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.

Corbyn’s Labour: delectation or distraction?

The unexpected personality cult that has developed around Jeremy Corbyn has both positive and negative aspects. Positively, it reflects a groundswell of support for a new kind of politics, more honest, more open. Many look forward to a politics that can root out the malign and corrupt, over-powerful ‘traditional’ influences, from the media, through corporate lobbyists to the City. Others wait impatiently for a politics that can confront the narrow economistic agenda of neoliberalism and the greed it feeds.

On the other hand, Corbynism is formless and vague, more a well-meaning yearning for a better world than a coherent strategy for change. Corbyn himself seems rooted in the 1980s left and has yet to convince he is capable of transforming the rusting hulk of the Labour Party into a streamlined vessel of radical change.

The jury has to remain out on the Labour Party’s capacity to act as the midwife for any ‘new move’ in British politics. While the party is inviting submissions on policy from people beyond its boundaries, there is little evidence as yet of a fundamental shift in its values. Meanwhile, the embittered rump of the parliamentary party have few alternatives to neoliberal economics or support for Trident, are lukewarm on devolution and appear to have little awareness of the issue of climate change and the implications it has for our addiction to fossil-fuelled ‘growth’.

From the outside, whether right or left, too many in the Labour Party still seem wedded to tribalist politics. They cling desperately to the delusion that Labour can wrest power away from the Tories alone, with no need to emerge from its bunker or engage in a radically new politics (as opposed to new policies). Many Labour folk appear to find it difficult to shake off an arrogant and/or condescending authoritarianism in their relations with progressive forces outside the party.

If the Labour Party can’t deliver then all that Corbynism offers is a massive distraction from the long-term struggle to remove the toxic Tories. Energies that could be directed into grassroots struggles or other parties will be sapped in years of internal Labour machine politics and internecine (and obscure) institutional wrangling that will be of absolutely no interest to the majority of voters, whose understanding of politics these days seems to have plumbed new depths.

Electorally, prospects do not look good for Labour. A number of factors, some external, some internal, suggest it faces an uphill battle to appeal to voters, even if Corbyn’s circle can overcome their vocal opponents within the party.

Externally, Labour will lose out from the regular boundary redistributions between elections that are now the norm, the last tired gasp of an electoral system that became unfit for purpose in the 1920s. Regular boundary changes will consolidate the Tories’ ability to transform 40% or less of the votes into massive parliamentary majorities. Strangely therefore, why is Labour so reluctant to make proportional representation a central part of its policy plank?

The structure of party competition also works against Labour. The Liberal Democrats are living evidence of the short-term memory of the British people as they recover from their traumatic coalition caper. As long as they offer a safe home for a soft protest vote, anti-Tory voters will be tempted into the meaningless charade of voting Lib Dem.

Third, the BBC and the press, even the purportedly liberal Guardian, are hell-bent on removing Corbyn and will go on encouraging Labour dissidents, while rubbishing their leader. Expect the current ‘hard left’ and ‘anti-semitic’ abuse to pale into nothing as soon as a real prospect of an election begins to appear on the horizon. Corbyn’s Labour can expect consistently biased media treatment and little opportunity to discuss its policy initiatives sensibly or rationally. So how does it intend to counter this?

And then we have the internal factors militating against Labour success. The first is the patent lack of party unity. The traditional, conservative power-brokers of the party are refusing to bow out gracefully and loath to give up the reins of power to activists at the grassroots. Egged on by their media chums, they’ll fight the internal war as long as it takes. While Labour dithers over whether it’s a socialist or a social democratic, or a centrist party in this way, voters will continue to be uncertain what they’re being asked to vote for.

In such a context they may well vote for the Lib Dems. They’ve already deserted en masse for the SNP in Scotland, And in England of course (and Wales and Cornwall) there’s also Ukip or another far right party. Corbyn’s relaxed attitude to population growth and immigration – he’s ‘unconcerned’ by the numbers – is unlikely to play well outside London and a few liberal cities. Many will see it as smug, the views of a comfortable metropolitan elite out of touch with the realities of everyday life for those who, rightly or wrongly, feel ‘left behind’ and powerless in the face of capitalist restructuring. Unless Corbyn’s Labour Party can come up with a credible (and progressive) alternative on immigration and population growth they’re leaving the field open for Ukip and similar parties.

In a context therefore of an antiquated electoral system in which non-Tory voters are scattered over a number of parties, intense media hostility, internal disunity and the presence of the soft alternative of the Lib Dems and the populist alternative of Ukip, the task of Labour seems formidable to say the least.

Its only chance is to transcend the old politics and embrace the zeitgeist of the new, opening out to others and seeking a progressive electoral alliance. An early test of this arrives in the shape of next year’s local elections, now not much more than six months off. In Cornwall particularly, Labour’s historic weakness means a Labour vote is often wasted and merely serves to split the opposition to the Tories. Is there any sign that Labour is looking to join a progressive alliance, opening out to parties such as MK or the Greens, or even to elements among the Liberal Democrats, in order to maximise the anti-Tory potential in next May’s elections? Or will it stick with its old, familiar, tribalist instincts?

