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.

The strange re-birth of Liberal (Democratic) Cornwall 4: The cross-border constituency

The Liberal Democrats’ role in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act of 2011 is another sad example of the yawning gap between their rhetoric and their practice and their tactical incompetence.

In 2010 the Lib Dems’ Nick Clegg and David Cameron stitched up a deal on constitutional change. In return for reducing the number of seats to 600 and a new statutory requirement for all seats at every general election to be within 5% of the average (ensuring boundary changes between each election), there was to be a referendum on changing to an alternative vote system (as in Australia).

Before the 2010 general election Clegg had rejected a tentative suggestion of AV from Gordon Brown’s Labour Government as a ‘miserable little compromise’. Within a year, not even the alternative vote, but a referendum on the alternative vote was enough to get him to agree to Cameron’s equal-sized constituencies. This particular miserable little compromise was arrived at because AV would benefit the Lib Dems (as a ‘centrist’, second-best alternative for both Labour and Tory voters) and equal sized constituencies benefit the Tories by regularly culling relatively declining areas – traditionally inner-cities and the old industrial regions (i.e. Labour-voting seats).

While the referendum was inevitably lost, swept away by the opposition of the corporate media to change, distrust of Clegg and a lack of interest from a cynical electorate, the rest duly became law in late 2011. Unfortunately for Cornwall, equal-sized constituencies within regional boundaries drawn around a ‘south west’ planning region meant that we lost our entitlement to six seats but had too many voters for five. A cross-border devonwall constituency – subsequently identified by the Boundary Commission as Bideford, Bude and Launceston, was inevitably on the cards.

Cornish Lib Dem MPs had joined with Cornwall’s Tories to proclaim their opposition to a cross-border constituency. During the debate in the Commons on the bill, an amendment was introduced exempting Cornwall (and some other places) from it. While the Isle of Wight was deemed important enough to be a special case, Cornwall was not. Shamefully, while all six Cornish MPs (Lib Dem and Tory) voted for the amendment, the majority of Lib Dems (and all three Tories) voted against and effectively for a devonwall constituency.

At the final Reading of the bill two of Cornwall’s three Lib Dem MPs joined with their three Tory colleagues and voted for it, thereby knowingly voting for a cross-border constituency. Only Andrew George failed to support the devonwall constituency bill and even he only abstained. As the bill proceeded through the Lords, another attempt was made to amend it in order to exclude Cornwall from its provisions. This was moved by Lib Dem Lord Teverson, but the other Lib Dem lords and ladies refused to support him and overwhelmingly rejected Cornwall’s case by 63 to 11.

We had the unedifying spectacle of some Lib Dem MPs loudly proclaiming their opposition to the cross-border constituency. But when it came to the crunch and they had the chance to vote against the Bill, they meekly queued up to vote for it. Moreover, their own party effectively scuppered Cornwall’s claims to be regarded as a special treatment by voting down the amendments. To deserve to regain credibility, they must surely first hold their hands up and apologise for their role in allowing this first parliamentary breach of Cornwall’s borders since the House of Commons was first elected in the 13th century.

The strange re-birth of Liberal (Democratic) Cornwall 3: The Cornish Assembly – mystification and misinformation

At the 1992 general election the Liberal Democrats called for Cornwall to be a region in its own right for economic planning and development. When Andrew George was elected Lib Dem MP for St Ives in 1997, he immediately tabled an early day motion calling for a Cornish Assembly. His arrival at Westminster might have been expected to put some backbone into Lib Dem representatives both there and back in Truro. This was much needed. As well as assiduously failing to reject the steady growth of Devonwall institutions, Lib Dem local councillors had in December 1995 refused to back a motion for a Cornish Assembly, only one councillor daring to support an explicit call for such an assembly.

By the turn of the millennium Lib Dems in Cornwall had indeed changed their tune (again). In November 2001 they voted to support the campaign for a Cornish Assembly begun by the cross-party and no-party Cornish Constitutional Convention. Lib Dem MPs were present when the petition containing 50,000 signatures was handed over to the Labour Government a month later. In 2006 too, Lib Dems at Restormel Borough Council signed up to a Democratic Declaration for Cornwall, initiated by MK councillor Dick Cole. This called for an elected Cornish Assembly. In the Lib Dems’ 2005 election manifesto for the County Council elections, they clearly stated ‘it’s time for a Cornish Assembly’. Then, on winning a majority at that election they bravely pledged to ‘establish detailed plans for a Cornish Assembly within a year’.

They didn’t. Instead, when the Labour Government in October 2006 invited councils to seek unitary status, the Lib Dem leadership on Cornwall County Council leapt at the chance. During the process of creating a unitary council Lib Dems constantly claimed, on the basis of no evidence at all, that a unitary authority would lead to the devolution of powers. They continued asserting this even when central government explicitly denied it. In January 2007, 36 Lib Dem councillors voted for the bid for a unitary authority, riding roughshod over local opinion, which was heavily against the abolition of the districts. Only five Lib Dem councillors voted against.

