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%.
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.