This part of Cornwall was represented in the 1960s by one of Cornwall’s more colourful political characters. Peter Bessell claimed to have been a CIA agent before turning to the Liberal Party, fled the country to escape prosecution for fraud and spent his final 15 years living in a one room beach hut in California. Those were the days. After that excitement, local voters settled down to two fairly indistinguishable centrist MPs – Robert Hicks for the Tories and Colin Breed for the Liberal Democrats. But after the calm, though rather grey, reasonableness of these two the voters of the south east went nuts again in 2010 and voted in Sheryll Murray.
Sheryll’s a local maid, born in Millbrook in 1956 and attending the decidedly less than posh Torpoint School. Unlike most of her Tory (and Lib Dem/Labour) colleagues in Parliament, Sheryll didn’t then go to ‘uni’. Instead, she later married a fisherman and became Caradon councillor and in its dying days leader of its Tory group. A self-appointed spokeswoman for Cornwall’s fishing industry, Sheryll’s roots ‘can be traced back many generations’. Although the Conservatives’ website rather ruins this by describing it as ‘Cornwall roots’, drawing the line at uttering that subversive adjective ‘Cornish’.
Sheryll’s image is one of a tough character of the right, unafraid to put the boot in on the undeserving poor and benefit scroungers. Her voting record is about as neo-liberal as it could be. She has voted in favour of making the poor pay for the sins of casino capitalism and against punishing the rich, bankers or corporations for those same sins. She very strongly supported NHS ‘reform’ and selling off the forests. She was against giving more powers to local authorities in England or the Welsh Assembly. She’s also been the most anti-EU Cornish MP, voting more than the others for a referendum on membership.
If we compare her voting record with that of Cameron and Osborne on the one hand and the two Tory renegades to Ukip – Carswell and Reckless – on the other we find that she lines up much more closely with the Ukip twins than the Tory grandees. (Mind you, so do her fellow Tory MPs in Cornwall, George Eustice and Sarah Newton and, come to that, so-called Lib Dem Stephen Gilbert. Which begs the question – if we already have at least four MPs who vote like Ukip then why do we need any more?)
This is the ruthless Sheryll who was accused of vote-rigging on behalf of her cat in a pet beauty contest last February. This one is also one of the patrons of the British Monarchist Society, whose other patrons include that tribune of the common man Nigel Farage, and whose aims are to protect ‘tradition and heritage’. They’re also bent on dispelling all the ‘bias and inaccurate reporting’ being spewed out by republicans. But, just as we’re left scratching our heads looking in vain for all those elusive republicans in the BBC, Sheryll pops up with a completely different image. The forbidding Mrs Hyde has turned into a fragile Dr Jekyll.
When in October that rough cockney and Labour PPC for Camborne-Redruth, Michael Foster, gently lobbed his mobile phone at Sheryll during a ‘debate’ on ‘the BBC’s ‘Sunday Politics’ show, she claimed to have been ‘shaken’, by this ‘frightening’ assault. A month later she was being ‘shocked’ by a photo in a Ukip newspaper and demanding a personal apology from Farage. This was for what she interpreted as a deliberate reference to her late husband’s death in an industrial accident with a netting winch in 2011. It’s more likely that most Ukip activists would be hard put to distinguish a netting winch from hair netting and the photo in their newspaper was an unfortunate coincidence. Perplexed by the accusation, Ukip denied it was intentional.
Equally perplexed by the Jekyll and Hyde nature of South East Cornwall’s MP, Frank Doran, Scottish Labour fisheries spokesman, made the rash claim in Parliament that fisheries minister was no job for a woman. Whyever not? Cornish fishing communities were once known for either teetotalism or hard drinking, the former being a response to the latter. One aspect of tradition Sheryll was obviously keen to preserve when first elected was the hard drinking. An epic session downing taxpayer-subsidised cheap booze during the 2010 Budget debate left Sheryll being ‘allegedly rude to a Commons official‘. At least she remained on her feet. Which is more than can be said for the then Tory, now Ukip, MP Mark Reckless, who after the same session was too legless to vote.
Turning to Ukip, maybe Sheryll should challenge her opponent, who admits to a liking for whisky, to a drinking match. Fearlessly ditching its stereotype, Ukip has chosen a 20 year old politics student and chef, Bradley Monk, as its candidate for South East Cornwall. Bradley was born in London but his family moved to Plymouth when he was a child. Still unaccountably claiming to be a Charlton Athletic fan, Bradley could be found in 2013 contesting the local elections for Ukip in Winchester.
It was during that election that the press discovered he’d attended a Halloween party in 2012 wearing a Jimmy Saville mask. The ever righteous Sun fulminated about this ‘sick’ behaviour from a ‘dopey’ candidate. The Western Morning News thought it was an ‘outrage’ while the Western Daily Press called it ‘shocking’. Oddly enough, none of those papers thought his political views, which included tax cuts and a flat tax, even more deregulation or the revealing comment that ‘I’d scrap the NHS personally, but that is political suicide‘ as in any way sick, shocking or dopey.
