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

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.

Pollsters predict another Lib Dem wipeout in Cornwall

Typical. On the very day I confidently pronounced that Labour didn’t have a hope in hell of winning next week’s election, based on polling evidence, YouGov launched its election prediction model with the shock news that we’re heading for a hung Parliament and Tory losses. Their model also provides the first relatively solid evidence for voting intentions in Cornwall (although based on a state-wide methodology).

As of today YouGov is predicting four likely Conservative wins in Cornwall and two safe Tory constituencies. In every seat, the Tories are comfortably ahead by more than ten points. There is however a wide margin of error in YouGov’s estimates, as they admit. Thus on a good day, they’re suggesting that the Lib Dem vote in St Ives could be as high as 41% (an increase of 8% on 2015). But on a bad day for the Lib Dems it could slump as low as 25%. And, given that Derek Thomas’s equivalent range at the 95% confidence level is 38-51% Andrew George needs a very good day to sneak past him.

Here are the current details of YouGov’s predictions for Cornwall (estimated % of support and change on 2015).

St Ives Camborne Truro St Austell North South East
Con 45 (+7) 50 (+10) 45 (+1) 50 (+10) 47 (+2) 56 (+5)
Lib Dem 33 (nc) 11 (-1) 19 (+2) 23 (-1) 33 (+2) 21 (+4)
Labr 23 (+14) 37 (+12) 28 (+13) 27 (+17) 17 (+12) 20 (+11)
Green 3 (-3) 4 (-5) 3 (-2)
Ukip 5 (-7)
May gets out and meets her adoring public in Helston.

The big surprise has to be the rise in the Labour vote, which is very bad news indeed for Lib Dem strategists hoping to squeeze that vote. In fact, in Truro & Falmouth and St Austell & Newquay YouGov is suggesting that Labour will come second and even in South East Cornwall, it’s a very close thing, with Lib Dems and Labour tied on around 20% each. Is this really likely? It’s perhaps possible in Truro & Falmouth, where Labour are well organised in Falmouth and Penryn. It’s difficult to imagine an improvement of 17% in the Labour vote in St Austell & Newquay. And it would be a historic first and a symbolic end to Cornish Liberalism if Labour were to edge out the Lib Dems in the South East.

Nonetheless, however sceptical we might remain and however much weight we might give to the ‘local factors’ that YouGov ignore, there are implications here for those being swayed by the calls to vote ‘tactically’. Keep an eye on YouGov’s model, which they tell us will be updated daily. Things may yet change radically in the week left before the election. If you’re considering your postal vote I should hold off until the last moment possible.

Moreover, there’s another far less scientific ‘poll’ that might give a little more credibility to YouGov’s predictions for Cornwall. More on that tomorrow.

Confessions of a bored psephologist

Is it just me, or is this general election the most tedious on record? Perhaps I’m getting jaded. Maybe the meaningless of the electoral ritual, after which the government always wins, is finally getting to me. But it’s proving difficult to get enthused, or even engaged.

Two weeks before polling day and we’ve had just one leaflet through the door from our complacent Tory MP, grinning like a Cheshire cat at the prospect of an easy return. Things on the streets seem eerily subdued, as if the people are sheep-walking to the inevitable Tory victory. Switch on the TV news and all we find is the BBC transformed into an extended Conservative Party Political Broadcast, wheeling out any old right-wing Labour has-been to fill a spare slot to have a go at that evil softie Corbyn.

As the BBC subtly hammers home the implicit contrast with the ‘strong and stable’ prime ministerial quality of the TMaybot, the only thing of interest left is how big a majority it’ll be. Will it qualify as a landslide? Will Labour survive? Will Tony Blair rise from the dead to reinforce belief in globalisation and greed?

On the right ex-Ukip voters appear stubbornly determined to punish Theresa May by ensuring she sees out the brexit negotiations and ultimately becomes the most reviled British prime minister ever. ‘Strong and stable’ fools nobody but the starry-eyed forelock-tugger.

Meanwhile, in the centre, as the likelihood of a Tory Government passes beyond inevitable, political discourse goes little further than a near hysterical call to the faithful to vote ‘tactically’. No matter whether it makes little psephological sense and ignores the numbers. No matter who the candidates are. No matter if it’s a blatant cover for tribalism or not. Just ‘stop the Tory’! I said ‘STOP THE TORY’!!

In Cornwall things are even more febrile. The number of candidates in this election is – at an average of four per constituency – the lowest since 1987. Furthermore, it’s easily the lowest of all the nations of the UK. In two constituencies the choice is confined just to the three old Westminster parties. Somehow, I can’t get that riveted by the prospect of a return to the 1950s and the politics of nostalgic deference. We seem to be drifting hopelessly towards a Gilbert and Sullivanesque political mind-set where

‘every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!’

It’s just getting altogether too weird. Recently we saw the Tories win the Cornwall Council elections, gaining 15 seats in the process. But then the same old coalition of incompetents as before – Lib Dems and Independents – end up in theoretical control of the Council, despite losing a combined seven councillors. The winners came second and third, the losers came first. Can we hope the general election gives us the same result please?

