Cornwall Council’s boundary review – heading for post-democracy

It may be of limited concern to 95% of people, but the Local Government Boundary Commission is consulting on the size of Cornwall Council. Their proposal involves an unprecedented cut in the number of elected representatives and the consequent ability of communities in Cornwall to influence policy. While no-one is shedding any tears over Cornwall Council, Cornwall is again being singled out for special and unfair treatment. Here’s the start of my submission to the Boundary Commission ….

The Local Government Boundary Commission for England (LGBCE) claims on its website that it provides ‘electoral arrangements for English local authorities that are fair for voters’. They may be fair in respect of England but the proposal to cut Cornwall Council’s size from 123 to 87 councillors is patently unfair to the Cornish voter. It drastically undermines Cornwall Council’s ability to represent the interests of residents or respond to the concerns of local communities.

The LGBCE is now ‘consulting’ on the future size of Cornwall Council as part of its current boundary review. It asks for local views on its proposal to cut the number of councillors in Cornwall by 36. However, it is the LGBCE that needs to answer some important questions, not the people of Cornwall. These questions are

  • Why is democratic representation in Cornwall being reduced to such a level that it becomes one of the least well represented areas in the UK?
  • Why does the proposal for council size in this review vary so dramatically from recent reviews for similar unitary authorities and county councils?
  • Why did the LGBCE ignore the clear advice of the majority of representations received from Cornwall Council, the two mainstream political parties and others in the first phase of its review?

The above questions are dealt with in turn below before I conclude with some speculation on the context of this review and suggestions for change.

….  you can read and/or download the rest of the submission here.

 

The level of representation proposed by the Boundary Commssion in context

The 2017 general election – not all doom and gloom for minor parties

The recent general election was quickly categorised by the media as a bad one for minor parties. That was certainly the case for Ukip, which saw its vote collapse and its status decline from temporary major party back to minor. The Green Party’s voters also deserted en masse, lured by the siren call of Corbynism and so-called ‘tactical’ voting. Yet, tucked away in the small print of last week’s election results were a few that ought to give food for thought to those wanting to see more devolution/autonomy/independence for Cornwall.

Because it wasn’t all doom and gloom for minor parties. For instance, the 21 candidates of the Yorkshire Party doubled their average vote. Admittedly, that was from a very low base and it’s still pretty feeble at 2.1%. Moreover, none of their candidates saved their deposit with the highest vote (at Rotherham) being 3.8%. Nonetheless, put that in context. In almost half a century of fighting parliamentary elections MK has never achieved a median vote higher than 2.1%. In addition, it’s only taken the Yorkshire Party two elections and three years to almost match MK’s highest ever vote of 4%.

The Yorkshire Party now claims it’s the third party in Doncaster and Wakefield. In seven of the 19 constituencies where they encountered Lib Dem opposition, the party came out on top. They also beat the Greens in five of the 12 contests where both were present, although they were unable to edge out Ukip in the 10 constituencies where they came head to head. The party did relatively well in Richmond, North Yorkshire and Barnsley in South Yorkshire, two very different areas, while its worst results noticeably occurred in the cities – Leeds, Sheffield and Huddersfield.

Meanwhile, the North East Party in Northumberland and Durham has adopted (or been forced to adopt) a different strategy. Instead of standing candidates across Durham and Teesside as in 2015, it focused on fighting just one seat at Easington, which includes its power-base of Peterlee. This turned out to be a successful strategy as the party almost tripled its vote, scoring 6.5% and saving its deposit, a first for a regionalist/nationalist party outside Ireland, Scotland or Wales.

The election also saw a couple of other very creditable performances by Independents that are worth a mention. Jim Kenyon stood in Hereford and Herefordshire South and easily saved his deposit, gaining 11% of the vote and coming ahead of Lib Dem, Green and Ukip candidates. Kenyon, mayor of Hereford, is a well-known local councillor for It’s Our County (Herefordshire).

