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

Forward, together? Or backward, to the 19th century?

Hidden away in the small print of the Conservative manifesto on page 43 is a promise to get rid of the detested alternative vote used for mayoral elections and replace it with the good old, best in the world, system of first past the post. This is in addition to an explicit Tory promise to stick with FPTP for general elections and continue with the boundary review to slash the number of parliamentary seats to 600, while obliterating the odd 1,000 year old administrative boundary in the process. The Tories can now sniff the real possibility, on the back of Brexit, of reinforcing their hold on the political levers and consolidating it for the foreseeable future.

One of the less predictable results (or perhaps not) of calling a general election in the middle of local elections was a general boost in the turnout, as party loyalists woke up and hurried out to vote. Turnout rose across the UK, to the benefit of the old parties and particularly the Tories, as folk seemed under the misapprehension they were voting for that strong and stable Mother May and not some halfwit standing for the council. Cornwall was no exception. Turnout this year jumped from 32.7% in 2013 to 39.7%.

Even then, under our laughably antiquated voting system, not one councillor was elected with more than half the votes of the registered electorate. In fact only four out of 122 managed to get the support of more than one in three of their electorate. Another 18 won more than one in four. Many more – 31 – took their ward with the votes of fewer than one in seven electors. Three of these won with less than one in ten. And at Camborne Trelowarren, where only six votes separated Tory, Labour and MK, the Tory sneaked in with a massive 5.8% of the registered voters of the ward bothering to vote for him. Meanwhile, the average councillor won his or her seat with the support of just 19.9% of the electorate.

As turnout was artificially boosted this time, even this feeble level of legitimacy for our councillors was better than in 2013. Then the mean level of support was 15.3%. In that election no councillor was elected with the votes of more than a third of their electors and only six managed to secure more than a quarter. Sixty, or almost half, were elected by fewer than one in seven in their wards and 22 of those with less than 10% of registered electors.

Instead of looking to make elections more meaningful, increase involvement and reinvigorate democracy, the Tories are determined to set this voting system in concrete. In doing so they can guarantee taking us back to the future and further down the post-democratic road. In a neo-liberal economy where their chums benefit massively for asset speculation, genuine democracy has become an irrelevance. They don’t want an informed electorate – just get on with the sodding shopping and leave the decision-making to us, to the quangos, to the corporations, to the traditional ruling class, while we add a bit of condescending paternalism to keep all you plebs content.

Take back your country? You must be having a laugh.

Cornwall’s election: all change on the right, not much elsewhere

There’s been no little panic outside the Conservative Party over the results of the local elections on May 4th. Suddenly, a Tory clean sweep in Cornwall seems very much on the cards again. But is it?

Superficially, this was a very good election for the Tories. They gained 15 seats and their mean vote rose by 7.5% over 2013. It was even a couple of points higher than in 2009, although they won four fewer seats this time than then. Moreover, as usual, their seat haul benefited from the vagaries of an unpredictable, Victorian voting system. In a proportional system they would still have gained, but got more like 38 seats rather than the 46 they ended up with.

Cornwall Council election 2017 seats under FPTP and PR (d’Hondt system)

Actual result PR result
Con 46 38
Lib Dem 37 32
Ind 30 34
Labour 5 11
MK 4 6
Greens 0 2

That said, they scored some notable successes in areas that should be difficult territory for them. In Camborne’s five wards they won 45.6% of the vote (and four of the five seats). In the St Austell district they stole wards such as St Blazey, Par, St Stephen, Bugle and Mount Charles. This was partly due to the scattering of the opposition vote but not entirely. It seems that the more working class (and Cornish) wards in Cornwall were not immune from the brexit British nationalist dogwhistle.

Overall, Cornish voters split three ways. The Tories got 35.3% of those who voted, Liberal Democrats picked up 29.7%, while Independents and other parties got 35%. So, despite breaking through in some urban areas, the Tories were still far from securing a majority of the votes, even in this ‘landslide’ year.

