Dutch elections: what you won’t read in the UK media

Is the extravagant hair style compulsory for right-wing populists?

It’s the Dutch legislative elections tomorrow. If you rely on the British media for your info on this you’re probably thinking the Netherlands is the place likely to see the next populist domino fall into place. Geert Wilders’ PVV (Freedom Party) has for some time been touted as likely to ‘win’ the Dutch elections.

However, there are two problems with the simple picture painted by journalists obsessed with far right populism. First, our media seem to be constitutionally incapable of coping with multi-party election systems. Anything more than a two-protagonist contest and they start to struggle badly. Which is why they love US presidential elections. And why on Monday they homed in with a collective sigh of relief on a simple head to head debate between the leaders of the two parties that are polling strongest in the Netherlands. What they didn’t tell us was that at the other televised election debates, between seven and ten party leaders were invited. That includes tonight’s final eve-of-poll debate, which features eight parties.

The second problem is that ‘win’ in the context of an electoral system that guarantees a fully proportional result, is not quite the same as ‘win’ in our electoral system, which became unfit for purpose around 1900. The leading party in the Netherlands, according to recent polls, is on around 17% of the vote. Moreover, that party isn’t the PVV, but the VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy). This is an economically neo-liberal, centre-right party positioned roughly between our Lib Dems and Tories.

Wilders’ PVV is at 15%, not that much more than Ukip’s 13% share in the 2015 General Election, although enough to give it a lot more seats. Admittedly, for the PVV this is an increase (of about 5%) on its showing in the last Dutch elections in 2012. On the latest polling it’s set to gain 7-9 seats.

GL’s slogans: care for each other, share wealth, a clean economy and one society

While you wouldn’t know it from the BBC, another party is poised to gain even more – from 10-16 seats if the polls are accurate. This is the GroenLinks, or Green Left Party. Funny how we haven’t heard too much about them in the British media, even though their support has risen over the course of the campaign to record levels. They’re not that far behind the four parties vying to become the largest in the Dutch Parliament. Together with the VVD and PVV these are the CDA (Christian Democratic Appeal), the traditional centre-right moderate conservative party and D66, a centrist party similar to the Lib Dems.

The big loser in the Dutch elections looks likely to be the centre-left Labour Party, forecast to lose between 25-30 of its current 38 seats. A lesson here for those who put their faith in the ideologically very similar British Labour Party perhaps. The combined support for the two parties to the left of Labour (GroenLinks and the Socialist Party) leads to predictions of around 30 seats. This compares with the 22 predicted for Wilders’ PVV. But this is something you’d never guess from our media.

The case of the mysteriously disappearing party

In 2013 Ukip won six seats on Cornwall Council. This made it the fifth largest political group, ahead of MK. Yet, since then the six have shrunk to a less magnificent one and Ukip slipped to rank as the sixth largest group, tied with the single Green councillor. Before and after losing the Stoke Central by-election the post-Farage Ukip’s vote at local by-elections has been slowly haemorrhaging. However, the Ukip bubble in Cornwall began deflating well before the party’s more recent post-Brexit problems.

A year after the 2013 breakthrough Ukip councillor Michael Keogh at Mabe resigned, citing ‘personal circumstances’. He was followed in March 2015 by Viv Lewis at Camborne Treswithian. A retired bus driver and one of the triumvirate of Hayle-based Ukip councillors elected for wards in Camborne and Four Lanes, Viv, now deceased, was 82 years old when elected. His success no doubt came as a great surprise to him.

Councillor Lewis was followed within months by his fellow Camborne councillor Harry Blakeley. Harry, originally from Kent before running a holiday park in Cornwall, gave ill-health as the reason for his departure in June 2015. But he’d been involved in some curious shenanigans and associated wrangling with fellow Ukip members over his sponsorship of a young Kipper who turned out to have interesting views and connections to the BNP.

In April 2016 two of the remaining three Ukip councillors also departed for pastures new. At Four Lanes Derek Elliott, one of the more effective Ukip members in the west, went, accusing councillors of voting like sheep and presiding over a ‘public sector shambles’. At the same time Mark Hicks at Newquay Treviglas took the opportunity to quit as well, ‘for personal reasons’. Councillor Hicks was a rarity among Ukip councillors, having been born and brought up in Cornwall. However, he was allegedly, and perhaps wisely, seldom present at Ukip gatherings.

Which leaves just lonely Steph McWilliam carrying the flag for Ukip from her base in rural east Cornwall on the banks of the Lynher.

