Spanish elections: gains for regionalist parties

In the UK most of the coverage of yesterday’s election in Spain went little further than reports of a resurgent far right, reflecting the obsession of metropolitan journalists. Spain’s new populist far-right party Vox in the end won just over 10% of the vote, lower than many were predicting. In fact Spain’s voters displayed a lower level of support for the far-right than voters have done in the past in either the UK or France.

BBC news headline
More restrained spin on Vox in Spain’s El Pais

Let’s transcend the excitable infatuation of Britain’s liberal journalists with the far right and look at the bigger picture. The clear winners at the state level in Spain were the Socialists, who bucked the slow, apparently terminal, decline of European social democracy. Although they won only 29% of the vote, this was well ahead of the next biggest party, continuing the extremely fragmented picture that we recently saw in the Finnish elections (and will see in the possibly upcoming UK Euros). However, the Spanish voting system, which is a lot more proportional than our archaic historical curiosity, is not as proportional as others, such as the Irish, German or Dutch. As a result, the Socialist Party in Spain was rewarded with a third, or 123, of the 350 seats in the Spanish Congress of Deputies.

The other winners apart from the far-right Vox, which begins its parliamentary presence with 24 seats, was the centre-right Cuidadanos (Citizens’) Party, which managed to increase its seats from 32 to 57, even though it gained less than three percentage points. The C’s, like the Lib Dems, is a centre-right party but even more opposed to regional independence movements. Both Vox and the C’s picked up votes at the expense of the traditional conservative People’s Party (PP), which saw its vote almost halve, although just holding on to second place with 68 seats. Mired in corruption scandals and incompetence when in government, a viciously anti-Catalan independence and Spanish nationalist stance was not enough to save it – lesson there for the English Tories perhaps?

The main loser is the left-wing and green coalition of Podemos. Although polling almost as strongly as the C’s, it saw its number of seats fall from 71 to 42. Some of this loss was accounted for by a switch to regionalist parties in the bigger autonomous communities of Spain. For the final group of winners, although you’re less likely to read about them in the British press, are the regionalist and nationalist parties of Catalonia and the Basque Country.

Spain’s regions

In Catalonia the regionalist parties saw their combined share of the vote rise from 33% to 39%. The left-wing Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) took over from the Podemos coalition as the biggest party in the region and gained six seats. In addition, the centre-right party of Carles Puigdemont, the Junts per Catalunya, held on to seven of their previous eight seats. Meanwhile, the PP, which launched a vicious legal and physical attack on Catalan autonomists in 2017, lost all but one of its seats.

Even that performance was better than in the Basque Country, where voters returned no deputies from the Spanish right at all. There, Basque parties, the centre-right Basque National Party and the radical left-wing nationalist Euskal Herria Bildu, each gained seats. The Basque regionalist party vote rose from 38% to 48% while the parties won a clear majority of seats. The Basque nationalist vote also rose in Navarre, from 14% to 19%, but the split there between moderate and radical nationalists prevented this being turned into a seat.

The other success story was in Cantabria where the Regionalist Party of Cantabria (PRC) gained its first seat in the Congress.

While regionalist parties in the Canaries held their two seats, the story was not so promising in Galicia or Valencia. In both those regions nationalist parties won seats in 2016 as part of coalitions with Podemos. Those coalitions did not survive the events of 2016-19. In Galicia the Anova-Nationalist Brotherhood in 2012 split from the Galician Nationalist Block (BNG), which had been the principal home of Galician nationalists for some time. Anova won two seats standing with Podemos in 2016 but did not contest the elections this time. However, the vote from the BNG doubled from its low point of 2.9% in 2016. Although not enough to win a seat, its 5.7% was higher than that of Vox in the region and well above the other nationalist grouping En Marea. The results suggest the BNG may be on the road to recovery.

It was a similar story in Valencia. There, Compromís, a coalition of Valencian nationalist and green parties founded in 2010, had won four seats in 2016 in alliance with Podemos. This time around, while Podemos won five of Valencia’s 32 seats, Compromís 2019, standing on its own, only won one seat and 6.5% of the vote. Nonetheless, that was still noticeably more than at the last elections they had fought on a separate ticket in 2011.