The other party gaining from the first past the post electoral system was the Lib Dems. However, their vote slipped back slightly from the levels of 2013 and 2009, even though they gained one seat and now have 37 (which will probably become 38 after the Bodmin by-election in June). Their tactics of parachuting paper candidates backfired badly with many receiving a derisory vote. In contrast, the vote for sitting Lib Dem councillors with name recognition held up well. (Interestingly, this bore no discernible relationship to their actual record as councillors, which varied widely). The attraction of the party label proved to be minimal.

The Lib Dems did best in North Cornwall in terms of seats, which must buoy them up there for their general election challenge, even though the personal vote at that level is less important than locally. It remains to be seen whether they can counter the daily drip-feed Tory party political broadcast that the BBC seems to have been turned into.

You’re unlikely to have read this anywhere in the mainstream press but Labour actually performed relatively well in Cornwall when compared with its abysmal showing in 2009 and even its recovery year in 2013. Its mean vote was up a couple of points, although this wasn’t reflected in terms of seats, where it lost three and now has five. But it’s not easy to make a direct comparison with past elections as Labour contests fewer than half the seats and the geography of their contestation varies. They also had fewer paper candidates this time.

MK narrowly failed (by six votes in Camborne Trelowarren) to match Labour in terms of seats. Meanwhile, its overall mean vote fell back slightly, despite fewer candidates this time. Nevertheless, it retained its four seats (although two of them were a bit close for comfort) despite the general election effect. This latter was also visible outside Cornwall, where there was a noticeable shift in the local elections back to the old centr(al)ist parties as tribal loyalties kicked in. It was no doubt a factor in the Independents in Cornwall losing seven seats and falling back to 30.

MK’s organisational weakness became more apparent after the local elections in its inability to field a candidate in the general election. But at least it has some councillors, which can’t be said for the Greens or Ukip, which both lost their sole representatives on Cornwall Council.

The Green mean vote held up but flatlined, with no sign of any major breakthrough. The ‘surge’ in St Ives is now old history and the Greens were unable to pick up votes despite the supposed unpopularity of Labour, now in the hands of ‘marxist saboteurs’ (like Tim Dwelly and Candy Atherton?!) The real change occurred on the far right as the Ukip mean vote went into meltdown. This was clearly associated to some extent with the rise in the Tory vote. It appears that Ukip’s function turns out to have been to act as a bridge from other parties to the Tories.

Are there any lessons here for the general election? Not many. In Cornwall the share of the vote for Independents is much higher, only the Tories and Lib Dems contest all (or virtually all) seats and turnout is less than half what we can expect next month, all of which make the local elections a poor predictor of voting behaviour in the general election. However, sufficient numbers of that 35% or so who take enough interest in politics to vote in the locals were swayed by the ‘strong and stable’ mantra to give the Tories a clear lead. Therefore it looks likely that the third who only bother to turn out for a general election will be even less able to look beyond the Tory soundbites and the personality politics they thrive on. On the basis of the local results we shouldn’t write off a second Tory clean sweep in Cornwall.

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.

Are Cornish folk over-represented? What size should Cornwall Council be?

(This an extended version of a submission to be sent to the Local Government Boundary Commission, which is reviewing electoral arrangements for Cornwall Council, to be implemented in 2021)

The myth
A myth haunts the corridors of south-west media outlets. It’s one that many politicians and journalists have periodically fostered over the past seven years since the abolition of the district tier of local government in Cornwall. The myth is that Cornwall has too many councillors. When comparison is made with governing institutions in other places the implication is that we have too many elected representatives and that the Cornish voter is somehow over-represented compared to those other places, with a vast train of elected hangers-on leeching off the public purse.

On closer inspection the myth turns out to be nonsense. Those transmitting it are either deliberately seeking to reduce the level of democratic representation in Cornwall, are utterly ignorant about the way local government works in the UK or are confusing the quantity of representatives with the quality of representation.

The former BBC journalist Graham Smith had a particular bee in his bonnet about the number of councillors in Cornwall. In 2010 he told us that Cornwall Council had ‘ten times as many councillors per head of population as Scotland and Wales have AMs and MSPs’. In a similar vein, the Western Morning News in 2011 was pointing out that Cornwall Council was ‘twice the size of the Welsh Assembly [actually it’s three times], despite having far less power’. Not content with that, the newspaper, in a display of confusion that exceeded even its own high standards in that regard, went on to compare Cornwall Council with Devon County Council which at the time had 62 councillors, comparing this number with Cornwall’s 123.