It will be interesting to see how many Ukip candidates offer themselves for election in May. In 2013 they contested the majority (76 of 123) of the seats. It will also be of interest to see if any successful candidates turn out to have greater staying power than the last lot. You might have thought the poor record of Ukip’s elected representatives would make voters think twice before putting a cross by their name. On the other hand the average Ukip voter probably has little idea how they’ve performed or particular desire to find out.

Even more worrying for Ukip must be their feeble performance at the five by-elections in the seats they were theoretically defending. Losing all of them, the best they’ve managed is to come third. No candidate at all could be found for two of the contests. At the most recent by-election they fought, at Four Lanes, their man came bottom, sixth out of six.

Nonetheless, the protest vote that they garnered in 2013 has hardly gone away but simmers resentfully in dark corners of the land. The open question is where that 24% of the mean vote might flow come May. It may surge back to Ukip. Yet there’s no reason such voters should always opt for conservative populism. At recent by-elections it’s been picked up the Liberal Democrats, the traditional safe home for the aimless and disaffected. But it could be up for grabs in a Cornwall-wide election.

Italian regionalist parties and the Constitutional Referendum

Italians vote today in a constitutional referendum which is being ridiculously over-simplified by the British media as the third round of battles between Brexit/Trumpite populism and the ‘Establishment’. It isn’t.

Yes, Italy’s populist (though hardly far-right Ukip-lite) Five Star Movement is calling for a No vote, as is the right-wing autonomist Lega Nord. But then, so is Sinistra Italiana (Italian Left), which combines former Communists, other left-wingers and greens. Meanwhile, one conservative party (the New Centre-Right) is found in the Yes camp, while a second – the Conservatives and Reformists – which explicitly and unaccountably models itself on the British Tories – is in the No camp.

The problem with this referendum is that it can easily be read as a centralising move that neatly fits the anti-democratic project of the neo-liberal elites running Europe (and the UK). Matteo Renzi, the Italian Democratic Party (similar to Labour) Prime Minister is making this an issue of confidence and sees himself as a ‘moderniser’. But this is business-friendly, Blairite ‘modernisation’. It’s no coincidence that the Italian employers’ organisation backs a Yes vote, as does the European Commission, while stock markets are getting jittery about a No vote.

The Italian autonomous regions
The Italian autonomous regions

Fundamentally, the constitutional reform proposes weakening and reducing in size the Italian Senate. It replaces direct elections to the Senate by indirect elections (by Regional Councils). While this still leaves the Italian Senate more democratic than our House of Lords, it also means the Chamber of Deputies becomes the dominant element in the formerly bicameral constitution. At the same time, some argue that ordinary regions in Italy will be rendered powerless, although the five autonomous regions (Val d’Aosta, Trentino, Friulia-Venezia Giulia, Sicily and Sardinia) are left untouched. Meanwhile rural provinces, a level of local government, look likely to be abolished.

The PATT in Trentino calls for a Yes vote
The PATT in Trentino calls for a Yes vote

So where do Italian regionalist parties stand on the referendum? Of the five members of the European Free Alliance (the group that contains the SNP, Plaid and MK), four are calling for a No vote, even those in unaffected regions. In the Val d’Aosta the EFA member and leftist Autonomie-Liberté-Participation-Ecologie supports No, while the centre-right Union Valdôtaine is on the Yes side. This mirrors the position of the dominant catch-all parties in South Tyrol and Trentino, the Südtiroler Volkspartei and the Partito Autonomista Trentino Tirolese, which are both supporting Renzi. But again, the EFA member, the centre-right Süd-Tiroler Freiheit says No. In Venetia, the EFA’s Liga Veneta Repubblica is now part of Noi Veneto Indipendente, which strongly supports No. Finally, the Sardinian Partito Sardo d’Azione calls for a No vote too. (The fifth EFA member – the Slovene Union – I’m not sure about as I can’t read Slovene well enough!)

Noi Veneto Indipendente explains why Venetians should vote No
Noi Veneto Indipendente explains why Venetians should vote No

Corbyn’s Labour: delectation or distraction?

The unexpected personality cult that has developed around Jeremy Corbyn has both positive and negative aspects. Positively, it reflects a groundswell of support for a new kind of politics, more honest, more open. Many look forward to a politics that can root out the malign and corrupt, over-powerful ‘traditional’ influences, from the media, through corporate lobbyists to the City. Others wait impatiently for a politics that can confront the narrow economistic agenda of neoliberalism and the greed it feeds.

