbert and Sullivanesque political mind-set where

‘every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!’

It’s just getting altogether too weird. Recently we saw the Tories win the Cornwall Council elections, gaining 15 seats in the process. But then the same old coalition of incompetents as before – Lib Dems and Independents – end up in theoretical control of the Council, despite losing a combined seven councillors. The winners came second and third, the losers came first. Can we hope the general election gives us the same result please?

Tactical or tactless? Some arguments against blanket tactical voting

As the prospect of a huge Tory majority looms, calls for ‘tactical’ voting become ever shriller. Those who insist on their right to vote for a party that has no realistic chance of unseating the noxious Conservatives are pilloried. At times the calls for ‘tactical’ voting verge on the hysterical. One Independent candidate in Aylesbury has even had a cup of tea thrown at him by someone who shouted ‘stop splitting the vote’. That’s just not cricket, old chap! So here’s what’s likely to be an unpopular blog as I put forward some arguments against ‘tactical’ voting.

Of course, not voting for someone we prefer and instead voting for someone we don’t really prefer in order to stop someone we like even less is inevitable in an antiquated voting system where only a minority of votes count. Ever since the emergence of a three party system in the early twentieth century calls to ‘keep the Tory out’ have been an endemic feature of British elections. On the other hand, anyone has the right to vote for a candidate who best reflects their views and principles. It may be old-fashioned but that’s actually supposed to be the point of a ‘representative democracy’.

There are four major problems with adopting a universal strategy of ‘tactical’ voting to keep the Tories out. First, and most important, it’s fundamentally conservative (with a small c). Second, it’s difficult to distinguish between calls to vote tactically that stem from a genuine desire to stop the Tory and cynical calls to vote ‘tactically’ rolled out by bigger parties to protect their status. Third, it’s only employed in a negative fashion, voting against something rather than for something. Fourth, it’s used in a short term way rather than considered as a long-term strategy. Let’s consider these in turn.

1. Tactical voting is a basically conservative strategy because it maintains the status quo. If all non-Tories had always voted ‘tactically’ then the Liberals would never have been dislodged. Had voters in the early twentieth century voted ‘tactically’ the Labour Party would have been stillborn.

2. Because of its inbuilt advantage for established parties, tactical voting is a very useful ploy that enables Labour and the Lib Dems to ward off emerging challengers that might siphon off their votes. This is no principled anti-Tory stance but a cynical tool used by those who arrogantly presume they have some god-given right to all the votes that aren’t Tory.

Ah, fond memories. Stephen Gilbert and friend. Spot the difference – choice of footwear?

Take Stephen Gilbert, Lib Dem MP for St Austell & Newquay from 2010 to 2015 and candidate again this time. On his return to the fray he was quick to assert that ‘in Cornwall a vote for Labour, the Greens, or Mebyon Kernow helps the Conservatives‘. But these identical words were also used by him in 2015, even though he was the one who’d spent the previous five years helping the Conservatives as a loyal supporter of the coalition government. His voting record then was indistinguishable from Cornwall’s Tory MPs. Anyone seduced into voting for Gilbert was merely stifling the arrival of better alternative and progressive options for the voters of mid-Cornwall.

3. If we vote ‘tactically’ we’re in danger of saying that issues we might deem important can be shelved for the next four or five years. For example, for those who realise that dangerous climate change is the most critical issue facing the planet, then voting Lib Dem or Labour just to keep out the Tory seems of secondary importance. Instead, they have to put their principles first and vote for the candidate or party they think is most likely to push for real action on their core concerns. Even if not elected, the stronger the vote for someone close to those core concerns, the more likely it is that the tweeedledum/dee parties will take notice. Such voters cannot afford the luxury of voting tactically.

4. Finally, if we want to vote tactically then why stop at short-term, knee-jerk thinking? Some long-term calculations might suggest different conclusions. For instance, from a Cornish nationalist perspective, is propping up the Liberal Democrats the most sensible option? For at least half a century the Lib Dems have been the soft option for those seeking Cornish devolution. Yet in that half century the Cornish Lib Dems haven’t been able to convince the rest of their party to respect Cornish rights, as was seen in the devonwall vote. While a few individual Liberal Democrats may be worth supporting, the party as a whole has for too long taken the votes of Cornish patriots for granted. Their rhetoric has accompanied painfully slow progress, while their propensity for policy cock-ups has verged on the disastrous. For example, unitary local government badly undermined the case for a Cornish Assembly. Moreover, given their abject failure to confront the ongoing suburbanisation of Cornwall, if we sit around and wait for the Lib Dems to deliver there may be no recognisably distinct Cornish Cornwall left to fight for.