Cornwall Council elections: no change in prospect

Tomorrow, we’ll vote in the local elections. Or some of us. Those with postal votes will already have. Most people won’t bother. Others will vote along tribal party lines, not knowing or caring what their preferred party is actually saying about the future of Cornwall. And for the most part, they’re not saying that much. Meanwhile the majority of voters are mired in collective resignation.

Few candidates seem aware of Cornwall’s recent past

Whoever comes out of tomorrow’s elections with the largest number of councillors – Tories, Lib Dems or Independents – it matters little. We can be 100% certain that the devoloper-led coalition of chaos that drives Cornwall Council’s unsustainable growth strategy will still be in charge. The Charter for Cornwall campaign was a last-ditch effort to make the future of Cornwall an election issue. It’s fair to say it was a flop.

The Charter got the explicit support of around 250 individuals and organisations, including a handful of parish and town councils. But most parish and town councils ignored its call for a more balanced, sustainable, less developer-led strategy for Cornwall. Moreover, the hoped-for snowballing of support never really took off. Some early publicity was gained but then the announcement of a general election diverted attention from the ongoing transformation of Cornwall.

Around 75 of Cornwall’s 448 candidates at tomorrow’s election did sign up to the Charter pledges, and if you’re interested you can find out their stances here. But we might be forgiven if we ask how many seriously care about the issues of environmental degradation, unsustainable population growth or colonialism in Cornwall. By the evidence of their election leaflets not many. And of that 75, only a dozen or so took the next step and posted something on the Charter website.

Few candidates are demanding some really fair treatment for the Cornish

Moreover, 348 of the 448 candidates couldn’t even be bothered to reply to the politely worded request asking them if they supported the pledges or not. This was a level of boorish rudeness that hardly augers well for the responsiveness of the next Council. Almost 90% of Tory and Lib Dem candidates and almost 80% of Independents and Labour candidates didn’t stir themselves to respond. Around a third of Ukip candidates did, half of the Greens and almost all MK candidates.

What also struck the campaigners was the political illiteracy of many candidates, who seemed to have little clue about how the political system works, let alone grasp the current details of housing and planning policy. Early on one candidate asked if supporting the Charter would mean he was ‘being party political’. Later, it turned out he was a candidate for that apolitical organisation, the Conservative Party.

The most hostile reaction came from some Liberal Democrat candidates. Although one or two Lib Dems have an excellent record of opposing speculative housing and signed up with no qualms, others with equally sound records got extremely defensive when asked to commit themselves in future to oppose the excessive housing target they and the Government have lumbered us with. It’s clear that most Lib Dems are now lining up behind the 52,500 target. Worse, they’re refusing to commit themselves to lowering it in future, thus locking Cornwall into a spiral of unsustainable housing and population growth.

One Lib Dem candidate, in a bizarre example of petty tribalism, told campaigners that one reason she couldn’t sign up to the pledges was because they were ‘not something I or my party have come up with.’ Another sitting councillor aggressively threatened to make a fairly innocuous email exchange ‘public which I feel will harm your campaign more than my election prospects’, unless the Charter group agreed to remove a statement of fact that she couldn’t sign up to the four pledges. They called her bluff. She backed off.

The Tories are no better. All they say is ‘we understand the need for more homes for local people’, while saying nothing about all the housing that is patently not for local people. This is the local equivalent of the robotic parroting of ‘strong and stable’ that we’re seeing at the UK level. It’s basically meaningless drivel. Meanwhile most Independents seem to think they’re fighting a parish council election. They’re about as likely ever to come up with strategic policies for Cornwall’s voters are of giving up electing Tories.

Not much evidence of innovative policies to reduce the number of 2nd (and 3rd, and 4th) ‘homes’

In short, the vast majority of Cornwall’s candidates are ignoring the big issues facing Cornwall. The fact that on current trends our population will be nudging a million by the end of the century doesn’t seem to concern them. Any vision of the kind of Cornwall we should be building, any alternative to developer-led planning, any practical policies that might reverse the growth fetish of Cornwall Council and protect our heritage are, for most centrist and centralist politicians, just absent.

So, whoever you vote for, the planners and developers will still effectively control our future. Until a well-focused and better-organised grassroots opposition emerges, sadly this election is likely to make very little difference to Cornwall’s steady drift into post-democracy. A dumbed-down, resigned electorate will continue to get the representatives it deserves.

Council nominations close: turning back to tradition in post-Brexit Cornwall?

Nominations are now closed for the elections on May 4th. The number of candidates is a little down on the last elections in 2013, 448 this time compared with 478 last. This may reflect a growing disillusion with party politics, or a realisation that being a Cornwall Councillor these days is a full-time and thankless job.