The strange re-birth of Liberal (Democratic) Cornwall 6: Should we trust the Lib Dems again?

The accumulated evidence of the last few blogs suggests that on the issues of devonwall, the Cornish Assembly, the cross-border constituency and housing growth, the Liberal Democrats have been all over the shop. Some consistently support devolution or condemn the transformation of Cornwall in the interests of wealthier migrants from south east England. Others do not. While, at some times, the rhetoric of Lib Dem manifestos supports a Cornish Assembly, at other times their actions totally bely this. Or at one level (parliamentary or council) Lib Dems might favour one course of action and at the other they favour the opposite.

It’s enough to make the average voter dizzy. Moreover, it’s difficult to know whether this chaotic diversity is the result of naivety and hopeless incompetency on the one hand, or deliberate disingenuity on the other. Because the Janus-faces of the Lib Dems serve a very useful purpose. It means they can avoid clear policy positions, running with the hares and with the hounds. They also serve a useful function for the powers that be. As long as the Lib Dems act as the outlet for pro-Cornish opinion, they render that opinion harmless.

Can Cornish Lib Dems overcome their past?
Can Cornish Lib Dems overcome their past?

At present, Lib Dems are making a lot of noise in opposition to Tory policies on the cross-border constituency or devolution. But only a few years ago when in coalition they were colluding in those same policies. Why should we believe them now? And which Lib Dems do we believe anyway? We’re even hearing the ludicrous argument that it was the Lib Dems who somehow stopped the Devonwall constituency (having previously effectively voted for it) before the last election by voting against going ahead with the boundary changes. No, Clegg and co. only pulled back from this because his proposed ‘reforms’ of the House of Lords were being scuppered by the Tories. It was nothing at all to do with the devonwall constituency.

It’s good that the Lib Dems are now opposing the Devonwall constituency. But we’ve been here several times before. The fact is that we can’t trust them to deliver; they’ve had enough opportunities to defend Cornwall and its people in the past and translate their windy rhetoric into matching deeds. Why should we give them another chance? Until there is evidence that Lib Dems in Cornwall can become more than a toothless regional branch of a party that has no clear sense of direction, a vote for them is ultimately a wasted vote. We really cannot afford to go on propping them up and prolonging our agony in this way.

Indeed, even if you’re willing to give the Lib Dems in Cornwall yet another chance and if you put more faith in their promises than their record and are less jaded and cynical than I am, the rational option is not to vote for them. To keep them on the right path, it’s essential to ensure they’re afraid of losing support to a party that’s a bit more radical on Cornish devolution, devonwall and border-blurring. Only by steady pressure from more consistent campaigners for Cornish communities, can the Lib Dems be kept on the path of righteousness. Their fear of being outflanked on Cornish issues is our one hope, in the absence of the new democratic settlement that they don’t appear to seek.

The strange re-birth of Liberal (Democratic) Cornwall 5: Lib Dems and lifestyle Cornwall

They've been fighting for a fair deal for a long time now - and we're still waiting
They’ve been fighting for a fair deal for a long time now – and we’re still waiting

Liberal Democrats have over the years been in a position to protect Cornwall from the consequences of ongoing population growth and the parallel gentrification of the place, fuelled by massive housebuilding in order to accommodate (and encourage) in-migration mainly from the south east of England. Yet, when the Lib Dems were in control of Cornwall County Council, they steadfastly refused to force their officers to construct a strong case for fairer treatment for Cornwall. This was despite growth rates three times higher than those of England and four times those of Wales since the 1960s, despite the fact that housebuilding in Cornwall runs around 50% higher in relation to its resident population than in England, despite the reality that we’re losing our countryside at a relatively faster rate than in England, and despite the blindingly obvious conclusion that continuing such rates of growth is unsustainable.

While some Lib Dem councillors, such as Rob Nolan in Truro or Mario Fonk at Penzance have to their credit persistently opposed the imposition of unnecessary housing on Cornwall, others have equally consistently favoured excessive developer-led housing and population growth. For example, in Bodmin Lib Dem councillors have been to the fore in demanding massive housing growth, which could see the town expand by as much as 60% in just 20 years.

In addition, Dan Rogerson, ex-MP for North Cornwall, has admitted (on Facebook, 17 Mar 2016), that he has never made a public statement condemning the excessive housing targets recently adopted by Cornwall Council. In contrast, his colleague Andrew George regularly claimed the planning laws of his own government were akin to a developers’ charter, driven by greed, not need, and called for a much-reduced housing target.

So which do you get when you vote Lib Dem, the Lib Dem who favours manic housing growth or the Lib Dem who recognises its disastrous impact on our culture, landscape, environment and wildlife? The truth is that the Lib Dems are not so much a political party with credible policy positions but a collection of Independents masquerading under a party label.