This Tory leaning newspaper was backed up by Labour’s sole Cornwall Councillor, Jude Robinson, who thought that the number of councillors could be shrunk by 20%, or around 25. Tory MP George Eustice also went on record as saying in 2012 that Cornwall Council was too large and should ‘consider cutting the number of councillors’. Meanwhile, the Lib Dem group leader at the time, Jeremy Rowe, asked ‘Is the Council bloated?’ and replied ‘I think so’.

The facts
It is the case that Cornwall Council is one of the largest local authorities in the UK. Only the unitary authorities of County Durham, at 126 councillors, and Birmingham, with 120, are of similar size. Yet comparisons with the Welsh Assembly or Devon County Council are absurd and completely miss the point. In Wales there is a tier of unitary local government underneath the regional level of the Assembly. Most of Devon (outside Plymouth and Torbay) retains two tiers of local government. In fact in both Wales and Devon, there are 1,960 adults for every councillor. In Cornwall there are 3,580. Cornwall Council is a local government body and should be compared with local government, not with regional assemblies, of which we have none.

Let’s go beyond the myth for a moment and compare local and regional government representation in Cornwall with that of other places at four different levels, national, county, local authority and unitary authority.

1) National comparisons
The Cornish are recognised as a national minority in the UK, along with the Scots, Welsh, Irish and other groups, under the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, which the Government signed up to in 2014. Its levels of representation must logically therefore be compared with those other nations.

Table 1: National levels of local and regional government representation

Councillors Adults per councillor (2014) Devolved institution members Adults per total sub-state elected representatives
Cornwall 123 3,581 0 3,581
England 17,632 2,398 25 2,395
Northern Ireland 462 3,046 108 2,469
Scotland 1,222 3,531 129 3,194
Wales 1,254 1,964 40 1,903

Even if we restrict our attention to the local government level, we can see that in Cornwall there are fewer elected representatives in relation to population than in any other country in the UK. It will be noted that this is the case even in Northern Ireland, where a process of local government reform was completed in 2015 that reduced the number of local authorities from 26 to 11. Only councillors in Scotland represent a similar number of voters as in Cornwall. But Scotland also has a Parliament. If we take into account the devolved institutions at regional/national level then the disparities between the other Celtic countries and Cornwall widen.

2) County comparisons
Uniquely among the UK’s national minorities the Cornish are administered only within a county structure and Cornwall Council is a local government body. The level of representation in Cornwall can be compared with the 1973 base counties of England and Wales in the map below.

Map 1: Number of adults per cllr (County areas)

voters per cllr 2014

Most county areas have more councillors in relation to their resident population than does Cornwall. Moreover, only in the three metropolitan counties of the West Midlands, South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire, plus the rural county of Northumberland do we find fewer councillors in relation to population. Even in Greater London, the number of adults per councillor, at 3,510, is slightly below that of Cornwall, even though the population of London has been rising faster than elsewhere in recent years.

 

3) Local authority comparisons
If we compare all local authorities (at district and unitary level) with Cornwall, we find that in England 41 (13%) have more adults per councillor than Cornwall while 281 or 87% have fewer. In Wales, only Cardiff has fewer councillors per head of population. By the criterion of quantitative representation therefore Cornish citizens are in the top sextile of the least represented.

4) Unitary authorities
Areas of two-tier local government in England might be expected to have better levels of representation than Cornwall. But if we restrict the comparison to other unitary local government authorities we find that in Wales 21 of 22 have more councillors per electorate. In England more than 70% of unitary authorities have fewer voters per councillor than Cornwall, while even in London more boroughs have a better rate than Cornwall than a worse one.

Table 2: Number of adults per councillor, unitary authorities 2014

Number of unitary authorities More adults pre councillor than Cornwall Fewer adults per councillor than Cornwall
London 32 15 17
England 89 25 64
Wales 22 1 22

Here’s a list of those English unitaries with a higher number of adults per elected representative than Cornwall. I’ve also added their population density.

