If candidates keep appearing at this rate in Truro and Falmouth, the constituency may have more candidates than voters come May. Not that this is particularly bad news for the incumbent, Conservative Sarah Newton. With votes split across the spectrum she seems set fair to retain her seat on a third of the vote or less. With the normal recent level of turnout this suggests that she only needs the active support of one voter in five to win. Which might suggest a growing crisis of legitimacy here and elsewhere in Cornwall for our parliamentary representatives. If anything, this is likely to grow, as it seems possible that the Tories will take all six Cornish seats with only around 30% of the vote.
The acceptable face of modern Conservatism?
Sarah Newton (53) is a typical example of the modern Conservative Party. On the surface she seems quite acceptable. But you can’t escape the nagging feeling there’s something less appealing and more worrying hiding behind the bland exterior. Yet, although one might harbour doubts about some of her colleagues on the Tory benches, there seems no solid reason to assume that she’s either an alien or a Stepford wife. Or that she wasn’t born, as is claimed, in Gloucestershire or brought up in Falmouth. Now living at Mylor, she has ‘family roots stretching back for generations’ in the constituency. She was also Director of Age Concern in the 1990s. But before that, there were spells as a banker with Citibank and American Express.
She also has a ‘vision’ for 2020. This turns out to be the usual end of history capitalist utopia. We’ll all be in well-paid jobs, have higher incomes, better access to healthcare and will ‘cherish’ the environment and our communities. Farming and fishing will ‘thrive’, Cornwall’s communities will be ‘in charge’ and connected, their residents will be fulfilling their potential (as consumers and wage slaves presumably). Hmmmm, nice. And all this is to happen within five years. The exact road map from vindictive austerity politics to the sunlit hills of contentment aren’t exactly spelt out though.
Sarah, like our other MPs, lives in a strange parallel universe where support for the Government has little connection with everyday lives back in Cornwall. For instance, she’s pleased that the woodlands remain in public ownership. Yet confusingly she voted very strongly for privatising those same woodlands a few years ago. In fact, she’s been a super-loyal Government supporter, a ‘caring Conservative’ who’s nonetheless voted for the whole package of vicious cuts while colluding in the handing over of massive benefits to the rich and corporations.
In Sarah’s parallel universe the Government’s actions are relegated to some sepia-tinged dream world which has no impact on local services or decision-making and has nothing to do with her. Instead, she sees the glass as always half-full as she spends ‘a lot of time listening to local people. Most tell me what a good job the Government is doing’. Is she only choosing to talk to a very select sample or doesn’t she get out and about much? The disconnection between image and reality is nicely illustrated by her recommendation of a ‘great article’ in the Times. This is ‘very positive’ about ‘happy Britain’. But reality intrudes. Try to access this good news and you’ll find the article is hidden behind a paywall and unavailable without signing up to a load of other Murdoch media propaganda, a good metaphor for modern Conservatism perhaps.
This jarring disconnection also emerged when her father, John Hick, was found to have mis-used up to £2 million taken in excess service charges from holiday home owners on his holiday estate at Falmouth. The money had been used for, among other things, wining and dining. Local calls for Hick, chairman of a local tourist and business organisation, to resign and hand back his MBE were met by a brusque ‘I do not think my father should resign his position as chairman of Falmouth BID or the Falmouth Tall Ships Association or return his MBE’ from Sarah.
The three chasers
If we leave Sarah no wiser than we met her, we can move on to her three nearest challengers in order of their current support in the polls. Currently in second place according to those polls is the most recently selected candidate, Dr John Hyslop of Ukip. John grew up in Welwyn Garden City but moved to Cornwall to take up a post as consultant radiologist at Treliske in 1985. In his early 60s and living in Falmouth, this can’t be the same John Hyslop who stood as Lib Dem candidate in Feock in 2009, can it?