However, by far the most inspiring result was achieved by Claire Wright in East Devon. She increased her vote by 8,000 from 24% in 2015 to 36% this time, coming a clear second in a crowded field of seven candidates. Her key policy stance was a pledge to amend the National Planning Policy Framework so that it becomes less about growth and more about balanced communities. She backed this up by demanding more funding for local infrastructure, protection of the countryside and doing more to comply with climate change targets. She was supported by the progressive alliance locally and managed to do so well with a campaign team of just 12 and a fraction of the resources available to the sitting Tory MP.

Strong, localist campaigns for a more balanced approach to the environment and alternatives to the headlong rush to gobble up resources in the name of growth and greed can clearly resonate with voters. The relative success of these Independent candidates and the solid showing for the northern regionalist parties surely have some lessons for Cornish autonomists and nationalists. But will we bother to learn them?

Mixed fortunes for regionalist parties in French elections

Was there anything for micro-nationalist and regionalist parties to cheer about in the elections across the French hexagon on Sunday?

Most disappointingly, just as in the Cornish case, Breton regionalism still fails to make an electoral impact. The 33 candidates of Oui la Bretagne (OLB), led by Christian Troadec and bringing together L’Union Démocratique Bretonne (UDB) and the Mouvement Bretagne et Progrès (MBP), achieved a poor median vote of 1.2%, no better than the UDB’s performance on its own back in 2002. For the UDB, this was the worst result for 20 years, with a median score of just 1.0%. The MBP did better, with a median score of 2.2%. Troadec himself came third with 13.9% of the vote in his Finistere heartland. But this was considerably down on his vote in 2012, when he obtained 19.9%. Meanwhile, former UDB member and ‘autonomist’ Paul Molac, now standing for President Macron’s La République En Marche!, was the sole candidate in the region to be elected on the first ballot.

Spurning the left. Breton voters showed no greater inclination to vote for the centre-right Parti Breton (PB). Its 26 candidates averaged under 1%. More generally, La République En Marche! confronts 16 candidates of the left and 21 from the right in next Sunday’s second ballot in Brittany and looks set to sweep up the majority of Breton seats. Yet turnout in Brittany, as elsewhere, was low, between 50 and 60%. The centrist revolution doesn’t appear to be galvanising huge enthusiasm.

In the rest of the hexagon, there were some brighter spots for regionalist parties. Not particularly in Occitania however. Although the Partit Occitan improved its median score, it continues to poll relatively dismally, at under 2%, while the number of candidates it stands has fallen from 42 in 2002 to just five this year.

The Ipparalde (northern Basque Country) presents a more encouraging picture. There, the leftist Euskal Herria Bai steadily progresses, increasing its vote for the fourth election running, as did the Parti Nationaliste Basque, although the latter remains well behind. Basque nationalists are now winning around 10% of the vote in the three Basque constituencies.

For many years Catalan nationalism in France has been weak, struggling to win over 1% of the vote in the department of Pyrénées-Orientales. This time it was boosted by a regional reform last year that united the former Languedoc-Rousillon region with Midi- Pyrénées to form a new mega-region of Occitanie. This recentralization spurred resentment in French Catalonia and the formation of Oui au Pays Catalan to demand recognition of the unique status of Pyrénées-Orientales, decentralization and the protection of the Catalan identity. It managed to win a mean vote of just over 3%, still fairly feeble but a big improvement on the previous Catalan nationalist vote in the region

Regionalism in Alsace was formerly associated more with the far right. That’s now changed. Unser Land in Alsace also benefited from the state’s regional redrawing, which abolished the region of Alsace and lumped it in with Lorraine and Champagne-Ardennes. Unser Land was founded in 2009 as a progressive party fighting for recognition of Alsace, replacing the Union du peuple Alsacien (UA). The UPA had struggled to capture over 2% of the vote in this right-leaning region. Nonetheless Unser Land managed a mean 8.1% on Sunday, with one candidate making it to the second ballot.

While the clumsy and insensitive restructuring of France’s regions by the previous Socialist Government has re-ignited Alsatian regionalism (and to an extent Catalan) the biggest regionalist success was again seen in Corsica. There the nationalist movement, for years split between moderate and radical wings, came together to win a historic victory in the regional elections of 2015. Pè a Corsica (For Corsica) continued that alliance into these elections, which saw the vote for Corsican nationalism grow to almost 30%, a steady rise since 1997. In three of the four Corsican constituencies Pè a Corsica will be present in the second ballot next Sunday, in two instances against the right-wing Les Républicains and one against En Marche!.