On the other hand, Corbynism is formless and vague, more a well-meaning yearning for a better world than a coherent strategy for change. Corbyn himself seems rooted in the 1980s left and has yet to convince he is capable of transforming the rusting hulk of the Labour Party into a streamlined vessel of radical change.

The jury has to remain out on the Labour Party’s capacity to act as the midwife for any ‘new move’ in British politics. While the party is inviting submissions on policy from people beyond its boundaries, there is little evidence as yet of a fundamental shift in its values. Meanwhile, the embittered rump of the parliamentary party have few alternatives to neoliberal economics or support for Trident, are lukewarm on devolution and appear to have little awareness of the issue of climate change and the implications it has for our addiction to fossil-fuelled ‘growth’.

From the outside, whether right or left, too many in the Labour Party still seem wedded to tribalist politics. They cling desperately to the delusion that Labour can wrest power away from the Tories alone, with no need to emerge from its bunker or engage in a radically new politics (as opposed to new policies). Many Labour folk appear to find it difficult to shake off an arrogant and/or condescending authoritarianism in their relations with progressive forces outside the party.

If the Labour Party can’t deliver then all that Corbynism offers is a massive distraction from the long-term struggle to remove the toxic Tories. Energies that could be directed into grassroots struggles or other parties will be sapped in years of internal Labour machine politics and internecine (and obscure) institutional wrangling that will be of absolutely no interest to the majority of voters, whose understanding of politics these days seems to have plumbed new depths.

Electorally, prospects do not look good for Labour. A number of factors, some external, some internal, suggest it faces an uphill battle to appeal to voters, even if Corbyn’s circle can overcome their vocal opponents within the party.

Externally, Labour will lose out from the regular boundary redistributions between elections that are now the norm, the last tired gasp of an electoral system that became unfit for purpose in the 1920s. Regular boundary changes will consolidate the Tories’ ability to transform 40% or less of the votes into massive parliamentary majorities. Strangely therefore, why is Labour so reluctant to make proportional representation a central part of its policy plank?

The structure of party competition also works against Labour. The Liberal Democrats are living evidence of the short-term memory of the British people as they recover from their traumatic coalition caper. As long as they offer a safe home for a soft protest vote, anti-Tory voters will be tempted into the meaningless charade of voting Lib Dem.

Third, the BBC and the press, even the purportedly liberal Guardian, are hell-bent on removing Corbyn and will go on encouraging Labour dissidents, while rubbishing their leader. Expect the current ‘hard left’ and ‘anti-semitic’ abuse to pale into nothing as soon as a real prospect of an election begins to appear on the horizon. Corbyn’s Labour can expect consistently biased media treatment and little opportunity to discuss its policy initiatives sensibly or rationally. So how does it intend to counter this?

And then we have the internal factors militating against Labour success. The first is the patent lack of party unity. The traditional, conservative power-brokers of the party are refusing to bow out gracefully and loath to give up the reins of power to activists at the grassroots. Egged on by their media chums, they’ll fight the internal war as long as it takes. While Labour dithers over whether it’s a socialist or a social democratic, or a centrist party in this way, voters will continue to be uncertain what they’re being asked to vote for.

In such a context they may well vote for the Lib Dems. They’ve already deserted en masse for the SNP in Scotland, And in England of course (and Wales and Cornwall) there’s also Ukip or another far right party. Corbyn’s relaxed attitude to population growth and immigration – he’s ‘unconcerned’ by the numbers – is unlikely to play well outside London and a few liberal cities. Many will see it as smug, the views of a comfortable metropolitan elite out of touch with the realities of everyday life for those who, rightly or wrongly, feel ‘left behind’ and powerless in the face of capitalist restructuring. Unless Corbyn’s Labour Party can come up with a credible (and progressive) alternative on immigration and population growth they’re leaving the field open for Ukip and similar parties.

In a context therefore of an antiquated electoral system in which non-Tory voters are scattered over a number of parties, intense media hostility, internal disunity and the presence of the soft alternative of the Lib Dems and the populist alternative of Ukip, the task of Labour seems formidable to say the least.

Its only chance is to transcend the old politics and embrace the zeitgeist of the new, opening out to others and seeking a progressive electoral alliance. An early test of this arrives in the shape of next year’s local elections, now not much more than six months off. In Cornwall particularly, Labour’s historic weakness means a Labour vote is often wasted and merely serves to split the opposition to the Tories. Is there any sign that Labour is looking to join a progressive alliance, opening out to parties such as MK or the Greens, or even to elements among the Liberal Democrats, in order to maximise the anti-Tory potential in next May’s elections? Or will it stick with its old, familiar, tribalist instincts?