It appears that the resurgence of a virulent Francoite Spanish state nationalism has triggered a counter-reaction in Spain’s autonomous communities. The vote for regionalist and nationalist parties, most of them of the left, has generally risen and their total number of seats in the Spanish Congress expanded, from 32 to 36 despite losses in Galicia and Valencia. This is 12 more than Vox’s total. In the regions and nations discussed here, Vox won just four seats (and three of those were in Valencia). The regionalist and nationalist parties in Spain continue to act as a bulwark against the rise of a populist far-right.


Foreign news: the English local elections with special reference to minor parties

Since 2009 local elections have become rather rare events in Cornwall. In contrast, over the border in many parts of England sub-state elections can still occur every year or two. Such is the case this year in the big English conurbations and, where two-tier local government survives, for District Councils. The main exceptions with no elections are London, the rural unitaries of Wiltshire, Shropshire, Durham and Northumberland, and Bristol. In Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire local elections have been postponed for a year while local government is re-organised and new unitary authorities established.

That still leaves around 9,000 councillors to be elected across 248 councils. In addition, there’s the interesting local elections in Northern Ireland, being conducted under a more rational single transferable vote system.

So what do the nominations for these elections tell us? Despite much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the Tory press, the Conservatives are still presenting candidates for over 90% of the seats. In the meantime, Labour has increased its candidate numbers considerably since the last comparable round of elections in 2015. Gains may be more difficult however as those elections coincided with a general election, which always helps the mainstream parties by inflating turnout.

What about the minor parties? Any voters keen to cast their vote for the new media parties of Brexit and Change UK are doomed to disappointment. The chiefs of these appear to have had no indians who were able to organise to stand in the local elections. In contrast to the free publicity these top-down creations receive three old-established major minor parties are offering candidates, while a host of far smaller minor minor parties are presenting more than the odd (in both senses of the word) individual.

First, the major minor parties. The Liberal Democrats seem to be recovering from their nadir in 2015 and are contesting just over half of the seats available. They’ll hope to garner the anti-brexit vote and appeal to the nebulous centre in the absence of Change UK (but not very much, maybe, if people would like to of course).

The second is the Green Party. Although candidate numbers are down on 2015, Greens are still contesting around 2,600 or almost 30% of the seats. The Greens suffer from a chronic problem of being regularly overlooked by the media. Only this week I heard a BBC report of the local elections in Brighton that focussed almost entirely on Labour and Tories, while bracketing ‘the Lib Dems and Greens’ together in a solitary mention. This despite the fact that Greens are contesting all the seats in Brighton and the Lib Dems only half while in 2015 the Greens won 11 seats there to the Lib Dems’ none. However, this time the Greens might hope to benefit from spin-off from the Extinction Rebellion actions, as the hitherto peripheral issues of climate catastrophe, mass wildlife extinction and a soon to be uninhabitable planet belatedly creep into the news.

The other major minor party is obviously Ukip, well down in candidate numbers from 2015 but still managing to contest around 1,400 or 15% of the available seats. Ukip will be looking to hoover up the brexit hard core in the absence of the Faragistes and the squabbling of the Tories. However, in some areas they are being opposed by other even further right parties, although the number of candidates from these minor minor parties is well below that of the above three.

The For Britain Movement, which split from Ukip in 2018, has 41 candidates by my count, and has attracted some former members of the BNP, which in contrast seems virtually defunct electorally. As is another old far right party, the National Front. Meanwhile, also on the right there’s the English Democrats. They can only put up ten candidates this time and appear to be on the road to inevitable extinction. They’re outnumbered by two ‘veterans’ parties, a new phenomenon in British politics. The Democrats and Veterans Party is another spin-off from Ukip that combines its Eurosceptic British nationalism with support for veterans and a call for ‘direct democracy’, which seems to mean stopping those pesky Europeans telling us what to do. They’re not to be confused with the Veterans’ and Peoples Party, which looks to be a more centrist populist party, with a nice line in anti-establishmentarianism.

On the left the biggest minor minor party is the Socialist Party (standing under the name Socialist Alternative, as the purist and miniscule Socialist Party of Great Britain nicked the title Socialist Party first). It has 45 candidates, the highest number of the minor minor parties. This Trotskyist party was the main driving force of the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, which has decided not to stand in these local elections to give a free run to the Corbynite left in their optimistic project to breath life into the tired old Labour Party.