Median vote of regionalist/nationalist parties in French legislative elections, 2002-2017

2002 2007 2012 2017
Brittany UDB/OLB 1.2% 1.5% 2.1% 1.2%
PB 1.2% 1.5% 0.8%
Occitania PO 0.4% 0.7% 0.7% 1.9%
Basque Country EH Bai/PNB 6.5% 6.3% 8.1% 9.9%
Catalonia 1.2% 1.0% 3.4%
Alsace UPA/UL 0.7% 1.8% 5.7%
Corsica 5.1% 12.0% 22.4% 29.8%

Was this a turning point election in Cornwall? Back to the 1950s? Or forward to a new politics?

This was billed as the election of deference, where a peasantry grateful to ‘have their country back’ would reward the ruling party with a whopping majority so it could ‘lead’ us out of Europe. It was also the election of nostalgia, as Tories painted a beguiling picture of a pre-EU UK, strong and stable, imperial and nationalist. Meanwhile, Labour equally looked back wistfully to a mixture of the 1940s and 1970s, while Lib Dems dreamt of the optimistic days of the 1990s.

Fortunately, it didn’t turn out to be deferential enough for the ruling elite. While smacking of nostalgia the Labour surge took everyone by surprise, especially the media, which had swallowed its own demonisation narrative of Corbyn. But was this election merely a blip? Or does it mark a turning point in Cornish politics, a time future generations will look back to and say ‘ah, nothing was the same after 2017’?

The Tory vote remained very high, only exceeded by the elections of 1970 and the Thatcher victories of 1979-87. Nothing new there then. But for the first time since 1955 Labour displaced the Liberal Democrats as Cornwall’s second party. Their percentage share was actually lower then 1955 (and 1959 and 1966 come to that), but it seems that, politically at least, we’re back to the 1950s and re-entering long-forgotten territory.

The Lib Dems’ vote has slumped to 22-23%, around half of its peak in 2001, although it was no worse this time than 2015. Again, we have to go back more than half a century to 1951 to find the Liberals polling at a lower level. Others too scored their lowest percentage total since 1992.

The question now is whether this is merely a temporary upset in the historic Tory-Lib Dem two-party pattern or the establishment of a new pattern. The 50%+ scored by the Tories in North Cornwall and the failure of Dan Rogerson to make any inroads there might imply that North Cornwall is now on the brink of joining South East Cornwall to become a safe Tory seat. This process in the east is being inexorably driven by demographic change and mass in-migration from the English heartlands. Only in St Ives do the Lib Dems represent a serious challenge and even there, once Andrew George is gone, it should become clear that the current Lib Dem vote level flatters the party,

So, will this election herald a shift towards a two-party Tory-Labour system in Cornwall? Or can the Lib Dems recover? With the disappearance of MK and uncertainty about its future, the Ukip wipeout and the decision of Green voters to vote Labour, we may be witnessing a genuine turning point in Cornwall’s political history.

Float like a butterfly, vote like a bee

This election has been a very strange one. Not just because of the most incompetent Tory campaign ever waged. Or the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London. Or the fact the polls are all over the place, from a hung Parliament to a Tory majority of around 100. It’s also been strange because it’s the first time for many years when I’ve experienced the joys of being a floating voter. Ever since 1997 I’ve been one of that small band of stalwarts who’ve voted MK. So I could remain detached but hardly objective about the ebb and flow of London politics.

Ah, nostalgia.

This time I have to admit I’ve been changing my mind. And not just once. My first thought was to revert to an anarchist vote and spoil my paper. Whoever you vote for the government gets in! I still think that elections are fundamentally superficial, a way of legitimating an unequal society geared to maintaining the wealth and power of a few rather than the needs of the many. Real democracy needs community-based, bottom-up organisation that can build institutions and networks and challenge statist and private hierarchies.

