The new St Austell and Newquay constituency in 2010 stitched together Lib Dem St Austell from the old Truro constituency and Tory Newquay from North Cornwall. The result was a binary constituency – two very different towns, two different politics and a two-way Tory/Lib Dem marginal. But now the constituency has been transformed from a binary into a trinity. The magic number here is now three, not two.
Three of the five declared candidates are called Steve. Three stood or voted in their last election for something different from their current label. Three were once members of or voters for the Liberal Democrats. Three can be accused of using obscenities. And the polls strongly suggest the constituency is now a three-way marginal between three versions of conservatism.
The first conservative on offer is Steve Gilbert. Thirty eight year old Steve was raised in St Austell before attending university in Wales and embarking on a typical political class career background. He was in the City of London advising the fund management industry in the early noughties and then a consultant to a PR firm, juggling this with spells as Lib Dem councillor for Restormel and Haringey Councils.
Although Steve is notionally a Lib Dem, he’s difficult to distinguish from the baying Tories around him on the Government benches. He’s voted strongly against raising welfare benefits in line with inflation, strongly for reducing welfare spending and strongly against taxing those on more than £150,000 a year. He’s also all for reducing corporation tax, raising tuition fees and privatising Royal Mail while he voted for the NHS reforms and opposed the devolution of more powers to the Welsh Assembly and to local government. This voting record is actually more conservative than that of David Cameron or George Osborne, while differing little from Cornwall’s three Tory MPs.
On other issues he adopts a stance that would be comfortably at home in the Conservative Party. Newquay airport is ‘vital to the Cornish economy’, so we should carry on pouring public money into this particular black hole. ‘We all want to see more shops‘, he said during the arguments over Coyte Farm, the mega-shopping development west of St Austell. While national minority status for the Cornish ‘would help us grow‘. Yawn. Given this, it wasn’t surprising that in June the Daily Telegraph was reporting Steve G was receiving flirtatious glances from Tory Central Office. They were hoping to turn him into a real Tory instead of a Liberal Democrat one. Steve G denied it.
However, the lack of clear blue water, or liquid of any colour, between him and the Tories makes his prospects a mite tricky. Even last time, Steve G’s appeal was mainly the same old tired Lib Dem moral blackmail of ‘vote for us or you’ll get something even nastier’. After five years of giving us something nasty by propping up the austerity coalition this has surely worn a bit thin. Or maybe he’s hoping that as the constituency has the lowest percentage of highly qualified people in Cornwall, he can go on getting away with it.
Because it’s not stopped Steve claiming that there four ways of voting Conservative – you can vote Tory, Labour, MK or Green apparently in order to achieve this outcome. Which rather strangely omits the easiest way of voting Tory last time, which was by voting Liberal Democrat. Indeed, he’s offering the insipid choice between a ‘purely Tory Government’ and ‘a government with the Lib Dems in it’. That has to be a real vote-winner. While leaving the door wide open to a continuation of the current appalling coalition, it offers us a really exciting choice guaranteed to reinvigorate democratic debate and participation.
You need to be an expert to spot the minor distinctions between Steve G and Steve Double, the official Conservative candidate. Steve D (48) is more grounded in the local small business world, as company director of Bay Mailing. But he’s also another St Austell boy and another former councillor. Like Steve G, he’s ‘proud of Cornwall and being Cornish’. Like Steve G, he’s good at shameless self-publicity. Like Steve G, he backs local businesses, supports local families and protects our coast and countryside (though mainly from those dratted, evil wind turbine thingies, which seem to get everywhere these days.)
Like Steve G, he likes shops. Although perhaps he likes them even more, as his desire to protect the countryside seemed to go awol when he saw Mercian Developments of Shropshire’s plans for the Coyte Farm shopping centre. This was an ‘opportunity of a lifetime‘, gushed Steve. He’s also more religious, a member of an evangelistic church. Perhaps it was this that led him to complain about Steve G’s use of the acronym WTF when speaking to Penrice School university applicants in 2011. It was ‘absolutely ridiculous’ that a ‘supposedly respected member of the community’ should use such language. The Head confirmed that a parent had rung the school to complain. The parent in question turned out to be Steve D.
In March, Ukip was reported as biding its time in the constituency in order to ‘find the right candidate’. Given its record in this particular area this was probably a wise move. It eventually did, in the rather surprising shape of David Mathews, a former Restormel Lib Dem councillor, adult education worker and trustee of St Austell Community Kitchen, which supplies hot meals to the homeless.
It remains to be seen how this former Lib Dem councillor will fit into his new party. Unlike most of the rest of his new friends, David seems to be in denial about the past. He says that ‘this is your first chance to elect from outside the Westminster bubble for generations’. That’s hardly the case as in the last five elections alone in Truro and St Austell people had the chance to vote for 17 candidates from outside the three Westminster parties. In fact, in 2010 David himself had backed somebody from well outside the Westminster bubble – MK’s Dick Cole. ‘Vote for Dick Cole and see our area get proper representation and a proper job done‘, he said. So we can assume he’ll be voting MK again this time around, as Dick was declared its candidate again last week.