While Bradley seems to a young fogey, in his tweets hailing the Republicans’ ‘fantastic results’ in the US mid-term elections last November and forecasting that raising the minimum wage to the dizzy heights of £8 an hour would be ‘total economic suicide’, he also has his more acceptable Dr Jekyll side.
His website is quite attractive and on the surface even reasonable. For example, he’s enthusiastic ‘to change Cornwall for the better’. In this desire, he might of course be following a long line of wise and not so wise men (and women) from the east who’ve assured us we need to change before hightailing it back over the Tamar. But his calls for direct democracy and support for a genuine recall mechanism for MPs are unexpectedly sensible. Dear of him. Although a desire for ‘radical democracy’ doesn’t sit too obviously with his tweet on Christmas Day that ‘we are so lucky to have a monarchy’.
So is the real Bradley the Dr Jekyll who calls for devolution to Cornwall (although only to the discredited Cornwall Council), saying that ‘government is best closest to the people it serves’, or the Mr Hyde one who tweeted last September that ‘The SNP are really making me question the saying “government is always best closest to the people they serve”.
Hopefully, we may never get the chance to find out. Yet, although South East Cornwall is the only Cornish constituency not polled in 2014, it looks as if it could be one of Ukip’s better chances. It had the lowest proportion of those claiming a Cornish national identity (a pitiful 7.8%) in 2011 and the highest explicitly embracing an English identity. It has the lowest number of young voters, the highest number of owner-occupiers and the lowest number in rented housing. And it’s the most Christian constituency in Cornwall.
If we apply the general shift in voting intentions since the 2010 election as seen in polling for the other Cornish constituencies last year it looks like a fairly safe bet for Sheryll Murray, despite a likely fall in the Tory vote. Indeed, the Electoral Calculus website predicts an 80% chance of a Tory win here, the biggest certainty in Cornish politics. That leaves Ukip and the Lib Dems vying for second place.
Whatever lingering Cornish rural radical tradition the Lib Dems could exploit here has long gone, fallen victim to the quiet social revolution of the past half century that has done much to turn south east Cornwall into a replica of south east England, in the process hollowing out its Cornishness. It was finally killed off in 2010 when the Lib Dems made a disastrous choice of candidate. Karen Gillard, an ultra-abrasive lawyer from Plymouth, managed to achieve a notional 9.1% swing from Lib Dems to Tories here, one of the largest in the UK.
This time around they have the much less abrasive Phil Hutty. Phil, a social worker who lives near Callington, cut his teeth in 2001 and 2010 fighting seats in Devon. Last time around in Central Devon he limited the swing to the Tories to 6.1%. Which was slightly better, but not much, than the unlamented Karen Gillard.
He stood for Cornwall Council in 2009 at Stokeclimsland but did poorly, getting just 22% of the vote. His social media comments convey a touching naivete. Sitting on the fence, a painful occupational hazard for Cornish Liberal Democrats, over the proposed 1,000 house suburb on Broadmoor Farm west of Saltash, Phil was impressed last July by the proposed village green. He wanted assurance however that ‘this would meet the need in the town’ and not be ‘a commuter estate for Plymouth’. And pigs might fly. He hasn’t blogged on the issue since.
Phil claimed to have met ‘lots of Tory and Labour converts’ when out canvassing in September just as the Lib Dems were beginning their inexorable downward slide in the polls, which begs the question of what substance he might have been abusing at the time. Like all the Lib Dems, on his Dr Jekyll days he favours a Cornish Assembly. But his Mr Hyde side signs up to the Lib Dems’ proposed Devolution Enabling Act, which seems to offer little more than devolution to existing local authorities or groups of them.
MK and Greens
MK’s Andrew Long (50), who grew up in Stoke Climsland, was selected in March and is a full time Cornwall Councillor, having previously been on Caradon District Council. Andrew is an example of what MK could potentially achieve, winning Callington easily despite the town having one of the lowest proportions of people prepared to declare a Cornish national identity in Cornwall. But he also displays the party’s limits. Like their other councillors, his electoral success is based more on a solid local implantation than policy appeal, he puts ‘the interests of our local communities ahead of party political games’. Fair enough and this can play well in local elections. But being a more politicised wing of the Independents struggles when it comes to parliamentary elections.
While Phil Hutty has a touching faith in developers, Andrew Long has an equally touching faith in the possibility of achieving ‘sustainable economic growth’. The fifth candidate in South East Cornwall is more sceptical about this. Martin Corney is the Green Party’s man for the South East. Originally from Bristol, he spent 22 years working at Devonport Dockyard as a computer programmer and is now retired but also a voluntary community and youth worker, as well as being a St Ive parish councillor. Martin’s blog is called ‘A Green World’ and is about climate change, two things to get the Tories and Kippers in the South East puzzling over no doubt.