Then it began to look as if Labour was in with more than an outside chance in Camborne-Redruth, my constituency. The Labour surge began to make George Eustice’s demise a real possibility. Should I therefore vote Labour and help this process along? It would have been a lot easier had the Labour Party not foisted regional centralization on Cornwall, if Labour in Cornwall had signed up to a democratic Cornish Assembly, if the party came out in favour of PR, if its leadership hadn’t spurned the possibility of a progressive alliance, if its policies on things such as climate change and Trident were more consistent.

Canvassing hots up in Tresoddit

All these made me hesitate. But live by the numbers, die by them. So I decided that if the YouGov election model was showing Labour within 5% of Eustice today, then I’d vote for them. If not I’d vote Green, which would be my preferred choice, as the big issue is climate change and their candidate in this constituency appears to be intelligent and sensible, as far as I can make out. The prediction has now just appeared and Eustice is still 6% ahead. As this is the most-Labour leaning poll it makes it extremely unlikely that they can unseat him. Therefore I’m voting with my conscience and not succumbing to tactical voting. Phew, what a harrowing process – much simpler to have a system of PR and no ‘wasted’ votes.

But if I lived elsewhere in Cornwall I’d be voting differently. It would be nice if we could decide how to vote at least relatively rationally, taking in the context, rather than fall for blanket (and more often than not tribalist) calls to vote for this or that party to ‘stop the Tories’. Therefore in St Ives and North Cornwall I’d vote Lib Dem as Andrew George and Dan Rogerson have a real chance of beating the Conservatives. In Truro and South East Cornwall I’d vote Green as the Tory is too far out in front to be caught. In St Austell there’s no Green candidate so I’d end up voting Labour or spoiling my paper.

Anyway, enjoy one of your few opportunities to partake in the democratic ritual tomorrow before they abolish it.

Constituency review 3: The Lib Dem chances – North Cornwall and St Ives

There’s another pair of politically similar constituencies at either end of Cornwall. St Ives, the most westerly, in some respects looks remarkably like North Cornwall, the most northerly. Both have high proportions of second homes, elderly voters galore and few students. Moreover, they are both among the handful of seats which the Lib Dems might have expected to gain at this election.

In both constituencies Labour is well behind. In both Lib Dem success hangs on convincing Labour leaners to vote tactically. In North Cornwall the gap between the sitting Tory MP and challenging Lib Dem appears to be narrowing as polling day focuses people’s minds, but it’s perhaps happening too slowly to give the Lib Dems’ Dan Rogerson the win.

Dan is lumbering back into the fray for a second joust with the Tories’ Scott Mann. Neither candidate is over-endowed with charisma, however. The Tories long ago stopped the practice of importing grandees from upcountry to command the peasants to give them their vote and in North Cornwall have an impeccably local and working class MP. Scott Mann claimed he’s ‘spent his whole life growing up in Cornwall’, a task clearly requiring all his concentration, before getting elected in 2015.

Community politics

On the Lib Dem side, Dan Rogerson is equally anodyne. He was a little bit rebellious but not too much so during the Lib Dem/Tory coalition, although he did vote against his party’s U-turn on tuition fees. Any further tendencies to rebellion were tamed by becoming a junior minister. During the floods crisis however, he was confined by the Government to the high ground while David Cameron stanked around in his green wellies looking business-like. Rogerson was promptly dubbed ‘the invisible man’ by the media.

Dan presents the familiar although frustrating Lib Dem enigma of soundbites for Cornwall but precious little concrete achievement. In 2015 I was so irritated by this I called on people to vote for anyone but him (or the Tory, Ukip and Independent candidates some to that). I’ve now changed my mind. He’s preferable to a Tory cipher who will act as uncritical voting fodder for his plutocratic masters (and mistresses). Moreover, Dan Rogerson has categorically stated that if elected he will not support another coalition with the Tories. That’s a promise that, if broken, will surely be his last.

For Rogerson to succeed however, he’ll need to convince those intending to vote Labour in North Cornwall to vote tactically yet again and not for Bodmin’s Joy Bassett. And in large numbers.