Also on the (centre) left is the Social Democratic Party, with nine candidates. The SDP is pro-brexit as is its twin throw-back to the heady days of the SDP/Liberal Alliance of the 1980s – the Liberal Party. The latter has 33 candidates, although two thirds of them are in Liverpool.

The new presence on the left over the past four years is the Women’s Equality Party. This had the bad luck to be launched in 2015 just before the Brexit fog descended to shroud the political landscape in the mists of madness and just as increasingly gloomy scientific reports about the state of the planet began to strike horror into anyone with half a brain. However, the WEP persists and is standing 26 candidates this year, mainly in urban areas. This is about the same number as in last year’s English local elections, although that involved a far fewer total of seats.

The final group of minor minor parties are the regionalists. The Yorkshire Party is building on its steady progress since 2014. However, its electoral presence in Yorkshire remains patchy. Almost all its 38 candidates are in the old industrial areas of South and West Yorkshire, with just one in rural Yorkshire north of York. The highest number is in Wakefield where the YP is contesting over a third of the seats. While the North East Party is still just about alive with a couple of candidates, there’s now a Black Country Party in the midlands. Fifteen are standing under this label, although it looks to be a community group of independents rather than a regionalist party as such. The same goes for Putting Cumbria First, with seven candidates but a rather professional-looking website.

Apologies to all those minor minor minor parties that I haven’t mentioned. These didn’t manage to break the five candidate plus barrier that I arbitrarily erected and include the familiar, such as the Official Monster Loony Party, the Socialist Labour Party, the Animal Welfare Party, the Alliance for Green Socialism or The Peace Party, as well as new appearances, such as the Foundation Party, Our Nation and Renew among others.

Cornwall’s DUP MPs

For years Cornish nationalists looked with envy at Scotland and Wales and dreamt of the day when Cornwall too would be represented in Parliament by MPs from a party based outside England. That great day has finally dawned. The only problem is that the party in question is not the SNP or Plaid but the DUP.

When people were herded to the polls in 2017 to vote Conservative did they realise they were actually voting for the DUP?

Over the past week or so there’s been eight votes on Brexit in Parliament. Five of Cornwall’s six MPs voted with the DUP in 87.5% of these votes. Sheryll Murray went for the complete DUP ticket, burnishing her anti-European credentials. Messrs Eustice, Mann and Thomas voted identically to the DUP on seven out of the eight occasions. The exception was that these three voted for May’s ill-fated ‘deal’ rather than against it, bravely allowing themselves to be whipped into line.

Three of Cornwall’s DUP MPs

Steve Double also voted for that deal but unlike the other four also against the so-called Malthouse amendment which proposed a ‘managed’ no-deal using mysterious new technology that few understand. Perhaps, given his stated hardline preference for a ‘clean-break’ (aka no deal) this was a compromise too far for Steve. Either that or he got confused by all the amendments.

Only Sarah Newton, representing Cornwall’s only Remain voting constituency, voted four times against the DUP line. But even Sarah voted against the amendment to reject a no deal in any circumstances, against a third referendum and against MPs taking over the process from the hapless Government.

Meanwhile SNP and Plaid MPs voted exactly opposite to the DUP in all eight votes. None of that fenian behaviour in Cornwall however.

Our friends in the north (of England). Do the YP and NEP have any lessons for Cornwall?

Every now and again there are mutterings about the need for new political party for Cornwall. During these periodic bouts of frustrated self-examination, Cornish autonomists are apt to point to the Yorkshire Party (YP)as a possible example. So, with English local elections next week, do lessons for Cornish nationalists lurk in the English north?

The Yorkshire Party was formed four years ago. At present concentrating on a campaign for a One Yorkshire Devolution Deal which has garnered some cross-party support, its aim is a Parliament for Yorkshire. This would be directly elected by a ‘fair voting system’, with powers similar to those of the Welsh Assembly. Like MK, the party is a member of the European Free Alliance and has familiar centre-left/social-democratic/ environmentalist policies, although calling for more investment in Yorkshire’s infrastructure and a ‘regeneration’; of the region.

In the 2015 General Election the Yorkshire Party stood 14 candidates. Their median vote was 1.0%, with the best being 2.4% in the former mining constituency of Hemsworth. That compared with MK’s median vote at that election of 1.65% and Dick Cole’s 4.1% in St Austell & Newquay.

