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)
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.