Unusually for Cornwall in this election, other candidates are standing here. Rob Hawkins is flying the flag for Arthur Scargill’s (yes, he’s still alive) Socialist Labour Party and is probably their sole member west of Bristol. In 2015 John Allman stood because every child needs a father. He’s a bit less cryptic this time, standing for the Christian Peoples’ Alliance (CPA) on a platform of Christian values, pro-Brexit, traditional family and anti-abortion.

If the CPA seems to be a more evangelical version of the Conservative Party in North Cornwall, in St Ives there’s little space for it. In the far west, Andrew George is also whipping up election fever and portraying the battle as one between good and evil. Here Manichean politics blurs into manic politicking as efforts are made to push the idea of a progressive alliance. The problem is that local Labour supporters are proving surprisingly resistant to it.

In St Ives the choice does appear to be clear. This is an election between Christianity and Cornishness, between the politics of fear and the politics of hope, between deference and freethinking, between authoritarianism and freedom. Or at least Andrew George would like us to believe so.

Voter hurries to polls in St Ives

Sitting Tory MP Derek Thomas has denied his evangelical Christianity affects his voting, although as his record loyally toes the party line, it’s difficult to know. In 2015 he was already prefiguring Theresa May by bemoaning the absence of the ‘leaders’ needed to create ‘healthy and stable communities’. He must now be squealing with delight as Theresa May offers him both strength and stability. Over and over again.

While Thomas should appeal to the deferential ex-Ukip vote in St Ives, George has the Cornish patriotic vote sown up, having a long record of standing up for Cornish causes. He’s also making the NHS an issue and has been regularly involved in local campaigns against the consequences of austerity politics.

At present the polls are suggesting St Ives is too close to call, although the YouGov model has shown the gap closing and George now slightly in the lead. The bookies are less sure but nonetheless their odds against Andrew winning have shortened significantly from 7/2 against a week ago to 15/8 yesterday (meanwhile Dan Rogerson is stuck on 4/1). To win however, Andrew George has to convince the one in five voters in St Ives who are still leaning towards Labour’s Chris Drew to vote for him. The choice seems a clear one. Stick with a loyal Tory cheerleader for Theresa May with some very illiberal ideas or restore a Lib Dem MP who was one of their more rebellious MPs before 2015.

Andrew’s vulnerability still lies in the fact he’s tied to the rusty old tub of Liberal Democracy. That put paid to his chances last time around. Can he avoid going down again with the rest of the ship’s crew or will he thrown a lifebelt this time by local Labour voters? A pity he’s not a fully fledged independent but beggars in St Ives can’t be choosers.

Constituency review 2: Mid-Cornwall – Truro/Falmouth and St Austell/Newquay

The two mid-Cornwall constituencies are very different but at the same time deceptively similar. Different in that Truro & Falmouth was the only constituency to have voted Remain last year while St Austell & Newquay was the most inclined to Brexit. Different too in that Truro & Falmouth has the highest number of well-paid, public sector workers and the electorate with the highest qualifications. It’s also the one part of Cornwall which has benefited from globalization, although paying the price for this with mounting capacity issues and environmental pressures. Meanwhile, St Austell & Newquay has the lowest number of highly educated voters and economically has … well, Newquay.

But they’re also similar. Both have a solid bedrock Tory vote of near half the electorate on current predictions, but with some uncertainty about who’s in the best position to challenge the incumbent. Both have Tory MPs who might not be all they appear to be.

In St Austell & Newquay Steve Double comfortably won the seat in 2015 by over 8,000 votes. Part of his appeal lay in his evangelical religious background, attracting those who pray for a return of strong family values. That didn’t last too long though, as a year after the election Steve’s affair with his young case worker came to light, triggering much outrage and shock from some of his constituents.

Steve and friend

Nonetheless, this doesn’t seem to have harmed his chances. Quite the opposite in fact, as his support has grown faster than any of our Tory MPs if polls are to be believed. There may be a lesson here for those who believe in traditional family values. Or more likely he’s getting the benefit of the large Ukip vote (the highest in Cornwall) in St Austell & Newquay in 2015. With no Ukip candidate this time, these voters will most likely swallow any doubts and swing behind him.