But unlike MK, which failed to stand, in last year’s snap election the Yorkshire Party expanded its presence to 21 constituencies. Its vote rose significantly, with the best result being 3.8% in Rotherham and its median score 2.1%. This was an impressive result in an election where third and fourth parties were mercilessly squeezed. Moreover, the average age of its candidates was 35, considerably younger than other parties.

In next week’s local elections the Yorkshire Party is putting forward a record 24 candidates, plus one standing for Sheffield City Region Mayor, although this still amounts to just 7% of the 346 council places up for election in Yorkshire this year. Nonetheless, the party will be buoyed up by recently gaining its first District level councillor – in Hambleton – where a former Ukip councillor has switched to the Yorkshire Party.

However, given that its policy portfolio differs only in detail from that of MK, it’s not obvious what lessons, if any, it holds for those proposing a new (or re-launched) party in Cornwall.

But if we look at the North East Party (NEP), also formed in 2014, we find an interesting difference, The NEP also calls for regional devolution and fair funding. But the NEP’s tone is more populist than that of the YP and it seems less explicitly internationalist or progressive, embracing some neo-liberal policies, such as culling the size of local government. In fact, its policies are a mix of regionalism and localism, combining demands for devolution with attention to pavement politics issues.

The NEP has also focused its electoral efforts, rather than adopt the broad approach of the YP. While this may be due as much to its organisational weakness in most of the North East rather than a conscious strategy, its interventions have been largely limited to Peterlee. Here, it controls the town council and won three Durham County Councillors in 2017.

This is a level of success so far unmatched by the more professional-looking YP, which has yet to win representation at the top level of local government. Moreover, the NEP’s sole candidate at the 2017 general election, standing in Easington, which includes Peterlee, won 6.6% of the vote and saved her deposit. She was one of the few fourth party candidates in England to achieve that. In this year’s local elections the NEP is standing just one candidate – in Sunderland. (There are no local elections in Durham.)

The contrasts in tactics between the YP and NEP imply one possible strategic choice for Cornish activists. Do they continue a broad-brush approach or instead focus efforts on a single town or district and work out from there?

Who needs elected representatives? Not Cornwall!

In 2008 Cornish communities were represented in local government by 331 councillors (excluding town and parish councils). In 2009, when a unitary authority was imposed, this was cut at a stroke to 123. Now, the Local Government Boundary Commission for England [sic] is proposing a further cull of Cornwall’s democratically elected representatives, to just 87. In 2008 Cornish communities were as well represented numerically as most English rural counties. If the Commission’s proposal goes through they will become among the least represented in the UK. Only nine local authorities, all big city, densely populated urban authorities, will have more residents per councillor than Cornwall. How has this amazing turnaround come about?

The Boundary Commission intends reducing democratic representation in Cornwall to the lowest levels in the UK

The Boundary Commission’s proposal to cut the number to councillors by 36 stands out as exceptional. Currently, 16 unitary authorities (including Cornwall) are under review by the Commission. In seven of these no change is being recommended to their council size. The mean reduction of councillor numbers proposed overall is 6%. The proposed reduction for Cornwall is almost five times that – an eye watering 29%. Why is Cornwall being treated so differently than everywhere else?

The Boundary Commission offers no convincing justification for this unparalleled cut in councillor numbers, one not previously experienced by any other top level local authority. Indeed, their report on Cornwall Council’s size (September 2017) is seriously flawed. Before reviewing the factors that might explain the push to de-democratise Cornwall’s communities we should briefly note the flaws in the Boundary Commission’s report. These are threefold. First, it is imprecise and based on assertions with no clear supporting evidence. Second, it is disingenuous in the way it presents the results of the consultation it carried out on council size. Third, it fails to put Cornwall in any wider context. It thus refuses to engage directly with the issue of parity or even admit that the reduction of democratic representation in Cornwall is unprecedented in the history of boundary reviews. It is difficult to escape the impression that the Commission had predetermined the council size and their report is merely a flimsy legitimation of a decision already made.