Table 3: Unitary authorities outside London with higher number of adults per councillor than Cornwall

Adults per councillor Persons per hectare
Cornwall 3,580 1.51
East Cheshire 3,650 3.21
Plymouth 3,680 31.00
Cardiff 3,750 23.70
Derby 3,800 32.35
Northumberland 3,820 0.62
Wirral 3,830 12.52
Medway 3,840 10.18
Wiltshire 3,870 1.48
Portsmouth 3,950 34.76
East Riding 4,090 1.35
Southampton 4,100 43.50
Wakefield 4,160 9.79
Manchester 4,220 44.98
Brighton 4,260 32.62
Liverpool 4,260 35.43
Bradford 4,320 14.41
Doncaster 4,350 5.35
Stoke 4,430 26.86
Nottingham 4,530 42.12
Leicester 4,760 46.04
Kirklees 4,830 10.55
Coventry 4,870 34.21
Bristol 5,010 18.80
Sheffield 5,350 15.32
Leeds 6,120 13.89
Birmingham 6,830 41.13

It will be seen that virtually all those authorities with fewer elected representatives in relation to population than Cornwall are urban. Only three rural authorities have a higher number of voters per councillor than Cornwall – Wiltshire, East Riding and Northumberland. Furthermore, if we focus on the nine unitary authorities in England with a population density similar to that of Cornwall (less than 3 persons per hectare) the median number of adults per councillor is 3,368, compared with 3,581 in Cornwall. The lowest is found in Rutland with only 1,167 and the highest in the East Riding, at 4,089. If the size of the unitary authority in Cornwall was set at the East Riding level we would still have 108 councillors; at the Rutland level we’d have 377! At the median level we would be looking at 131 councillors.

The conclusion therefore is that Cornwall is not that far out of line with similar rural unitary authorities in England in terms of the size of the democratic element of its local government. All these of course have far fewer representatives in relation to population than do the remaining two-tier rural districts (and even the majority of urban unitary single-tier authorities). In addition, in comparison with Wales, we have very many fewer councillors.

The Context
Technical issues surrounding the size of Cornwall Council must be put into their context. Cornwall has been at the cutting edge of the quiet reformation of local government that is accompanying the neoliberal political consensus. Neoliberalism does not value democracy, which it assesses in simple terms of costs, while transferring functions (and assets) from the public to the private sector (see Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, The New Way of the World: On neoliberal society, Verso, London, 2013. See also Cornish devolution and neo-liberalism). As part of the neoliberal project, the size of local authorities is being gradually whittled down by the Local Government Boundary Commission (LGBC).

While Cornwall is not the only territory bearing the brunt of this process (other rural areas in the north-east of England and Wiltshire have also experienced it), this is the context for central government taking the opportunity of the so-called ‘devolution deal’ with Cornwall Council in July 2015 to demand a council boundary review. This was bluntly ‘expected to reduce the number of local councillors’. Cornwall’s democratic deficit in terms of elected representatives in relation to voters is set to become even greater if the LGBC heeds this command and allows the Government to suborn their independence in this blatant way.

Any further reduction in the number of elected representatives in Cornwall will be especially stark when we note that recent boundary reviews for Devon County Council and Dorset County Council made little change to council size. In Devon numbers were cut by two, to 60, while in Dorset the number of councillors has unusually been increased, by one to 46. Other county council boundary reviews since the last round of elections in 2013 are

  • Kent – cut by 3 to 81
  • Hertfordshire – increased by 1 to 78
  • Cambridgeshire – cut by 8 to 61
  • Leicestershire – no change
  • Warwickshire – cut by 5 to 57
  • Nottinghamshire – cut by 1 to 66
  • Lancashire – no change

If these are any sort of precedent then we might expect the Boundary Commission to cut the number of councillors in Cornwall merely by two or three.

Cornwall’s double democratic deficit
At the same time it would be naive not to recognise that we have a deficit of representation in Cornwall or admit that Cornwall Council has come under severe criticism. However, while the authority itself may arguably not be fit for purpose, it has yet to be proven that this relates somehow to the number of elected representatives it contains. What we can say is that, contrary to media impressions, as we have seen above the territory is one of the least well represented in the UK in terms of pure numbers of elected representatives in relation to the electorate.