Essentially, they misunderstood the concepts of regional and local government, perhaps disingenuously mixing the two up. Whatever their motives, the occupation by local government of the Cornish territorial template has rendered the campaign for a regional assembly for Cornwall much more difficult, if not downright impossible. This became especially so given the dominant neo-liberal attitude to government shared by all three London parties. This views it as comprising levels of bureaucracy rather than levels of democratic representation and participation.

The disaster of the unitary authority was eventually passed into law in February 2008. In Parliament Lib Dem MP Andrew George spoke and voted against it, but Julia Goldsworthy and Dan Rogerson voted for it.

Having effectively killed off the chances of a Cornish Assembly for a generation or two, the Lib Dems then indulged in what many saw as a pre-election stunt in 2009 when North Cornwall MP Dan Rogerson introduced a ‘Government of Cornwall Bill‘. As a private members bill this had zero chance of becoming law, but it enabled them to once more burnish their pro-Cornish credentials and distract people from the effects of unitary local government.

And when we say 'now', we mean ... errr ... well, dreckly
And when we say ‘now’, we mean … errr … well, dreckly

In reality, Rogerson’s proposal, calling for powers equal to the Welsh Assembly to be handed to Cornwall Council, which would simultaneously continue to act as a local council, was deeply flawed. It merely reinforced the aura of ill-informed confusion that surrounds Lib Dems on the issue of devolution. For instance, during the process of imposing a unitary authority, former Lib Dem MP Colin Breed had in all seriousness claimed it would be ‘akin to a Cornish Assembly’! A few years later in 2015, several Lib Dem (and some Independent) councillors were still mischievously claiming that Cornwall Council was in fact a de-facto Cornish Assembly.

In January 2015, councillors debated Cornwall Council’s feeble ‘Case for Cornwall’ (more a ‘case for Cornwall Council’), begging central government for a few extra powers (and finances). MK councillors moved an amendment to strengthen it. This called for the ‘devolution of significant political and economic powers’ and a ‘new democratic settlement for Cornwall’. Only ten other councillors (from a possible 119) backed this, with the vast majority of Lib Dems again refusing to back a stronger negotiating stance with the Government.

In the end, the ‘Devolution Deal’ of July 2015 was a pitiful measure, merely handing down various poisoned chalices such as bus transport and health and social care integration, while doling out £millions not to the Council, but the unelected quango of the Local Enterprise Partnership. While Council Leader, Independent John Pollard, could bizarrely spin this as ‘brilliant news for Cornwall’, even his Lib Dem partners were forced to admit ‘bitter disappointment’ at the outcome, having apparently failed to learn the first lesson of negotiating, which is to pitch your demands at as high a level as possible before you compromise, rather than compromising first.

Former Lib Dem MP Andrew George condemned the ‘devo-deal’ as a ‘cynical political game of spin over substance’. Unfortunately however, the exact same can surely be said of the Lib Dems’ consistent failure to stand up for Cornwall since the 1990s.

The strange re-birth of Liberal (Democratic) Cornwall 2: Cornwall or Devonwall?

The Liberal Democrats used to have some difficulty deciding whether they favoured the retention of institutions in Cornwall or their amalgamation in Devon and Cornwall bodies. Back in 1991 a Cornish Liberal Democratic parliamentary group paper called for a Cornish Development Agency, to be ‘placed under the democratic control and direction of Cornwall’s strategic regional government’. They were fine words, but ones that kept being unaccountably forgotten over the next decade. Within a year Lib Dem councillors on Cornwall County Council were supporting a Devon and Cornwall Development Bureau. Five years later, in January 1996, the then Lib Dem controlled Economic Development and European Committee at County Hall refused to support the principle of a Cornish Development Agency, preferring to work with Devon.

In February 1997, Lib Dems contradicted their own de-facto Devonwall policy by again voting in favour of a Cornish Development Agency. But a few months later, the majority of Lib Dem councillors made a complete volte face and voted for the seven-county Regional Development Agency imposed by the new Labour Government. Having earlier enthusiastically participated in the construction of new Devonwall institutions, the Lib Dems were yet again shamelessly twisting with the prevailing wind, this time supporting a wider, top-down regionalization. While all the while loudly proclaiming their support for Cornish institutions.

Some Lib Dems in the 1990s – Robin Teverson, the then MEP for example – were persuaded to throw their weight behind the campaign for the Cornish regional level status that eventually unlocked EU Objective 1 grant funds. But others at County Hall dismissed this as ‘impractical’ and instead continued to urge closer working with Devon-based bodies. Once Cornwall’s enhanced European regional status became an inevitable fait accompli in 1999, we were not spared the frankly distasteful spectacle of the same Lib Dem councillors clambering hastily aboard the Objective 1 bandwagon. Since then, history has been re-written and the stubborn lobbying by citizens over many years in the 1990s quietly erased, as was the sad record of Liberal Democrat support in the early and mid-1990s for new Devonwall institutions.