Assertions rather than evidence
The Commission’s justification for its decision to opt for a 29% reduction in the size of Cornwall Council merely states that ‘the team considers that a council size will maintain an effective representational role for members, with particular consideration given to the geography, infrastructure and electorate distribution of Cornwall, The evidence suggests that a reduction in council size would be sustainable given the level of devolution to parish and town councils, and the implementation of new governance arrangements’.

No explanation is provided for how or why Cornwall’s specific ‘geography, infrastructure and electorate distribution’ leads to its differential treatment. Indeed, its geography, infrastructure and electorate distribution is nowhere identified or compared with comparable authorities elsewhere. No evidence is presented to back up the assertion that this will be ‘sustainable’ and few details are offered concerning the devolution to parish and town councils or the revised ‘governance arrangements’. These will be dealt with further below, but this conclusion offers only a flimsy rationale for such an extraordinary reduction in councillor numbers.

Cornwall Council’s alternative case for a council of 99 elected members is peremptorily dismissed with the airy generalisation that ‘the team do not consider that an effective case has been made to support a council size of 99’. Their reasons are left unexplained, other than 99 was outside the range of 85 to 95 proposed by the Cornwall Association of Local Councils.

The Commission presents the results of its consultation in a vague and fundamentally disingenuous manner. It concentrates on those who ‘support a reduction’ rather than the number that favoured a reduction to 87 or fewer. Furthermore, by lumping together all 274 submissions the data are skewed towards submissions from private individuals, the only category that supports a reduction to 87 councillors.

In fact, among local authority, political groups, MPs and elected councillors only the Conservative Party and its representatives were in support of a council size of 87. Every other submission from political groups supported at least 99 councillors. The disingenuity of the Commission’s presentation is best illustrated by its table in para 8 that classes former councillor Gary King’s well-argued proposal for a small reduction to 113 councillors as ‘support for a smaller council size alternative to 87 or 99’, while its position in the table below those supporting 87 is clearly meant to imply that this group also supported the Commission’s proposed 87.

An alternative, simpler and less confusing summary of the consultation results would be along the following lines:

Council size Political groups and institutions Parish and Town Councils Individuals
99 or higher All Cornwall Councillors, the Liberal Democrats, MK and the CNP, two Community Network Panels 90 48
87 or lower Conservative political groups and one Conservative MP 23 73
no view Three quangos 5 4

The Commission reports that ‘parish and town councils were split’. In fact 76% of parish and town councils disagreed with the proposal for 87 councillors and called for a higher number. Bizarrely, responding to Cornwall Council’s point that ‘the majority of local councils recommended a council size higher than 87’, the Commission states that ‘the team has seen no evidence to suggest this is the case’. They obviously didn’t look too far, as Cornwall Council provided detailed responses from parish and town councils in its submission. In addition, the results of the Commission’s own consultation clearly show that only 19% of town and parish councils favoured 87 councillors.

The Commission reports that ‘local residents … largely supported a reduction to 87’. ‘Largely supported’ and similar implicit quantifications throughout its report ought to be avoided. In fact submissions from individuals broke down 60-40 in favour of the Commission. Moreover, at least eight of the 73 submissions supporting the Commission’s own position can be easily identified as active supporters, members or candidates of the Conservative Party.

Clearly, apart from the submissions from Conservatives, most of those with a working knowledge of how local government actually works were opposed, many vehemently so, to the proposal for 87 councillors. Yet all these were effectively ignored by the Commission, intent on steamrollering its preference through, despite the evidence of its own consultation.

Lack of a meaningful context
Finally, the Commission fails to set its proposal in any kind of wider context. For example, it highlights some submissions but carefully chose not to include my almost 4,000 word comparison of Cornwall’s council size with other local authorities, even though it was the only submission to explore this issue in detail, based on up-to-date data.

As a result, nowhere does it compare its treatment of Cornwall with other reviews, or compare the level of representation in Cornwall with other places. Therefore, the casual reader will have been left entirely unaware of the exceptional level of reduction it is proposing. It is significant that, in its summary of the Cornwall Council submission, the Commission fails to correct the assertion made by the Council that its proposed reduction of 19.5% was ‘comparable to other (recent) reviews’. This is not the case. The mean reduction proposed in current reviews of unitary authorities is 6%, not 19.5%. Even if we exclude the seven authorities with no change it’s still 15%. Cornwall Council’s own proposed cut was higher than the norm.

