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’. []

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.

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.