At first glance St Ives, Cornwall’s most westerly constituency, looks remarkably like North Cornwall, the most northerly. They both share very high proportions of second homes, elderly voters abound and there are few students. Both have a sitting Lib Dem MP and they’re the only straightforward Lib Dem/Tory marginals left in Cornwall, according to last year’s polling.
But St Ives’ political history is very different. It only became a Lib Dem/Tory marginal fairly recently. Before the 1990s, a strong Labour presence split the anti-Tory vote, leaving the seat for almost three quarters of a century in the hands of the Tories. It also feels less conservative than North Cornwall, with a much lower rate of in-migration since the 1960s and a stronger tradition of Cornish nationalism, although that’s nationalism spelt with quite a small ‘n’.
Two Mr Nice Guys?
Reviewing the constituency it seems as if we’ve stepped into a time warp. The two main candidates, Derek Thomas for the Conservatives, and Andrew George, the sitting MP, are resuming their contest of 2010. At first glance, they don’t seem that different. Both are family men with children. The younger Derek Thomas (42) is a local man, living in St Buryan. He was formerly development manager of a charitable trust and has been involved in a variety of community projects working with vulnerable adults. According to what appear to be three separate Conservative websites he’s now a trained mason and runs a small business.
Derek tells us he supports West Cornwall Healthcare, defending the local NHS ‘against cuts and privatisation’. He also makes ambitious promises to ‘improve our economy, deliver good jobs for our young people and improve the quality of life for everyone’. With free pasties thrown in and empty roads for all no doubt. Good to see that old election tradition of promising the earth still survives in the far west.
Andrew George (56) is a local man, living in Hayle (though this is now part of Camborne and Redruth) and brought up in Mullion. He formerly worked for the Cornwall Rural Community Council. He supports West Cornwall Healthcare, defending the NHS by rebelling on several occasions against the Tory/Lib Dem Government’s Health and Social Care Act, which built on Labour ‘reforms’ to further extend the role of the market and private sector healthcare in the NHS. He ‘supports the underdog’ and wants a ‘fair deal’ for several things, including Cornwall. With free saffron buns thrown in and good surfing conditions guaranteed no doubt.
What distinguishes these two is what drives them. Andrew seems to gain his motivation from his Cornish roots. A former member of MK, he’s carried over campaigning against the suburbanisation of Cornwall into his parliamentary career. During the Scottish referendum Derek criticised Andrew for ‘encouraging the break up of the UK when the rest of us are working so hard to keep us united‘ by having the temerity to call for devolution to Cornwall. This picks up the baton from former Liberals Bessell, Pardoe and most notably David Penhaligon. Moreover, not content with providing the strongest Lib Dem voice in support of real devolution to Cornwall and in defence of Cornish issues, Andrew has been the third most rebellious Lib Dem MP in this Parliament.
On the issues of equality and human rights, the bedroom tax, increasing welfare benefits in line with prices, NHS reform, raising tuition fees and culling badgers Andrew has voted differently from his Government colleagues and much closer to the Labour Party. However, it remains to be seen whether the subtleties of his parliamentary voting record will prove sufficient to differentiate himself from the toxic Tories or the even more toxic Clegg in the eyes of the man or woman on the Penzance, St Ives or Helston omnibus (if it’s survived the cuts).
We have to take Derek Thomas’s promises on trust. If Cornishness is what drives Andrew, then it seems that Christianity is what inspires Derek. Born to missionary parents, he claims that ‘leaders are needed’ in order to demonstrate how the quality of life can be improved by ‘healthy and stable communities’. ‘Health’ and ‘stability’ can of course be defined very differently from within different belief communities. Or political ideologies. At a time when religious politics elsewhere in the world are producing their fair quota of mayhem and barbarism, people might be wary of buying into explicit religious convictions. Especially when those convictions appear to find no problem with sentences such as ‘the Conservatives’ welfare cap will reward hardworking families‘, a neat non-sequitur if there ever was one. St Ives just doesn’t look like the sort of constituency that yearns for strong leadership anyhow.
Reality and rhetoric
The relatively small gap between Andrew George’s positions on welfare and health and those of the timid Labour leadership creates a problem for Cornelius Olivier, Labour’s own local candidate in St Ives. He has to accentuate the differences between himself and Andrew. Cornelius was previously employed at Penzance Jobcentre and worked for the Citizens Advice Bureau. As Penzance contains the most deprived wards in Cornwall, this must have given him an insight into the gap between local standards of living and the lives of the rich and comfortable.
Yet, interestingly enough he’s not chosen to attack Andrew George over his voting record on taxing the rich, a bankers’ bonus tax or corporation tax, where Andrew has followed the line taken by his bosses, thus ensuring the uninterrupted transfer of wealth to the rich since 2008. Instead he’s chosen to accuse Andrew of hypocrisy on the issue of the bedroom tax.
This is because Andrew George abstained on a Labour Party motion in the Commons against the tax in December. Cornelius asks whether that makes him ‘a principled rebel or an embarrassing fencesitter’. Andrew responds by accusing Labour of playing games and pointed out that their motion was restricted to social housing, not private tenancies, for which housing benefit was capped in a similar way to the bedroom tax back in 2008 … by the Labour Government.