But he does seem to have a sense of humour, beginning a campaign webpage with the words ‘Hi and welcome to the only party that includes fruit cake and nuts‘. No particularly nutty conspiracy theories on offer there either. Just the usual EU-obsessiveness and virulent opposition to ‘so-called renewable energy’. Although, if wind and the sun are not really renewable then it’s difficult to see what is.
On the other hand, David’s relaxed demeanour seemed to slip a little when responding to a letter sent by Steve G to voters in the Mevagissey by-election in November. This described Nigel Farage as a millionaire and a former banker. No, unfair, not true, cried David. This was dirty tricks. Farage was not a millionaire and neither was he a former banker. Technically true, but he’s not exactly poor and worked in the City as a commodities trader rather than a banker. Is that an improvement? Or more working class? In the event neither Ukip nor Lib Dem candidate won the by-election.
While we have conservatives with their eyes on the prize in St Austell and Newquay, we also have three Lib Dems, a purported one (Steve G), a former one (David Mathews) and a previous Lib Dem voter. This last is Deborah Hopkins, a 47 year old healthcare assistant from St Eval. Having voted for Steve G in 2010, under the mistaken impression that this was only way to prevent a Tory Government, Deborah was so ashamed she became Labour candidate in the autumn of 2013.
And a feisty one she is. This fiery left-winger has thrown herself into the campaign with a vengeance. She wanted to stand on the very understandable grounds that she ‘was very frustrated by some politicians who didn’t seem angry about what was going on’. She was. But her anger proved to be a jot too angry last year for the Labour Party, then avoiding a clear statement condemning the bedroom tax for fear of alienating Middle England, wherever that is.
In April last year the Mail on Sunday fearlessly and belatedly discovered a tweet Deborah had sent five months earlier accusing the Tories of ‘killing the sick, starving the disabled, evicting the poor, destroying the hopes of children, stealing billions from the public‘. It didn’t end there. This had been preceded by a description of the British Empire as ‘genocide’. If the former summary of coalition government policy was bad enough in the eyes of the Mail, the traitorous comment on the Empire was really ‘sickening’ and the whole thing a ‘vile rant’, which of course doesn’t at all describe the average Mail piece.
Not only that. The Mail had discovered Deborah plumbing depths of obscenities that would make a Cabinet Minister blush. She’d memorably called a twitter troll a ‘c**t but you have neither the depth nor the warmth’. This truly Russell Brand-like epic level of insult puts Steve G’s pale WTF acronym well into the shade. All this was far too much for the poor old Labour Party. Going into defence mode and near shock, it suspended her candidacy for three months last summer. Deborah might ask herself if she’s in the right party.
Our fifth candidate here is a third Steve, who’s also a third candidate who formerly stood under or voted for another label. The Green Party’s candidate Steve Slade is a wildlife garden designer and runs a renovation company at Newquay as well as being a Newquay town councillor. In 2013 he stood as an Independent in Newquay Central in the Cornwall Council elections and narrowly failed to get elected. Arriving from London in 2000, his partner is from Cornwall and had introduced him ‘to this wonderful county’, which neatly provides us with our third obscenity.
The MK candidate here, Dick Cole, would never refer to Cornwall as a ‘county’. However, the odd thing is that MK only announced Dick’s candidature a few days ago, relatively late in the day. This seems strange as it was its best result in 2010, beating the two far-right parties of Ukip and the BNP and being not that far behind Labour. In fact, it was their best result ever in a parliamentary election, even though the party still (narrowly) failed to save its first General Election deposit.
Rumour has it that Dick, having stood twice before, wasn’t keen to make it three. Presumably either he’s been unable to resist the magical draw of the number 3 here. Or there’s no suitable MK prospect available called Steve. However, this may be the time to raise the whole issue of MK’s electoral strategy. When its highest profile candidate, with a solid local base and sound record of service in local government, struggles to come fourth and ahead of nonentities, as in 2010, is it worth standing in as many constituencies as possible or even at all at the parliamentary level? Might it be a better bet just to stand in one seat on a clear and simple platform and pour all limited resources into that, saving money for the Cornwall Council level of local elections?
If it was difficult for MK last time, it’s going to be even more difficult in 2015, with Ukip receiving massive media coverage and even the Greens enjoying their mini-surge. To illustrate what MK is up against, in March last year the Cornish Guardian reported that Steve was favourite with the bookies to beat Steve. It said that ‘in the last election … the Lib Dems received 42.7% of the vote, narrowly beating the Conservatives, who had 40%, Labour came third with 7.2%, followed by Ukip (3.7%) and the BNP (2.2%)’. Hoping its readers wouldn’t realise that this only added up to 95.8%, Dick’s fourth place had been completely erased from history. Forgetfulness or deliberate?
Moreover, in the polling done by Ashcroft in the constituency last year, the numbers supporting the Greens (who didn’t stand here last time) and the BNP were explicitly stated. But MK was relegated to ‘some other party’. Similarly, in the UK Polling Report’s constituency guide the MK vote becomes a vote for ‘Others’. Why does MK have a status in the media akin to Voldemort, ‘he who must not be named’?