Moreover, we also have a deficit of electoral opportunity. Put simply, opportunities to vote for representatives – a key factor in the health of political parties and the vibrancy of the democratic system – are in Cornwall among the lowest in the UK (and after Brexit even lower). Table 4 below shows the number of elections to be expected in each 20 year cycle for the various types of local government territory in England, Wales and Cornwall.

Table 4: Elections in a 20 year cycle

Local Regional General Total
All-out unitary 5 0 4 9
All-out two tier 10 0 4 14
London 5 5 4 14
Scotland & Wales 5 5 4 14
Metropolitan 15 0 4 19
Two tier by halves 15 0 4 19
Two tier by thirds 20 0 4 24

Bridging the democratic deficit
As we have seen, Cornish voters are among the least well represented in the UK either in terms of number of elected representatives per head or opportunities to vote. One key factor in Cornwall’s double deficit is institutional. It lies in the abolition of a tier of local government and its amalgamation into a unitary local authority in 2009 by the Labour Government with the support of a Liberal Democratic County Council. This experiment, because of the size of the territory, has resulted in a large and apparently unwieldy institution where lines of democratic accountability are blurred and levels of responsiveness to local communities are widely found wanting. In this sense, it can indeed be accused of being ‘bloated’.

With the advantage of hindsight, we can see that occupying the Cornish territorial level with a local government body dealt the prospects of a devolved strategic regional assembly based on the national region of Cornwall a formidable blow. Despite the abolition of the County Council it paradoxically reinforced Cornwall’s status as a county, a major factor in the inability of central government to understand or accommodate Cornwall’s unique heritage and claims to devolution. The decision to establish a unitary authority was seriously flawed. It turned out to be another policy folly, similar to the preference for Devon and Cornwall institutions in the 1980s and 1990s. That policy consensus was later accepted as counter-productive for Cornwall. The elite consensus in favour of unitary local government body is now coming to be viewed in the same way. In order to restore a more responsive local government and establish more strategic regional government therefore, the answer is plain.

First, restore a level of genuinely local government. This might be based on the former six districts, perhaps combining them into three unitary councils, one for the west (Penwith and Kerrier), one for mid (Carrick and Restormel) and one for east Cornwall. If these authorities were to reflect the levels of electoral representation of the average unitary local authority in rural areas they should each have around 45 councillors.

Second, establish a streamlined strategic regional authority in Cornwall to manage powers devolved from Westminster (and from Europe after Brexit). This would be directed by at least 30 elected members.

This more democratic and responsive structure would increase representation in Cornwall to a fairer level as well as offer more opportunities for voter input into the system. Ideally, it would be combined with modernisation of the voting system, as in the other devolved institutions and Scottish local government. This would involve the introduction of either an additional member system or preferably, as in Northern Ireland, the single transferable vote in order to ensure minority voices obtain a voice in our governing institutions.

Cornish recognition or Cornish resistance? Thoughts on MK and the state of the nation.

MK has called for 2016 to be the Year of Cornish Recognition, when Cornwall’s territory, its right to an assembly and the Cornish identity and language become mainstream issues across the UK. For that to happen however, 2016 and, even more so, 2017 have also to become the Years of Cornish Resistance.

In May next year, Cornwall Council is up for re-election. The first Conservative/Independent unitary council administration wholeheartedly embraced the regeneration myth and a growth strategy that basically encouraged the continuation of large scale population transfers into Cornwall. The second Lib Dem/Independent administration has been more ambiguous about this strategy but has abysmally failed to offer much meaningful opposition to central government diktat or austerity politics. Moreover, it’s not even begun to galvanise the Cornish public behind calls for devolution or lead campaigns for fair treatment or a genuine re-democratisation of Cornwall. Quite the opposite in fact, as the general view of Cornwall Council on the streets, after a string of cock-ups, plumbs hitherto unseen depths.