The traditional parties – the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives – have re-asserted their hegemony over the local political scene, at least in terms of candidates. Last time these two parties accounted for 41% of all candidates, but now they comprise a majority of 54%. For the first time the Lib Dems have managed to offer a candidate in every ward, as they seek to take overall control, hoping that the memory of their disastrous participation in the Cameron/Clegg coalition has proved to be very short.

Meanwhile, the Tories have also succeeded in mounting a challenge in all but four of the 123 wards. Given that both these parties were desperately calling on anyone and everyone to become a candidate for them as recently as last week on their various websites, we might be seeing quantity at the expense of quality here. It’s to be hoped that these candidates have the ability to think critically in what is effectively an officer-run council and not become mere voting fodder.

Independents are present in 69 wards this time, slightly fewer than the 71 in 2013, while the total number of Independent candidates has slipped a little.

The self-styled ‘progressive’ parties – MK, the Greens and Labour – have all struggled to match their effort last time around. All three are putting forward fewer candidates than in 2013. Labour has 58, the Greens 21 and MK 19. Interestingly, while Labour has re-entered east Cornwall, which was a no-go zone for them last time, potentially winnable seats in the Camborne-Pool area have been left uncontested by them. Not much sign of the long-awaited ‘progressive alliance’ either, as Labour oppose the sitting Green councillor in St Ives and an MK councillor at Callington. Indeed, two thirds of the Green Party candidates are being opposed by Labour, while almost half the MK candidates also have Labour opponents keen to split any progressive vote that might exist.

The most dramatic change involves Ukip. This party is only putting forward 21 candidates this year, compared with 76 four years ago. Camborne and Four Lanes, which returned half of the six successful candidates in 2013 is now a Ukip-free zone. Has the populist bubble burst now that the Tories have stolen their clothes, Brexit is won, and we seem to be returning rapidly to the 1950s?

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) makes its first electoral intervention in Cornwall, offering the masses at St Austell and Fowey a couple of candidates. And the Liberal Party refuses to curl up and die in Cornwall, in fact doubling its challenge from one candidate to two.

The case of the mysteriously disappearing party

In 2013 Ukip won six seats on Cornwall Council. This made it the fifth largest political group, ahead of MK. Yet, since then the six have shrunk to a less magnificent one and Ukip slipped to rank as the sixth largest group, tied with the single Green councillor. Before and after losing the Stoke Central by-election the post-Farage Ukip’s vote at local by-elections has been slowly haemorrhaging. However, the Ukip bubble in Cornwall began deflating well before the party’s more recent post-Brexit problems.

A year after the 2013 breakthrough Ukip councillor Michael Keogh at Mabe resigned, citing ‘personal circumstances’. He was followed in March 2015 by Viv Lewis at Camborne Treswithian. A retired bus driver and one of the triumvirate of Hayle-based Ukip councillors elected for wards in Camborne and Four Lanes, Viv, now deceased, was 82 years old when elected. His success no doubt came as a great surprise to him.

Councillor Lewis was followed within months by his fellow Camborne councillor Harry Blakeley. Harry, originally from Kent before running a holiday park in Cornwall, gave ill-health as the reason for his departure in June 2015. But he’d been involved in some curious shenanigans and associated wrangling with fellow Ukip members over his sponsorship of a young Kipper who turned out to have interesting views and connections to the BNP.

In April 2016 two of the remaining three Ukip councillors also departed for pastures new. At Four Lanes Derek Elliott, one of the more effective Ukip members in the west, went, accusing councillors of voting like sheep and presiding over a ‘public sector shambles’. At the same time Mark Hicks at Newquay Treviglas took the opportunity to quit as well, ‘for personal reasons’. Councillor Hicks was a rarity among Ukip councillors, having been born and brought up in Cornwall. However, he was allegedly, and perhaps wisely, seldom present at Ukip gatherings.

Which leaves just lonely Steph McWilliam carrying the flag for Ukip from her base in rural east Cornwall on the banks of the Lynher.

It will be interesting to see how many Ukip candidates offer themselves for election in May. In 2013 they contested the majority (76 of 123) of the seats. It will also be of interest to see if any successful candidates turn out to have greater staying power than the last lot. You might have thought the poor record of Ukip’s elected representatives would make voters think twice before putting a cross by their name. On the other hand the average Ukip voter probably has little idea how they’ve performed or particular desire to find out.

Even more worrying for Ukip must be their feeble performance at the five by-elections in the seats they were theoretically defending. Losing all of them, the best they’ve managed is to come third. No candidate at all could be found for two of the contests. At the most recent by-election they fought, at Four Lanes, their man came bottom, sixth out of six.

Nonetheless, the protest vote that they garnered in 2013 has hardly gone away but simmers resentfully in dark corners of the land. The open question is where that 24% of the mean vote might flow come May. It may surge back to Ukip. Yet there’s no reason such voters should always opt for conservative populism. At recent by-elections it’s been picked up the Liberal Democrats, the traditional safe home for the aimless and disaffected. But it could be up for grabs in a Cornwall-wide election.