On parachutists and paper candidates in Cornwall

In next month’s local elections the Liberal Democrats are proud to have achieved a first in Cornish political history. They’ve managed to stand a candidate in every single ward in Cornwall.

But what’s this? Look closely and we find a Liberal Democrat activist from Penzance standing in St Columb, another from Saltash popping up at Carharrack and a third in Redruth whose address is Crackington Haven. These last two face a 110 mile round-trip every time they visit their voters. If they bother to do so that is. For these are almost certainly what is known as paper candidates, people who have no discernible local connections and are effectively leant on to stand, having been assured that there’s no possibility of them ever getting elected.

There’s nothing new to the practice of parachuting candidates from other places into wards. The mainstream parties have indulged in this for some time, using reservoirs of party activists to top up areas where they are weak. Call me old-fashioned and naive, and no doubt the hard-nosed party fixer will, but I find this practice extremely cynical, exploiting the electorate’s lack of knowledge of how local government works and an interest in politics that extends only as far as the celebrity show on offer on TV. Party hacks might think it’s very clever but it also indicates a fundamental lack of importance ascribed to the local representation of local communities.

How can we measure the intensity of paper candidates? Although parachutists and paper candidates are not necessarily the same thing, one way is to compare the location of the ward with the address of the candidate, as provided in the official notice of poll. This isn’t foolproof. Some locally-based candidates may well have had their arms twisted and be effectively paper candidates, hoping that come May 4th they won’t find themselves elected. Others who live at a distance may have businesses or family ties in the ward they’re fighting. Others may be genuine candidates but prefer to live in rural spots while representing urban areas (or less often vice versa).

With these caveats in mind therefore, we can define potential paper candidates as those who do not live in the ward or in a neighbouring ward (or the same town if not neighbouring). For example, this includes those Labour candidates standing in Camborne, St Agnes and (two) at Truro, who all live in Falmouth. For the Conservatives, we find candidates who live in Truro standing in Redruth, while someone who lives in Perranporth stands in Truro. Meanwhile, a Tory candidate with an address in Mount Hawke stands in Wadebridge.

But the prize this time must go to the Lib Dems. The main source for Lib Dem parachutists is Penzance, with PZ-based candidates turning up as far away as St Columb and scattered from St Keverne to St Ives. One of their candidates in the Helston area admits openly to being a paper candidate. Unfortunately, this level of honesty is rare, but all those suspected of being paper candidates or parachutists will be marked as such on the ward lists at the Charter for Cornwall website.

Only 40% of Lib Dem candidates live in the ward they’re standing in. As many as 30% live more than one ward away, a somewhat higher proportion than the 22-23% of Tory and Labour candidates who also live at a distance. Meanwhile, parachutists seem virtually unknown among Independent, Green and especially MK candidates. Parachuting also seems to be on the increase since the last elections in 2013. Then, 15% of candidates lived at a distance from where they were standing. This time, it’s 18%.

Last time around the Lib Dems relied less on parachutes, leaving that to Ukip. And see what’s happened to them.

The Lib Dems’ cynical use of this ploy must also mean that any chatter about a so-called ‘progressive alliance’ in Cornwall is now dead in the water. For example, they are deliberately and disgracefully standing a candidate against Cornwall’s sole Green Party councillor, Tim Andrewes at St Ives (as are Labour), bringing someone in from Penzance to do the job and split the vote. Similarly, a Lib Dem in Bodmin has been provided with a parachute to descend on St Enoder and join a Tory from Mevagissey in opposing Dick Cole of MK.

Such behaviour is party tribalism at its worst. Just like the Tories’ announcement of a snap election today at the UK level, given recent by-election success the Lib Dems have sniffed the possibility of taking over Cornwall Council. Any idle talk of ‘progressive’ alliances is promptly binned as they resort to the widespread use of parachutists and paper candidates. The alternative might have been to rely on principles and policies, while giving a few Indy, Labour, Green and MK candidates a free run so as not to split the anti-Tory vote. Who knows, that might have helped erase the voters’ memories of their collaboration in the Tory coalition Government of 2010-15 and set up relations for the general election in June. But no. Sadly, they prefer to trust to the fickle memories of voters and the swing of the pendulum. And then they wonder why ordinary folk are so alienated from politics.


10 thoughts on “On parachutists and paper candidates in Cornwall

  1. The ‘progressive alliance’ was always a non-starter anyway.

    Using paper candidates may seem cynical but it clearly abides by the electoral rules and it allows a political party to establish its overall total of the vote across Cornwall.

    After the elections people will point to MK’s tiny vote percentage compared to Westminster parties – but that will be because of the small number of candidates.

    If MK used more paper candidates themselves then it may have to endure criticism from idealistic politicos who actually care about things – but it would have a stronger percentage of the overall Cornish vote to argue back with!

    What garners more publicity and potential votes for the future?


    • I was also sceptical about the possibility of a ‘progressive’ alliance, certainly one involving the Lib Dems, who have to do a lot more to convince us of their ‘progressive’ status. However, I’m also sceptical about old-style 1950s/1960s campaigning practices.

      The basic problem is this. The Tories aren’t polling much higher than they were in the 50s/60s – just over 40%. Yet the non-Tory landscape is no longer dominated by Labour. The increased fragmentation of the non-Tory vote isn’t temporary. It reflects the long-term depolarisation of British (indeed European) politics, although one that unfortunately hasn’t extended to the Conservative Party. This ‘partisan dealignment’ itself echoes the breakdown of the homogenous, mass production, Fordist society of the 1960s. Given an antiquated voting system, this potentially hands the Tories a massive majority.

      So what is to be done? Those who continue to rely on traditional tactics and party tribalism would seem to be sticking their heads in the sand. New times demand new thinking. Clearly, the urgent necessity is a fair voting system, one that rids us of ‘wasted votes’ and the need for ‘tactical’ voting. Therefore one possibility worth pursuing is a more flexible approach to electioneering strategies.


      • I tried to put forward a motion on looking at a different voting system for electing Cornwall Councillors. I was working with a member of the Youth Parliament to do so and informally had plenty of support. However, when I tried to get support formally, suddenly there was only one Councillor prepared to do so, Tim Andrewes. The rest backed off because, I was told, the LibDems were bringing forward a similar motion – which they never did. We could have asked for delegated powers to change the system, similar to the Scottish Parliament, London and Welsh Assemblies etc but the LibDems let us down on this one, I think.


    • The other reason that parties do this is because the airtime given to the different parties depends on the total vote. If you don’t have a candidate on the ballot paper, it is absolutely certain that the total number of votes will be zero. They need to change the way they assess Party Political Broadcasts to stop the use of paper candidates.


  2. Can’t help wondering whether they are regretting their heavy spend on campaign literature for the Council elections now that an unexpected general election has been called…


  3. Hello Bernard. You’ve joined Michael Foster in suggesting that Labour’s Stanley Guffogg is a paper candidate in Camborne. If he is, I don’t know why he’s been tramping the streets of Camborne for the last fortnight!


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