Labour is in third place in the polls. Its candidate is Hanna Toms, who has sound local roots, born in Truro, schooled on the Roseland and now Cornwall Councillor for Falmouth Penwerris. She’s a former youth worker and an IT support helpdesk manager. Hannah combines Labour’s rather ineffective ‘cost of living crisis’ campaign with local issues. She points out how tourism and second homes push prices up while keeping wages low. She also publicly welcomed the granting of national minority status to the Cornish last year, which was nice. Although, when the temporary excitement wore off, she was back to the more familiar centralising Labourism when she dismissed calls for a Cornish Assembly. Like Deborah Hopkins in neighbouring St Austell and Newquay, she joined Labour after being disgusted at the Lib Dems’ Great Betrayal in 2010. Labour morale has presumably rallied after their low point when previous candidate in 2005 and 2010, Charlotte Mackenzie, left the party after being suspended following ‘alleged breaches of the Data Protection Act‘.
In fourth place in the polls is Simon Rix for the Lib Dems. Its seems like just a bad dream now that at one point the Lib Dems actually thought Truro and Falmouth would be winnable. Simon (43) is now an also-ran, despite having that shape-shifting, rather vague career profile common to the parliamentary class. He’s been described variously as a marketing professional, business advisor and book publisher and was at one time head of public engagement at Treliske. He lives in Bugle which he also represents on Cornwall Council. Although born in Exeter, Simon has ‘deep family roots‘ in Truro and Falmouth. These are a little elusive however as they seem to amount to his mother being married in Truro in the 1950s and his brother being born in St Agnes. That would give the Camerons’ offspring deep family roots too.
The unlucky Simon was pitched into a scandal almost as soon as he was selected as candidate. His friend, who just happened to be Tim Farron, the Lib Dem President, was revealed to have rung around local Lib Dems urging them to vote for him rather than popular, local Lib Dem councillor Rob Nolan. In the event Simon got the nod, leading one Lib Dem parish councillor to leave the party for Ukip in disgust. Since then, he’s also tangled with the anti-wind turbine brigade. They felt his involvement in the past advising wind energy companies compromised his judgement on a local turbine application. Luxulyan Parish Council passed a vote of no confidence in him.
Recovering from that political blow, Simon declares himself in favour of ‘stronger, fairer Cornwall’. Like all Lib Dems (and Sarah Newton come to that) he seems blind to the fact that his party has been part of government for five years and has had ample opportunity to bestow some of that fairness in a westerly direction. He also says ‘it’s clear, only a vote for me and the Lib Dems can secure a new, better government’. If anything is clear, its clear that a vote for him and the Lib Dems next May is wasted and that in any case a vote for the Lib Dems is very likely to secure the same government as we’ve already got. Simon’s claims to be able to foresee the outcome of the election in Truro and Falmouth in this way should be taken with a very large pinch of salt. For this is the same Simon Rix who, when standing at Croydon South in 2010, confidently claimed that he was ‘neck and neck’ with the Tories. That’s ‘neck and neck’ as in Tory 28,684 votes and Simon 12,866, just pipping Labour for second place.
A rainbow of others
The Greens polled strongly in Truro and Falmouth in last year’s constituency polling, gaining 8%, as high as in their target seat of St Ives. Yet their candidate here, Sharron Kelsey, has so far been fairly invisible. She is rumoured to live in Newquay so, as a former aid worker in Somalia and Palestine, she should feel at home. She’s issued a rather vague statement – ‘Cornwall has the potential for a prosperous sustainable economy that everyone can benefit from whilst supporting and improving the environment we live in‘. Oh dear, this looks like a slightly more environmentally friendly version of Sarah Newton’s meaningless politico-babble ‘vision’ than the radical politics we might expect from the Greens.
Truro and Falmouth’s profile might actually make it quite a good prospect for the Greens, or for progressive politics more generally. It has the lowest number expressing an explicit English identity (and thus a likely tendency to vote Ukip), it has by far the most educated electorate in Cornwall and the highest number of young voters and students. It’s the most middle class and least working class constituency, with the lowest proportion suffering severe deprivation.