The Lib Dems lie like some giant sloth sprawled across the path to Cornish self-government. For MK or a future Cornish nationalist party to succeed, it will have to replace the Lib Dems, not prop it up. Ceding the ground to the Lib Dems only leads to the withering away of alternatives, as has happened in St Ives. In what was once its strongest district, MK in St Ives is almost defunct. The same now seems to be happening to the Greens. Only over the dead body of the Lib Dems will a more forceful pro-Cornish party emerge. So the logic for a Cornish nationalist might be to vote tactically against the Lib Dems, not for them.

Clearly, in our electoral system, with its built in ‘wasted’ votes, a proportion of voters will always vote for the lesser evil. However, they need to approach this decision case by case rather than apply it in a mindlessly blanket fashion. When is it really worth subjugating principles to a short-term negative tactic? Sometimes it might be, sometimes not. It depends on the candidates and the possibility of success.

There’s one scenario however when tactical voting would most definitely be worthwhile. For those who feel so strongly about ‘wasted’ votes, the remedy is simple. Make proportional representation and the reform of the voting system an absolute priority. When the non-Tory parties agree to make PR the central plank of their campaign then it’ll be worth voting tactically. But is there any sign of this?

Forward, together? Or backward, to the 19th century?

Hidden away in the small print of the Conservative manifesto on page 43 is a promise to get rid of the detested alternative vote used for mayoral elections and replace it with the good old, best in the world, system of first past the post. This is in addition to an explicit Tory promise to stick with FPTP for general elections and continue with the boundary review to slash the number of parliamentary seats to 600, while obliterating the odd 1,000 year old administrative boundary in the process. The Tories can now sniff the real possibility, on the back of Brexit, of reinforcing their hold on the political levers and consolidating it for the foreseeable future.

One of the less predictable results (or perhaps not) of calling a general election in the middle of local elections was a general boost in the turnout, as party loyalists woke up and hurried out to vote. Turnout rose across the UK, to the benefit of the old parties and particularly the Tories, as folk seemed under the misapprehension they were voting for that strong and stable Mother May and not some halfwit standing for the council. Cornwall was no exception. Turnout this year jumped from 32.7% in 2013 to 39.7%.

Even then, under our laughably antiquated voting system, not one councillor was elected with more than half the votes of the registered electorate. In fact only four out of 122 managed to get the support of more than one in three of their electorate. Another 18 won more than one in four. Many more – 31 – took their ward with the votes of fewer than one in seven electors. Three of these won with less than one in ten. And at Camborne Trelowarren, where only six votes separated Tory, Labour and MK, the Tory sneaked in with a massive 5.8% of the registered voters of the ward bothering to vote for him. Meanwhile, the average councillor won his or her seat with the support of just 19.9% of the electorate.

As turnout was artificially boosted this time, even this feeble level of legitimacy for our councillors was better than in 2013. Then the mean level of support was 15.3%. In that election no councillor was elected with the votes of more than a third of their electors and only six managed to secure more than a quarter. Sixty, or almost half, were elected by fewer than one in seven in their wards and 22 of those with less than 10% of registered electors.

Instead of looking to make elections more meaningful, increase involvement and reinvigorate democracy, the Tories are determined to set this voting system in concrete. In doing so they can guarantee taking us back to the future and further down the post-democratic road. In a neo-liberal economy where their chums benefit massively for asset speculation, genuine democracy has become an irrelevance. They don’t want an informed electorate – just get on with the sodding shopping and leave the decision-making to us, to the quangos, to the corporations, to the traditional ruling class, while we add a bit of condescending paternalism to keep all you plebs content.

Take back your country? You must be having a laugh.

Can Andrew George win St Ives? The message of the maths.