The Boundary Commission fails to point out that its proposed 29% cut is far, far higher than the mean for other authorities. Nowhere does the Commission clarify that its proposal means that Cornish communities will be by far the least well represented communities in a rural authority anywhere in the UK in quantitative terms. Nowhere does it care to mention that only a handful of urban authorities will have more people per councillor. Furthermore, nowhere does the Commission make any reference to the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. (Articles 4, 15 and 16 would appear to be directly or indirectly relevant).

Given the Commission’s flimsy justifications for a reduction in democratic representation for Cornish communities on this unprecedented scale and its refusal to answer the direct question of why it is treating Cornwall so differently from every other principal authority, we have to look elsewhere for the real reasons why Cornwall is being singled out for special treatment.

A special case?

Cornwall Council’s role
How committed were Cornwall Council’s senior officers and leadership to maintaining councillor numbers at their current level? The Council adopted a very strange negotiating position. By proposing 99 councillors and a reduction of 19%, it effectively ceded the argument that a reduction in council size was necessary in the first place. Instead of sticking to a more robust position of no change and forcing the Boundary Commission to make a case for a cut in more detail, it moved well over halfway towards the Commission’s position. This allowed the Commission to confuse the issue by making it a choice between two cuts. It also undercut those who argued for maintaining parity of democratic representation with other similar local authorities. Why did the Council not make more of the Durham comparison? In 2012 the Boundary Commission review of County Durham’s Unitary Authority concluded that its 126 councillors were still required in order to provide ‘efficient and convenient local government’ and rejected local calls to reduce the Council’s size to 85 members. The Boundary Commission refuses to explain why in Cornwall it’s adopted the opposite stance, with a massive reduction in democratic input apparently being necessary for ‘effective’ governance.

Cornwall Council also undermined its own argument by accepting the importance of a ‘fit’ between new ward boundaries and the Community Network Areas (CNAs). This allowed the Commission to argue that 87 provides the ‘best fit’. However, there is nothing at all sacrosanct about the boundaries of the 19 CNAs. These have no democratic role and were only created as convenient legitimation for the unitary authority in 2009. They have no historical basis. They have no cultural identities. There could as easily be 25 CNAs. Or just 10 CNAs. By fetishizing the CNAs Cornwall Council shot itself in the foot.

The Cornwall Association of Local Councils
Second, if the excessive importance given to CNAs is one strange aspect of this business, so is the stress placed by the Boundary Commission on the Cornwall Association of Local Councils (CALC). This body called for a council size of between 85 and 95 early in the consultation process. It would be interesting to know the precise political make-up of the CALC meeting that adopted this position. For the CALC appears to be entirely at variance with the councils it purports to represent, 73% of which did not agree with the proposed cut in their submissions on council size. Clearly, the Boundary Commission is grasping eagerly at the strawperson provided by the CALC. Just why so much credence is given to this unrepresentative body is unclear and again unexplained.

The ‘governance review and double devolution (+ centralisation)
Third, the Commission puts great faith in Cornwall Council’s ‘governance review’ of 2016. This will supposedly result in ‘new governance arrangements’ in 2021. Cornwall Council in March 2017 stated that it was devolving the management of over 300 public assets to parish and town councils (two thirds of these being public toilets.) However, this ‘double devolution’ has turned out to be another unfortunate accidental (or perhaps not) shot in the foot as, like the role of the CALC, the Commission seized on this to argue that fewer councillors are therefore needed at the Cornwall level.

Yet, details of these new ‘governance arrangements’ are sketchy. In addition, there appears to be devolution to parish councils on the one hand, but an increasingly centralised strategic leadership on the other, both squeezing elected members out of any meaningful role. The Commission focuses on the former but passes silently over the latter. The plan is to retain a strong ‘Leader and Cabinet’ model. In addition, there is now a ‘Leadership Board for Cornwall’, but this body will have no direct democratic input. There is also a vague promise to develop more ‘open and honest relationships’.