The presence of an articulate middle class, many of whom work or worked in the public sector – in local government, the health service and higher education – resonates with two other issues in this constituency. These are mounting concerns over the destruction of the countryside in pursuit of mindless housing and population growth and the associated pressure on infrastructure and congestion, and the state of the NHS.
Sarah Newton has called for Cornwall Council to reduce its housing target to 33,000 houses from the proposed 47,500. But she’s prone to believe government ministers when they assure her it’s all a decision for local authorities and nothing at all to do with developer-friendly central government planning rules or Pickle’s hit squad of planning inspectors riding roughshod over local communities. Honest, guv. This misapprehension that ‘localism’ actually means what it says is either evidence of extreme gullibility or makes Sarah the perfect front for corporate politics. Meanwhile, both Hanna Toms and Simon Rix voted for the Council’s housing target of 47,500 and neither has been spotted vigorously condemning the high rate of housing and population growth being stoked up in Cornwall.
However, MK’s candidate in this constituency, Stephen Richardson, is making the concreting of Cornwall a central plank in his campaign. Stephen, originally from the West Midlands, is a fish and chip owner in Illogan in neighbouring Camborne-Redruth. Paralleling and predating his conversion to Cornishness is a career switch from legal consultancy and conveyancing to the restaurant trade. Stephen has been an active blogger, is a parish councillor and describes himself as a socialist. he’s a living example of the adage that it’s not important where you come from, but where you decide to fight. If there were more who threw themselves into the struggle for Cornish recognition MK would have less difficulty in breaking through.
Unlikely to describe himself as a socialist is Loic Rich, who’s standing in Truro and Falmouth as an Independent. Loic (41), a copywriter, freelance journalist and composer/singer grew up and still lives in Truro and is currently its mayor. He was also MK’s candidate in 2010, which nicely complicates matters for Stephen. Having joined MK in 2008, he abandoned them in 2011, joining the Tories. Another two years on and he’d dumped them too and become an independent. MK claimed to be surprised at his moonlit flit to the Tories. But they ought to have been warned by his answers to an online candidate opinion survey in 2010. Then, he coudn’t bring himself to agree that higher earners needed to pay more tax, even though he was in favour of increased spending on welfare. He was also against tackling climate change aggressively. When joining the Tories he stated he could not remain in a party ‘in deliberate denial of the UK’s economic and social needs’. Which might be why he’s left them again.
The other big issue in Truro is the NHS as the constituency hosts the Royal Cornwall Hospital at Treliske, on which services have been aggressively centralised. Sarah Newton voted very strongly for the Health and Social Care Act. This opened up the road to privatisation and the Hospital Trust duly voted to privatise its portering and ‘hotel’ services last May.
As a consultant at the hospital Ukip’s John Hyslop has stated ‘our health services must be protected from external pressures, EU regulations and topdown interference’. He is against further use of the costly and inefficient PFI contracts and for treatment ‘free at the point of delivery’. But he hasn’t said much about the ongoing privatisation. It turns out he was one of a ‘small minority’ of doctors at a BMA conference in 2011 who offered ‘conditional support’ to Lansley’s health ‘reforms’.
In contrast, the final candidate in Truro and Falmouth offers total opposition to privatisation of NHS services. Rik Evans (69) resigned last May from the Royal Cornwall Hospital Trust over its decision to privatise services. He was also the only member who had previously voted against the disastrous award of the out of hours contract to SERCO. Rik is against the flow of taxpayers’ money into the bank accounts of private health companies and is standing under the label of the new National Health Action Party. A Canadian and a humanist, he came to the UK when young and began his marquee hire business in Cornwall in the 1960s. A former Labour candidate and experienced campaigner, Rik asked the local Labour candidates an excellent question last October.
Someone who is so explicitly (and unusually) standing on the basis of his principles means that voters in Truro and Falmouth have the luxury of at least three candidates worth considering when they come to vote in May.