Even though the Labour and Lib Dem leaderships turned their backs on a so-called ‘progressive alliance’, we have a de-facto one in Cornwall in St Ives. But how likely is it that Andrew George and the Lib Dems can unseat the Tories’ Derek Thomas? Here are the voting figures for St Ives in 2015.

Derek Thomas Conservative 18491 38.3%
Andrew George Lib Dem 16022 33.2%
Graham Calderwood Ukip 5720 11.8%
Cornelius Olivier Labour 4510 9.3%
Tim Andrewes Green 3051 6.3%
Rob Simmons MK 518 1.1%
turnout 73.7%

Progressive alliance fans tend to approach things a little simplistically. They assume that all the voters for ‘progressive’ parties will vote for the ‘progressive’ candidate. On that basis things look good for Andrew, who can add another 8,079 to his total. Hold on though. The ‘progressive’ alliance is facing a ‘regressive’ one, as Ukip isn’t standing. So on the same basis add another 5,720 votes to Thomas’s total. This gives us

Derek Thomas Conservative 24211
Andrew George Lib Dem 24101
Chris Drew Labour 0

You might have spotted a small flaw in the logic here, with a Labour vote that even the Tory press might not expect. Because Labour is standing. Its local candidate, Chris Drew, is well-known in the Penzance area. It’s hardly likely that no-one will vote for him even if the Labour campaign is extremely low profile. Current polling indicates that around two thirds of Labour voters last time intend to do the same this time, with one in five still undecided and the rest scattering, including 10% to the Tories. But let’s assume that in St Ives only half their voters stick with Labour, while 10% go Tory. This leaves 1,804 for Andrew.

Let’s also assume Andrew picks up 90% of Green and MK votes, which may be taking things for granted a little. This gives him another 3,212. But what will happen to the Ukip vote? Across Britain 60% of Ukip’s voters in 2015 now intend to vote for Ukip-lite – the Tories – in the absence of a Ukip candidate (45% will do so even if there is one!). Eight per cent are considering voting Labour and just 4% for the Lib Dems with the rest undecided. Let’s assume St Ives’ kippers vote the same way but that the non-Tory vote splits evenly between Labour and Lib Dem.

All this surmising gives us the following.

2015 vote Labour GP/MK Ukip  2017 vote
Thomas 18491 +451 0 +3432 =22374
George 16022 +1804 +3212 +343 =21381
Drew 4510 -2255 +357 +343 =2955

Oh dear, it’s still a majority for Thomas, and a fairly healthy one at that.

Moreover, so far this exercise has made the further very questionable assumption that every single Lib Dem voter in 2015 will stick with Andrew. This is very unlikely. Recent polls suggest that Lib Dem voters are more volatile than any other party apart from Ukip. Only half of Lib Dem voters in 2015 are contemplating doing the same in 2017, with nearly one in five saying they’re going for that strong and stable, but nice, Mrs May and one in ten to Labour. The rest are dithering.

So, in order to win, Andrew has to pick up at least nine out of ten Green and MK voters, retain ALL his own voters from 2015 and get at least half the Labour vote. A tall order. But even all that isn’t enough. So he needs to do all or some of the following as well.

  • Attract Tory voters. This will be difficult as Tory voters in 2015 are proving the most resilient to changing their votes. They’re not called conservative for nothing.
  • Attract more of the Ukip vote. This is made more difficult by the Lib Dems’ strong anti-Brexit stance.
  • Pick up support from non-voters. Easier said than done.

There’s one final possibility. In 2015 Andrew went down with the good ship Lib Dem, sunk by the general swing away from the party across the UK. If there were a rising Lib Dem tide this time it could take him back to Westminster. The problem is that there isn’t. Lib Dem support in the polls is stubbornly languishing at levels similar to or even a little down on 2015. The Lib Dem vote in the Cornish local elections also stagnated and was hardly encouraging.

To win, Andrew has to hope that the remaining three weeks of the campaign see an uplift in Lib Dem prospects generally. Otherwise, you can safely place your bets on Derek Thomas.

Cornwall’s election: all change on the right, not much elsewhere

There’s been no little panic outside the Conservative Party over the results of the local elections on May 4th. Suddenly, a Tory clean sweep in Cornwall seems very much on the cards again. But is it?