Is it really the case that these ‘governance arrangements’ are so spectacularly innovative as to warrant such an extraordinary cut in the democratic component of the Council? Is no other council in the UK doing anything similar? It would appear they are. Cornwall Council, in its latest update, states that ‘similar frameworks are being adopted by other councils across the UK’. If so, then why are those councils not facing similar cuts in their sizes? Moreover, if double devolution really means the devolution of power and decision-making, let alone finances, to parish and town councils then why does the vast majority of parish and town councils remain sceptical and unconvinced by the promised new arrangements? None of this looks sufficient to justify the exceptional nature of the cut in the number of elected voices at Cornwall Council. On the contrary the ‘double exclusion’ of elected members might be seen as an argument to strengthen the democratic component of the Council rather than weaken it.

The devolution deal
So we must turn to a final, less transparent, factor that needs to be factored in. Did Cornwall’s so-called ‘devolution deal’ of 2015 include an explicit or implicit agreement on the part of Cornwall Council to accept a reduction in councillor numbers? Did it also contain an overt or implied instruction to the Boundary Commission to proceed with its extreme plan for Cornwall? This might explain both the Commission’s determination to press ahead with reducing councillor numbers in the face of the evidence of its own consultation and the Council’s rapid caving in and offer to reduce councillor numbers by 19%.

There is nothing explicit that can be found in the Government’s official release about Cornwall’s devolution deal that suggests a reduction in councillor numbers on the scale being proposed by the Boundary Commission. Nonetheless, the Commission reports that Cornwall Council’s Conservative Group believed that ‘it was intended as a result of this deal for councillor numbers to be “much reduced”’. Was it? And did Cornwall Council’s leadership knowingly sign up to this agreement?

The devolution deal and the mysterious ‘agreements’ that did or did not accompany it may be the smoking gun that explains this serious erosion of the democratic rights of Cornwall’s communities. If this is so, then Cornwall is being treated even more unfairly than it first appears. For, in all the other devolution deals, mainly urban areas plus Cambridgeshire, the ‘devolution deal’ requires the establishment of a new layer of government. Part of this is unelected in the shape of Combined Authorities, with representatives from existing local authorities, and part is a directly elected mayor. Cornwall is the only region not to receive an extra level of democratically elected government.

It might therefore be expected that, given the addition of a further layer of democracy in elected mayors, local government authorities in those other regions with devolution deals would be suffering an even greater reduction in their size to compensate. Not so. In fact, quite the opposite. While Cornwall’s elected representatives are being culled by 29% with no additional level of democracy put in place, first-tier local authorities in the other areas with devolution deals and elected mayors and undergoing current reviews are seeing only a mean 7% cut in councillor numbers. While the number of councillors in the two district councils in Cambridgeshire under review are being cut, the cuts are 21% and 28%. (Cambridgeshire County Council is also being cut by 12%). So even the cuts at district level are still below the proposed level for Cornwall. Cornwall is being treated even worse in this respect than lower-tier local authorities in areas which have comparable devolution deals.

This discriminatory treatment of Cornwall’s democratic rights has no parallel, either with comparable unitary authorities such as Durham, or with regions with devolution deals. Behind the scenes pressure from the Conservative Government after Cornwall’s devolution deal appears to explain the Boundary Commission’s determination to impose this anomalous cut in Cornwall’s elected representatives. When we consider this together with other recent developments, such as the Planning Peer Report of January 2016 and attempts to instil a ‘positive Council culture’ among councillors (meaning replacing loyalty to their electors with loyalty to the Council), or Cornwall Council’s plans to become a housing developer in order to meet its ‘target’ for unsustainable housing and population growth, the cut in councillor numbers begins to make more sense.

This unprecedented cull has to be viewed as part of a bigger project to make the local state in Cornwall more efficient by further eroding the existing limited role of elected members in its governance. It’s hardly a coincidence that such an agenda will have the effect of neutering potential future opposition to the state’s plans for Cornwall. These involve the continuation of a hyper-growth agenda that depends on relatively high in-migration, while reserving selected parts of the territory as playgrounds and gentrified environments suitable for the holiday ‘industry’ and the second ‘home’ market. The fundamental drive lying behind the ongoing attacks on what remains of Cornwall’s democracy is to ensure any community resistance to the state’s colonial project is finally quashed once and for all.

How the Boundary Commission is treating Cornwall differently

What exactly is the Local Government Boundary Commission up to? Is Cornwall being used as a pilot project to see how far they can get away with cutting back democratic representation in local government? Or is it being singled out in order to smooth the path for its ongoing transformation, as our coastal areas become a safely domesticated bolthole for the rich and our inland towns over-populated, congested rat runs?