The next elections are therefore critical. Here’s the chance to replace the majority of the current crew of councillors, who either ineffectually bleat about how they’re being bullied, or actively collude with the transformation of Cornwall into a lifestyle choice and a profitable playground for upcountry developers. But replace them with what? There are two obvious choices for any self-respecting Cornish patriot. The first is Mebyon Kernow (MK) the long-standing face of responsible Cornish nationalism, with four councillors at present out of 123. The second is less visible, the promising though somewhat shy movement around Cornwall for Change (C4C) or what’s occasionally called the ‘Alliance’.

Neither seems that convincing at the time of writing. Those of us opposed to Cornwall Council’s direction of travel have been unable to establish a convincing, membership-based and open campaigning group over the three years since disquiet over the Council’s plans for Cornwall first surfaced. There’s been a lot of talk, some bloodcurdling threats, some lobbying of elected members, promises of undisclosed forthcoming action, but nothing substantial. Even a website has still to appear, let alone a coherent strategy or the material basis for a credible intervention in the 2017 elections.

Which leaves us with MK. Since last year’s General Election disaster and in particular since the new year MK has come in for a degree of criticism. It’s not doing enough; it’s not visible; it’s not well organised. There’s nothing new in this. Since the 1970s at least, Cornish nationalism has comprised of an organised core, a constitutional party fighting elections and competing with the state-wide parties in Cornwall, plus an unorganised and fluctuating penumbra or margin. The latter snipes away at MK’s ineffectiveness and promises, though never quite achieves, unspecified more effective action.

Flatlining?
Flatlining?

Back in the 1970s for example, we had the Stannary short-cut. People jumped at the opportunities presented by never-repealed, long-ignored charters to point out that we already had our own Parliament. ‘All’ that was needed was UK Government recognition of our legal rights and there was the short-cut to independence. Nothing could be simpler. Except that central government will only begin to take this seriously when ‘the law’ is backed up by a massive show of resistance that challenges the legitimacy of the London Government in Cornwall. Given the state of public opinion this is at present unlikely.

The MK activist would rightly respond that, for this to happen, years of patient and solid work are required, electioneering, publicising, agitating, leafleting, arguing for devolution. Given the constant need in Cornwall to educate new generations of residents, the democratic road is a long and thankless one. No wonder that many of us, and I include myself in this criticism, shirk the task. After a few years active in MK, we shrug our shoulders and retire to other, less onerous and more immediately productive, fields of endeavour.

Still flatlining?
Still flatlining?

Although it’s understandable, it’s too easy from outside to criticise MK for its inability to make its presence tell. If anything, this is more acutely felt because we so desperately want it to succeed. We put our faith in MK. But that investment is then regularly dashed in the cold baths of succeeding electoral cycles. We swing from wildly over-hyped pre-election enthusiasm to bitter post-election gloom. Hope turns to despair, love turns to hate as we decide never again to invest our dreams in MK. Or at least not until the next election.

All of which is deeply frustrating to MK members as their fair-weather friends come and go, offering a litany of advice and complaints but insufficient solidarity and support. As one contributor on Facebook rightly put it, MK ‘needs all hands on decks’, especially given its lack of resources. But instead, we prefer to skulk on the sidelines and moan about those lack of resources.

While a lot of the criticism levelled at MK is unrealistic or unfair, this is not to deny that the party needs to re-assess its position and recognise that at present it’s been treading water and not going anywhere electorally. Of course, things can always change and change quickly. We’re told a week is a long time in politics. But MK has been waiting 65 years for that week. Can it do anything to bring it a little closer? Is it time for a fundamental and long overdue re-think? In the second part of this blog I’ll try to stop rambling and offer a few thoughts on a possible change of direction.

And still flatlining? Or was there a hint of movement in 2013?
And still flatlining? Or was there a hint of movement in 2013?

Bringing Barnet to Cornwall: Council Council chooses another Chief Exec

Welcome, Kate Kennally, Cornwall Council’s latest Chief Executive. You join a distinguished list of occupants of the hot seat at the council that harbours odd delusions it’s some sort of (powerless) regional assembly. So what skills and experience do you bring us; what wise words from the east should we expect? Inevitably, as with past Chief Execs, Kate has no discernible connection with Cornwall. In the press release extolling the joyous news of the third coming, she assures us she wants ‘to make a difference to a distinct and beautiful place that I love‘. That’s enough on its own to set all the alarm bells ringing and have us heading for the hills.