A submission to the Government and MPs on the proposed devonwall constituency

Dear …..

In 2011 the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Government steered the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill through Parliament. As a result of this legislation, and in pursuit of the aim of relatively equally-sized constituencies, a cross-border Bideford, Bude and Launceston constituency is being proposed by the Boundary Commission. This will draw 43% of its electors from Cornwall with 57% from Devon. As you are no doubt aware, this has caused bemusement, dismay, anger and even outrage across Cornwall. For the first time since the Commons was elected in the 13th century, a constituency will straddle the administrative border of Cornwall.

Attempts by parliamentarians to amend this legislation in both Commons and Lords in order to exclude Cornwall from its provisions unfortunately failed. This was despite other places – Orkney and Shetland, Na h-Eileanan an Iar and the Isle of Wight – being exempted from its provisions.

Unlike the Scottish island constituencies, which will have electorates after the Act of around 21-22,000 and 33-34,000, or the Isle of Wight (with two constituencies of 52-53,000 each), the people of Cornwall are not asking for greater representation. Indeed, they would be perfectly content with lesser representation in order to maintain the integrity of Cornwall for the purpose of elections to the House of Commons.

On the basis of electorate statistics in December 2015, five Cornish constituencies would average 78,775 electors. This is just 268 voters above the Boundary Commission’s window of 71,031 to 78,507. For the sake of just 1,340 voters the historical integrity of the Cornish border, critical for maintaining and enhancing the sense of place of the Cornish people, is being consigned to history by the arbitrary 5% variation limit in the legislation.

However, since the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act was passed, a completely new context has arisen. In April 2014, the Government ‘fully recognised’ the Cornish as a national minority under the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. At the time the Chief Secretary to the Treasury stated explicitly that this gave the Cornish ‘the same status … as the UK’s other Celtic people [sic], the Scots, Welsh and the Irish’. [https://www.gov.uk/government/news/cornish-granted-minority-status-within-the-uk]

The proposed cross-border constituency rides roughshod over the fundamental guarantee provided by the Government as recently as 2014 that the Cornish would henceforth be treated on an equal basis. The territories of the other four indigenous nations of these islands are being respected in the boundary revision and not breached. It is entirely unjust and illogical therefore not to treat the Cornish in the same manner.

Moreover, the imposition of this constituency will directly and indirectly breach

a) Article 5, paras 1 and 2 of the Framework Convention

The Parties undertake to promote the conditions necessary for persons belonging to national minorities to maintain and develop their culture, and to preserve the essential elements of their identity, namely their religion, language, traditions and cultural heritage.
Without prejudice to measures taken in pursuance of their general integration policy, the Parties shall refrain from policies or practices aimed at assimilation of persons belonging to national minorities against their will and shall protect these persons from any action aimed at such assimilation.

as well as

b) Article 15
The Parties shall create the conditions necessary for the effective participation of persons belonging to national minorities in cultural, social and economic life and in public affairs, in particular those affecting them.

There are four immediate possibilities therefore.
First, the Government repeals this Act and instead seeks ways to reform democratic processes in the UK in order to bring them up to date with practice in other European states.

Second, the Government recognises the very marginal exception necessary to provide five constituencies for Cornwall, thus respecting its historical boundary, and amends the Act accordingly, following the precedent of the treatment of Orkney and Shetland, Na h-Eileanan an Iar and the Isle of Wight.

Third, the Government redraws Cornwall’s administrative boundary with Devon to include the areas of north west Devon that are proposed to lie within the Bideford, Bude and Launceston constituency, thus bringing the administrative and representational boundaries again into line with each other.

Fourth, the Government changes (or recognises) the constitutional status of Cornwall so that it becomes a Crown Dependency, like the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. This would obviate the need for representation at Westminster.

Which of these options will you be urging on the Government? Or is there an alternative possibility I have not considered?

I note that one of the slogans at the recent Conservative Party conference was ‘A democracy that works for everyone’. For this laudable aim to be translated into reality, more tolerance and sensitivity towards the special case of Cornwall’s border and its significance for Cornish people must be displayed.

I look forward to your response.

The strange re-birth of Liberal (Democratic) Cornwall 6: Should we trust the Lib Dems again?