Among the predictable platitudes, Steve Double is working to bring a spaceport to Newquay, handy for all those Martians who might fancy a holiday and snap up a second home on the coast while they’re about it. In similar science fiction mode, he promises us that all EU money will be replaced by Westminster. If you believe that, then you’re presumably already letting out your spare room via Airbnb to those same Martians.

Previous Lib Dem MP Stephen Gilbert is in a fight for second place but has zero to little chance of unseating Double. Gilbert’s campaign got off to a rocky start when he cocked up the date of the election, thus confusing the folk of St Austell & Newquay even more than usual. Then it was alleged he’d called the two thirds of voters in the constituency who’d voted for Brexit ‘fuckwits’ in a tweet just after last year’s referendum (in the bargain doing it from Greece, just to make the EU obsessives go really apeshit).

Gilbert, memorably described in 2015 by a miffed Steve Double as a ‘master of half-truths and misrepresentations’ is now desperately pleading for ‘tactical’ voting. This could be a joke, but he cites ‘independent analysis’ that shows that ‘voting Labour in St Austell & Newquay will lead to a Tory’. Which is a bit of an odd claim as voting Lib Dem in 2010 also led to a Tory, namely himself. His voting record in 2010-15 was in fact pretty indistinguishable from the Tories and he was even rumoured at one stage to be considering deserting the Lib Dems for the Tories.

In any case, the ‘independent analysis’ is no such thing. It’s a quick guess by TacticalVoting 2017 based purely on the results last time. Given that the pollsters are informing us that Labour’s Kevin Neil is vying with Gilbert for second place, with both at least 20 points behind the Tory, the blanket tactical voting zealots are merely succeeding in sowing even more confusion.

As they are in the other mid-Cornwall seat of Truro & Falmouth. Here, Labour’s Jayne Kirkham looks to have momentum (!) and be firmly established as the clear alternative to the sitting MP Sarah Newton, the thinking person’s Theresa May. The latest YouGov prediction has Kirkham a full 11 points ahead of the Lib Dems and an equal amount behind Newton. Yet, bizarrely, TacticalVoting 2017 is still ‘advising’ people to vote Lib Dem in Truro & Falmouth and thus waste their vote. The Labour surge in Truro & Falmouth (mainly the latter) comes despite a far more competent and convincing Lib Dem candidate than last time in the shape of local Truro councillor Rob Nolan.

During the last election, I wrote that Sarah Newton floated serenely above the political fray, living in an Alice in Wonderland world where Tories never lied and where cutting disability benefits was a shining example of ‘improving people’s lives’. Little has changed. She still utters vacuous nonsense at regular intervals and gives every impression of actually believing it. Yet somehow I can’t shake off the impression that, behind the bland Stepford-wife exterior, lurks something darker and far more menacing. Anyway, she looks to be the perfect Tory for this most middle class and academically qualified of Cornwall’s constituencies, one where most folk moan about the developer-led destruction of their environment but do little about it as long as they can get parked at Waitrose.

There are a couple of other candidates here. The Green Party’s Amanda Pennington should have been looking to capitalise on the student and heart-on-the-sleeve liberal vote in this constituency. But that’s been dashed by the Labour surge and the mindless rush to vote ‘tactically’ for the wrong candidate. Although, oddly for a Green candidate, she’s in favour of expanding Newquay airport, Amanda is worth considering as, realistically, Labour won’t win here. Or at least, not in this election.

A vote for the Greens would also be a good idea in order to outpoll Ukip’s sole candidate in Cornwall, Duncan Odgers. He promises to fight ‘for the rights of the electorate’ who of course now have their country (and ours) back. Worryingly however, Duncan appears to think Ukip’s Paul Nuttall is ‘agenda setting’. Those whom the Gods … etc. At least he appeared on the Sunday Politics show wearing a Cornish rugby shirt and advertising Tribute. Pity about the accent though.

In short, in both the mid-Cornwall constituencies the Tory is too far ahead to be seriously threatened. Calls for ‘tactical’ voting are misplaced and serve merely to confuse. They can be safely ignored as the real battle is to claim bragging rights as the best placed challenger at the next election.