In line with neoliberal dogma, there’s a general trend these days to prune back democratic representation in local government with fewer councillors representing more people each so maybe Cornwall is just experiencing the same change as anywhere else. The Boundary Commission’s website lists all the current boundary reviews. Cornwall is one of 16 comparable unitary authorities being reviewed. Let’s put it in context in the following table.

Current reviews

Current size Proposed size Change Proposed residents per cllr
Bath & NE Somerset 65 59 – 9% 3,182
Blackburn 64 51 – 20% 2,883
Cheshire W & Chester 75 70 – 7% 4,795
Cornwall 123 87 – 29% 6,364
Croydon 70 70 n/c 5,461
Hull 59 57 – 3% 4,566
Leeds 99 99 n/c 7,896
Manchester 96 96 n/c 5,638
Newcastle 78 78 n/c 3,801
Redcar & Cleveland 59 59 n/c 2,295
Rotherham 63 59 – 6% 4,439
Rutland 26 26 n/c 1,485
South Gloucs 70 61 – 13% 4,551
Torbay 36 36 n/c 3,719
West Berks 52 43 – 17% 3,647
Windsor & Maidenhead 57 43 – 25% 3,461

As can be seen from this table, its treatment is exceptional. Seven of the unitary councils are seeing no change to their council size. The mean reduction in the other eight (excluding Cornwall) is 15%. The proposed reduction for Cornwall is almost twice that again – at an eye watering 29%. The only authorities that come anywhere close to this in terms of change are Blackburn and Windsor. But in comparison with Cornwall these are very small and their councillors will be asked to represent far fewer residents than in Cornwall. In fact, in terms of the number of residents per councillor Cornwall looks to be treated more like a densely populated urban area. Even here, only in Leeds will councillors represent more people than in Cornwall.

Cornwall’s reduced number of elected representatives will each have to represent more people than their colleagues in Manchester, Hull, Newcastle, Rotherham and Croydon. They will have to represent twice the number of people as councillors will in Bath, Blackburn or Redcar and four times the number in Rutland. Are Cornwall’s councillors particularly energetic? Are they super-human? The Boundary Commission apparently thinks so.

Is this proper? Is it fair? Is it just? We need to ask the Boundary Commission why they’re treating Cornwall so differently from everywhere else. But they’re refusing to tell us.

The questions the Boundary Commission still won’t answer

Following my letter to the Local Government Boundary Commission last week seeking clarification as to why Cornwall Council had been singled out for an unprecedented level of cuts in its democratic representation, today I received the following brief reply from the Commission.

Thank you for your submission. It has been received and will be considered by the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. We will let you know if and when a new phase of consultation for this review opens.

I have replied as follows.

Dear …..,

I think you did not read my communication of the 27th September fully. Here it is again with the most relevant part in bold.

In relation to the above review, on your website I can find no justification for the proposed reduction of 29% in the level of democratic representation on Cornwall Council. In your letter of 13 June to the Council’s Chief Executive you merely assert that a council size of 87 is the ‘most appropriate’ but provide no rationale for this decision. Given its lack of precedent this is entirely unacceptable. Moreover, I can find no answer anywhere on your website to two key questions I posed in my original submission. I’ll restate them here.

a) Why is Cornwall being treated in such a manifestly different manner from Durham UA, the most comparable authority? in its review of Durham UA in 2012 the LGBCE concluded that 126 councillors would still be required in order to provide ‘efficient and convenient local government’. It then rejected local calls to reduce the Council’s size to 85 members. (Incidentally, this decision leaves the people of Durham, the population of which is 29,000 lower than Cornwall, with a councillor for every 4,125 inhabitants, a better level even that Cornwall’s current 4,467 and much superior to the one councillor per 6,315 being proposed by the Commission.)

b) Why is Cornwall being singled out for this unprecedented reduction in its level of democratic representation, one not seen previously anywhere in England?

Until a satisfactory response to these questions is received it would clearly be premature to discuss the technicalities of ward boundaries. Therefore I attach my previous submission about Council size, while awaiting explicit answers to the above two questions.

As you can see I would like some sort of response to these two questions from the Local Government Boundary Commission before submitting my views on ward boundaries.

I look forward to an early reply,