The accumulated evidence of the last few blogs suggests that on the issues of devonwall, the Cornish Assembly, the cross-border constituency and housing growth, the Liberal Democrats have been all over the shop. Some consistently support devolution or condemn the transformation of Cornwall in the interests of wealthier migrants from south east England. Others do not. While, at some times, the rhetoric of Lib Dem manifestos supports a Cornish Assembly, at other times their actions totally bely this. Or at one level (parliamentary or council) Lib Dems might favour one course of action and at the other they favour the opposite.

It’s enough to make the average voter dizzy. Moreover, it’s difficult to know whether this chaotic diversity is the result of naivety and hopeless incompetency on the one hand, or deliberate disingenuity on the other. Because the Janus-faces of the Lib Dems serve a very useful purpose. It means they can avoid clear policy positions, running with the hares and with the hounds. They also serve a useful function for the powers that be. As long as the Lib Dems act as the outlet for pro-Cornish opinion, they render that opinion harmless.

Can Cornish Lib Dems overcome their past?
Can Cornish Lib Dems overcome their past?

At present, Lib Dems are making a lot of noise in opposition to Tory policies on the cross-border constituency or devolution. But only a few years ago when in coalition they were colluding in those same policies. Why should we believe them now? And which Lib Dems do we believe anyway? We’re even hearing the ludicrous argument that it was the Lib Dems who somehow stopped the Devonwall constituency (having previously effectively voted for it) before the last election by voting against going ahead with the boundary changes. No, Clegg and co. only pulled back from this because his proposed ‘reforms’ of the House of Lords were being scuppered by the Tories. It was nothing at all to do with the devonwall constituency.

It’s good that the Lib Dems are now opposing the Devonwall constituency. But we’ve been here several times before. The fact is that we can’t trust them to deliver; they’ve had enough opportunities to defend Cornwall and its people in the past and translate their windy rhetoric into matching deeds. Why should we give them another chance? Until there is evidence that Lib Dems in Cornwall can become more than a toothless regional branch of a party that has no clear sense of direction, a vote for them is ultimately a wasted vote. We really cannot afford to go on propping them up and prolonging our agony in this way.

Indeed, even if you’re willing to give the Lib Dems in Cornwall yet another chance and if you put more faith in their promises than their record and are less jaded and cynical than I am, the rational option is not to vote for them. To keep them on the right path, it’s essential to ensure they’re afraid of losing support to a party that’s a bit more radical on Cornish devolution, devonwall and border-blurring. Only by steady pressure from more consistent campaigners for Cornish communities, can the Lib Dems be kept on the path of righteousness. Their fear of being outflanked on Cornish issues is our one hope, in the absence of the new democratic settlement that they don’t appear to seek.

The strange re-birth of Liberal (Democratic) Cornwall 5: Lib Dems and lifestyle Cornwall

They've been fighting for a fair deal for a long time now - and we're still waiting
They’ve been fighting for a fair deal for a long time now – and we’re still waiting

Liberal Democrats have over the years been in a position to protect Cornwall from the consequences of ongoing population growth and the parallel gentrification of the place, fuelled by massive housebuilding in order to accommodate (and encourage) in-migration mainly from the south east of England. Yet, when the Lib Dems were in control of Cornwall County Council, they steadfastly refused to force their officers to construct a strong case for fairer treatment for Cornwall. This was despite growth rates three times higher than those of England and four times those of Wales since the 1960s, despite the fact that housebuilding in Cornwall runs around 50% higher in relation to its resident population than in England, despite the reality that we’re losing our countryside at a relatively faster rate than in England, and despite the blindingly obvious conclusion that continuing such rates of growth is unsustainable.

While some Lib Dem councillors, such as Rob Nolan in Truro or Mario Fonk at Penzance have to their credit persistently opposed the imposition of unnecessary housing on Cornwall, others have equally consistently favoured excessive developer-led housing and population growth. For example, in Bodmin Lib Dem councillors have been to the fore in demanding massive housing growth, which could see the town expand by as much as 60% in just 20 years.

In addition, Dan Rogerson, ex-MP for North Cornwall, has admitted (on Facebook, 17 Mar 2016), that he has never made a public statement condemning the excessive housing targets recently adopted by Cornwall Council. In contrast, his colleague Andrew George regularly claimed the planning laws of his own government were akin to a developers’ charter, driven by greed, not need, and called for a much-reduced housing target.

So which do you get when you vote Lib Dem, the Lib Dem who favours manic housing growth or the Lib Dem who recognises its disastrous impact on our culture, landscape, environment and wildlife? The truth is that the Lib Dems are not so much a political party with credible policy positions but a collection of Independents masquerading under a party label.