"Devon & Cornwall is one of 11 regions of the English Liberal Democrats" according to the Lib Dems
“Devon & Cornwall is one of 11 regions of the English Liberal Democrats” according to the Lib Dems

According to Nick Clegg in 2010, the Lib Dems have ‘Cornwall sort of coursing through its veins’. The uncertainty implied by ‘sort of’ betrays a lack of conviction. This is hardly surprising when we consider that their party has still not got around to organise itself on the basis of the Cornish region it claims it favours. Instead, we still have the Devon and Cornwall Liberal Democrats, a symbolic organisational shape that helps to explain long-running Devonwall preferences.

The strange re-birth of Liberal (Democratic) Cornwall 1: signs of life

Who’d have thought it? Last year the Liberal Democrats were to all intents and purposes dead and buried, their policy vacuum, lack of principles, tactical naivete and hypocritical pursuit of power cruelly exposed and found wanting by the great British electorate. Those classic values of Liberalism – tolerance, compromise, Europeanism – lay shattered by the seedy experience of five years cohabiting with the Tories and justifying their ruthless attack on the powerless in our society in the name of ‘austerity’. The Lib Dems seemed to be on their way, and many felt justifiably, into the dustbin of history. Even in Cornwall, their share of the vote at the general election was virtually halved. At its peak in 2001 it had reached the dizzy heights of 43.9%. In 2015 it plummeted to just 22%.

Since that election however, there’s been eight by-elections to Cornwall Council. The Lib Dems have won six of them, even places like Newlyn East and Four Lanes, where they weren’t even able to find candidates in the last council elections in 2013. They’ve won two seats from the Tories, two from Ukip and another from an Independent for a net gain of five. The Tories held on to Menheniot and gained a seat from Ukip at Camborne. Even in those two seats Lib Dems came second, only 14 and 60 votes respectively behind the successful Tory.

In terms of votes, Lib Dem domination at these by-elections was not so marked. But even in this respect they’ve increased their vote by 50% when compared with 2013. In contrast, the Tory vote has fallen, Labour’s held steady, MK’s halved, Ukip’s collapsed (they’ve lost half their six seats and now have one fewer councillor than MK), and the Greens are nowhere. On these trends the Lib Dems could rather amazingly even be contemplating an overall majority in next year’s infrequent general election to Cornwall Council.

vote-change-since-2013

This looks like more than a dead-cat bounce. The Lib Dems are winning seats in areas they haven’t previously been able to find, like Four Lanes, and making a comeback in places like Newquay. Party fragmentation helps and on a low turnout of around 33% Lib Dem support still only equates to fewer than one in seven voters. But, in our Victorian excuse for a democracy, that’s all it takes.

On social media, some have cheered on the Lib Dem resurgence from the safety of their sofas. Of course, a Lib Dem councillor might well be better than a Tory or Ukip councillor, but only in the sense that it’s better to suffer from a cold than the flu. And not always. For instance Ukip’s Derek Elliot at Four Lanes consistently opposed Cornwall Council’s frenetic housing and population growth plans. Will the Lib Dems’ Nathan Billings do the same? Especially as the Lib Dem group running Cornwall Council with the Independents seems to have found it impossible to make a strong case against the recent 16% hike in Cornwall’s housing target.

What we’re seeing is the familiar old swing of the pendulum. Fed up with the Tories? It’s back to the Lib Dems. The reason we shouldn’t get over-excited by these tweedledum/tweedledee politics is that when you vote Lib Dem you can never be quite sure what you’re going to get. Put simply, elected Lib Dem representatives have a long record of fine words but feeble deeds. Moreover, there’s often a major disjunction between what they say when they’re in London and when they’re in Truro. Or between Lib Dems in Cornwall and Lib Dems over the Tamar.

To mark the current Lib Dem party conference, over the next five days I’ll be examining their record in four areas – Devonwall, the Cornish Assembly, the cross-border constituency and the ongoing transformation of Cornwall into a lifestyle choice.

Cornwall’s Brexit vote in context

brexit-and-cornwallThe media have included Cornwall as part of ‘Brexit Britain’. But let’s put June’s vote in context. The Brexit vote was not that much higher in Cornwall than in large swathes of Wales and southern England. Devon, Somerset and Gwent, along with Bedfordshire, Cumbria, Tyne & Wear, Warwickshire and West Yorkshire, were all less than 2% more likely to vote Remain. This is a marginal difference. And in part it’s explained by the higher numbers of elderly voters and those with no qualifications in Cornwall when compared with several of these other places. They were the groups most likely to plump for Brexit. Meanwhile, equally large chunks of middle and eastern England (and north-east wales) were more Brexit-inclined than Cornwall.