Superficially, this was a very good election for the Tories. They gained 15 seats and their mean vote rose by 7.5% over 2013. It was even a couple of points higher than in 2009, although they won four fewer seats this time than then. Moreover, as usual, their seat haul benefited from the vagaries of an unpredictable, Victorian voting system. In a proportional system they would still have gained, but got more like 38 seats rather than the 46 they ended up with.

Cornwall Council election 2017 seats under FPTP and PR (d’Hondt system)

Actual result PR result
Con 46 38
Lib Dem 37 32
Ind 30 34
Labour 5 11
MK 4 6
Greens 0 2

That said, they scored some notable successes in areas that should be difficult territory for them. In Camborne’s five wards they won 45.6% of the vote (and four of the five seats). In the St Austell district they stole wards such as St Blazey, Par, St Stephen, Bugle and Mount Charles. This was partly due to the scattering of the opposition vote but not entirely. It seems that the more working class (and Cornish) wards in Cornwall were not immune from the brexit British nationalist dogwhistle.

Overall, Cornish voters split three ways. The Tories got 35.3% of those who voted, Liberal Democrats picked up 29.7%, while Independents and other parties got 35%. So, despite breaking through in some urban areas, the Tories were still far from securing a majority of the votes, even in this ‘landslide’ year.

The other party gaining from the first past the post electoral system was the Lib Dems. However, their vote slipped back slightly from the levels of 2013 and 2009, even though they gained one seat and now have 37 (which will probably become 38 after the Bodmin by-election in June). Their tactics of parachuting paper candidates backfired badly with many receiving a derisory vote. In contrast, the vote for sitting Lib Dem councillors with name recognition held up well. (Interestingly, this bore no discernible relationship to their actual record as councillors, which varied widely). The attraction of the party label proved to be minimal.

The Lib Dems did best in North Cornwall in terms of seats, which must buoy them up there for their general election challenge, even though the personal vote at that level is less important than locally. It remains to be seen whether they can counter the daily drip-feed Tory party political broadcast that the BBC seems to have been turned into.

You’re unlikely to have read this anywhere in the mainstream press but Labour actually performed relatively well in Cornwall when compared with its abysmal showing in 2009 and even its recovery year in 2013. Its mean vote was up a couple of points, although this wasn’t reflected in terms of seats, where it lost three and now has five. But it’s not easy to make a direct comparison with past elections as Labour contests fewer than half the seats and the geography of their contestation varies. They also had fewer paper candidates this time.

MK narrowly failed (by six votes in Camborne Trelowarren) to match Labour in terms of seats. Meanwhile, its overall mean vote fell back slightly, despite fewer candidates this time. Nevertheless, it retained its four seats (although two of them were a bit close for comfort) despite the general election effect. This latter was also visible outside Cornwall, where there was a noticeable shift in the local elections back to the old centr(al)ist parties as tribal loyalties kicked in. It was no doubt a factor in the Independents in Cornwall losing seven seats and falling back to 30.

MK’s organisational weakness became more apparent after the local elections in its inability to field a candidate in the general election. But at least it has some councillors, which can’t be said for the Greens or Ukip, which both lost their sole representatives on Cornwall Council.

The Green mean vote held up but flatlined, with no sign of any major breakthrough. The ‘surge’ in St Ives is now old history and the Greens were unable to pick up votes despite the supposed unpopularity of Labour, now in the hands of ‘marxist saboteurs’ (like Tim Dwelly and Candy Atherton?!) The real change occurred on the far right as the Ukip mean vote went into meltdown. This was clearly associated to some extent with the rise in the Tory vote. It appears that Ukip’s function turns out to have been to act as a bridge from other parties to the Tories.

Are there any lessons here for the general election? Not many. In Cornwall the share of the vote for Independents is much higher, only the Tories and Lib Dems contest all (or virtually all) seats and turnout is less than half what we can expect next month, all of which make the local elections a poor predictor of voting behaviour in the general election. However, sufficient numbers of that 35% or so who take enough interest in politics to vote in the locals were swayed by the ‘strong and stable’ mantra to give the Tories a clear lead. Therefore it looks likely that the third who only bother to turn out for a general election will be even less able to look beyond the Tory soundbites and the personality politics they thrive on. On the basis of the local results we shouldn’t write off a second Tory clean sweep in Cornwall.