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Has Kate Kennally experienced a road to Damascus moment? Do Cornwall’s councillors know? Do they care?

Is someone ‘in luuurve’ with Cornwall really the right person to reverse Cornwall Council’s drive to create a two tier, parallel Cornwall? The plan is that inland we’ll have a (sort of) Cornish Cornwall where longstanding natives rub shoulders with not so well off new arrivals in an increasingly congested urban spine. That’ll leave coastal Cornwall safe for holidaymakers, second home owners and the gentrifying class. In which Cornwall will Ms Kennally live? Indeed, will she live in Cornwall at all? Or like her predecessors, will she be handed large sums on top of her £150,000+ salary to commute across the Tamar?

It’s most unfortunate timing that the phenomenon of an over-mighty, over-paid, placeless local government mandarin class, running on their career escalators from one job to the next, coincides with the imposition of neoliberal ideology. This is designed to protect and enhance the global 1% and the corporations, and is subscribed to by a Government determined to ensure local government in the UK pays the major costs of its crusade to shrink the state. Which gives the mandarins all sorts of new ways of sowing havoc in their wake.

Ms Kennally’s career record looks similar to her revolving door forerunners, having worked in Hampshire, Buckinghamshire, Windsor and then from 2006 Barnet, where she’s currently Strategic Director for Commissioning and Deputy Chief Executive. A career spent within the Home Counties presumably provides the perfect job experience for Cornwall, rapidly being transformed into another Home County.

Ms Kennally claims that ‘I am a passionate believer in the importance of public services working together to improve the lives of local people‘. Which is nice. Hold on though. Isn’t it also a bit puzzling? Because hasn’t Ms Kennally for the last decade been working right at the heart of the Council – Barnet – that’s enthusiastically embraced the Tories’ agenda and is privatising everything in sight? So is she now therefore rejecting the policies she’s been implementing for the past few years? Has she had a revelation while stuck in a traffic jam on the road to Truro? Councillors need to ask.

You might have thought that Cornwall Council would have learnt the lessons of the BT privatisation fiasco, or had a little shame after channelling public money to SITA rather than devise a properly sustainable waste policy. But no. It looks like, having cocked up their privatisation projects, they’re determined to do it better next time. So why not turn to someone from Barnet, someone with vast experience of ‘commissioning’, to put us properly on the path to privatisation?

The problem is that Barnet’s record makes even Cornwall Council seem vaguely competent. For the council Ms Kennally works for pioneered a policy of ‘easyCouncil’ back in 2009. This included the idea of having two levels of public services. Wealthier residents were able to get a ‘fast track’ service by paying more. After throwing £millions at consultants to evaluate the scheme, that particular gem was scrapped and the Council went instead for a ‘One Barnet’ (sound familiar?) scheme. This involved outsourcing (privatising) as much as possible.

The result is that at present 92% of Barnet Council staff are facing the doubtful joys of being ‘outsourced’. This and other cuts have resulted in a series of strikes this year. Undeterred, Barnet Council is pressing on with plans to cull 46% of librarians for example and in the past hasn’t hesitated to cut the pay of the lowest paid care workers by almost 10%. All while handing over wads of public money to the private sector. Which has led to regular appearances in Private Eye‘s Rotten Borough column. (Funny how we didn’t read any of that in the West Briton‘s report of Ms Kennally’s appointment. But then, investigative journalism has long been a dead art in Cornwall.)

So is Ms Kennally fleeing a privatisation hell or is she a missionary for it? In 2014 she was busy regaling the local government sector with a ‘graph of doom‘, pointing out the consequences of savage government cuts and the need to be imaginative in outsourcing. Now, don’t I seem to remember a certain Kevin Lavery who used to flash a similar ‘graph of doom‘ in 2012 to impress and befuddle witless councillors?

Looks like another fine mess you’ve got us into, John.