Cornish electoral exceptionalism

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED APR 28, 2013

Backalong, in the 1980s, there was a bit of a vogue among political scientists for pointing out how Cornwall was different electorally. The absence of full party slates, the continuing presence of Independents, a regionalist/nationalist party in what these same sages thought of as England, all made Cornish local elections very different from similar events over the Tamar.

Despite an increase in party candidates Cornwall remains exceptional. Because no party is standing in anywhere near all the seats, we get a wide range of possible permutations across the 122 wards (and 123 seats – Bude has two). In fact not just wide, but a staggering 65 different combinations of party (and no party) labels.

The most common combination is a straight Tory/Lib Dem two party fight. (At a time when we’re constantly reminded how elections are a terrible waste of money it’s surprising that our press hasn’t made this point about this fairly meaningless battle). There are ten examples like this, and voters in another ten seats face unappealing four-way contests between Conservative/Lib Dem/Independent and Ukip candidates. But beyond those, combinations range from a two party contest involving just an Independent and MK to a seven-candidate contest with four Independents, Tory, Labour and Lib Dem. Plus another mind-boggling 61 combinations in between.

While this kaleidoscope of contests, although actually involving a rather limited choice, makes predicting results a near impossible task (something exacerbated by boundary changes since 2009), it also makes Cornwall very different from other places. In most English counties the basic format is a two party contest between Conservative and Labour, with a 75% chance of Lib Dem and Ukip intervention, and a one in three possibility of an additional Green candidate. But here there are no straight Con-Labour contests at all, while the basic old-fashioned three-party Con/Lib/Lab battle takes place in just three of the 122 wards. And the four-way contest of the three old parties plus Ukip is only happening in four wards.

The bigger the distance between the counties, the less similar they are
The bigger the distance between the counties, the less similar they are

The likelihood of meeting candidates from each party also markedly varies from the norm. I don’t mean you’re unlikely to get them knocking on your door. You are. I mean they’re not even standing in the first place. Only in Durham are there fewer Tory candidates than in Cornwall. Only in the Isle of Wight and Shropshire are there fewer Labour candidates. While Independents are much more likely to be on the ballot paper, the proportion of Ukip candidates in Cornwall is actually ten percentage points lower than in the English shire counties, and as we have seen many of them are paper candidates not actively campaigning at all.

Meanwhile, the proportion of seats the Greens are contesting is only half what they’re contesting in England. And the two other parties with more than a handful of candidates in England – the BNP and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) – have no candidates at all in Cornwall.

But there is one similarity between Cornwall and England. Despite the fact that cuts in council spending impact on women more than men, only a minority of candidates (31%) are women, reflecting the out-going Council, which included 28% female councillors. Those parties most likely to field women candidates are Labour and the Lib Dems; in both cases just over 40% of their candidates are women. MK and Independent candidates are least likely to be female. Why?

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