In any case, he reminds Cornelius that he’d introduced a private members’ bill to abolish the bedroom tax in June. At the time this included giving local councils the power to cap second home owners. But the Labour Party had refused to support the second homes element so it had had to be dropped. It was therefore now rank hypocrisy for Cornelius to be touting a petition for a second home levy around the constituency.
On the other hand, Cornelius can point to the fact that he’d launched his campaign for a second home levy in June or earlier but it had only begun to be reported in November when the media began to take an interest in the issue. And so it goes on. Back and forth. To and fro. Tit for tat. And we can now expect four more months of this! It’s enough to make even election anoraks blanch. Let’s come to an unfashionable conclusion and suggest that perhaps both of them might be right. Andrew is genuinely opposed to a bedroom tax despite propping up the Government that introduced it; Cornelius is genuinely in favour of a second homes levy, despite being in a party led by politicians who aren’t.
Cornelius wants to make housing his campaign priority. But while campaigning heavily on second homes, he hasn’t said too much in the social media about his (successful) attempts early last year to convince Cornwall Council to bump up the numbers of unaffordable houses that will be built in and around Penzance over the next decade and a half. His first tweet also backed the populist calls for a stadium at Truro. But that comes with 1,500 houses and the developers are now demanding another 150 plus a supermarket in return for a shrinking stadium. None of which he mentions in his campaign material.
Not to disregard the others
The other parties will be challenging Labour hard for third place. Derek Thomas will not have been overjoyed to have heard that former Tory MP John Nott voted Ukip in last year’s Euro-elections. Ukip has gone to form in St Ives and chosen Graham Calderwood (69) as their candidate. Graham is a solicitor who opened an office in Penzance in 1972 and then extended his practice to other places in west Cornwall. Now semi-retired and living in Lelant, he comes originally from Wiltshire.
He stood as an Independent in the 2012 Police Commissioner elections but came ninth out of ten candidates (the others including Bob Smith, the Ukip candidate in neighbouring Camborne and Redruth). Graham thinks Cornwall’s potential is ‘hampered by a remote unitary authority and Euro rules’, EU farming and fisheries policies are ‘disastrous’ and tourism is ‘essential for our economy’. He wants to ‘stop other councils paying Cornwall Council to send people here, taking precedence over local people’. If he has evidence for this persistent local rumour, dismissed airily by the Council as an unsubstantiated urban myth, then he really should make it public. Or are they all Romanian?
The Greens’ candidate is Tim Andrewes (49), originally from Southampton and with an educational background of Shrewsbury School and Oxford. A self-employed transport consultant, Tim has several years experience as a councillor in Shropshire and fought St Ives in 2010. Since that election, the Green Party has achieved some take-off here. Tim won its first Cornwall Council seat – at St Ives East – in 2013 and the party also came very close in St Ives West, while doing well in St Keverne and some other wards too. On the back of these encouraging local election results the party has decided to make St Ives one of its target seats and the constituency has already received a visit from Natalie Bennett, the Greens’ Leader. This would seem a tad ambitious as St Ives just does not have the large student and middle-class vote usually associated with the places where the Green Party performs well, like Brighton, Norwich, Oxford, or Lancaster. But it does convey an impression of slight wackiness and the back to the earth desires that might also be found in Stroud in Gloucestershire, another place the Greens are well planted.
Whether real or not, the Green surge was given a boost when Andrew George suddenly called for an electoral pact between the Lib Dems and the Green Party in October. Never a runner, given Lib Dem support for the least green government in decades, this smacked of a rather desperate effort to limit losses from his environmental flank. It probably won’t though.
He’ll probably be more successful in again limiting possible haemorrhage towards MK and its candidate Rob Simmons. MK here has a love/hate relationship with Andrew George. They have to applaud his calls for devolution to Cornwall and his support for the campaign for a Cornish Assembly or his opposition to the disastrous Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill which would have destroyed Cornwall’s political unity and set the autonomist struggle back decades. But they also have to deplore the way he ended up rather feebly abstaining from the final reading of that Bill rather than clearly opposing it.
In the long run Andrew is a huge block on MK progress in this constituency. It once contained their best prospects for success. Colin Murley’s 4% of the vote here back in 1979 remained the best MK parliamentary performance until Dick Cole beat it in St Austell and Newquay in 2010. But the rise of a more Cornish-orientated Liberal Democrat presence in St Ives paralleled the collapse of MK organisation, as possible supporters were siphoned off into the Lib Dems.
MK activists are left dreaming of what have been. What if Andrew George, appalled by the coalition, its austerity policies and its centralism, had taken that extra principled step early in the present Parliament and rejoined MK, becoming its first MP? Even in a more sober alternative history, one must wonder what might have happened had Andrew relinquished the Lib Dem whip and decided to make a name for himself in Cornish history by becoming a Cornish independent. In the process he could have built up a personal base of support in the constituency that would have included green and nationalist activists and encouraged community level resistance to the ongoing colonisation of Cornwall by neo-liberal developer-led politics. This could well have pre-empted support for the superficially anti-politician rhetoric of Ukip and in the bargain left Andrew in a less vulnerable position than he now appears to be, tied to the anchor of that fast-sinking rusty old tub known as the Liberal Democrats.