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.

What to look for in the Welsh local elections

On Thursday voters in Wales and Scotland will elect their local councillors. By popular demand from the Cornish masses (well, one of them anyway), I’ve been persuaded to do a blog on our Celtic compatriots as they troop wearisomely to the polls. Four times within two years in Scotland! Whatever would Brenda of Bristol say? Poor dears must be exhausted by this surfeit of democracy. How will they possibly get the energy required to go shopping?

Two aspects complicate matters if we want to compare the Welsh with the English local elections. Wales has unitary local government so all, rather than some, authorities are up for election this year. And the last elections were five years ago, not four, as the 2016 elections were postponed so as not to coincide with the Welsh Assembly vote. (The exception is Ynys Môn, which held its previous election in 2013). Because this was a year before 2013, unlike in England there was no surge of support for Ukip last time either.

In terms of seats here’s the results of the four Welsh local elections since the devolved assembly was set up.

1999 2004 2008 2012
Labour 563 479 (-84) 345 (-134) 580 (+235)
Independents 295 321 (+26) 334 (+13) 298 (-36)
Plaid Cymru 205 175 (-30) 206 (+31) 170 (-36)
Lib Dems 98 146 (+48) 165 (+19) 72 (-93)
Conservative 75 107 (+32) 174 (+67) 105 (-71)
Other 34 35 (+1) 40 (+5) 41 (+1)

Labour has a bit of a problem in Wales. In 2012 it was riding high in the polls, scoring its best result for years. Now polling between 15 and 20% lower, it faces certain losses. The only question is how many. Roger Scully of Cardiff University suggests over 100. On the basis of the polls this looks decidedly over-optimistic from the Labour perspective. Kernowpolitico of Redruth expects a performance more like 2008, which could bring as many as 200 losses.

[reproduced courtesy of MrPenguin20 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56783543%5D
In 2012 Labour won a majority of seats in all south Welsh urban and post-industrial authorities apart from Monmouthshire and the Vale of Glamorgan. On a bad night they could lose all those authorities save Rhondda and Neath Port Talbot. However, the number of Labour candidates has held up well and they may avoid this scenario. No doubt the tabloids will be sharpening their pencils, ready to plunge them into Jeremy Corbyn if Labour loses more than 100. Of course, if they do a lot better, those tabloids will no doubt ignore the result while srtill plunging their pencils into Corbyn’s back. Basically, the rule is Labour mustn’t win.

The Tories are riding high in the polls and in a local election poll in Wales amazingly came just two percentage points behind Labour. At the least, they must be expecting to regain their 2008 position, get a majority in Monmouthshire and the Vale of Glamorgan and make serious gains in places like Newport and Conwy. Their number of candidates is around 10% higher this time, although still well behind Labour. Yet a lot of them don’t seem to be in particularly winnable areas.

If the Tories gain votes and Labour lose, the Lib Dems in Wales might be hoping to sneak through on a minority vote. But a Lib Dem recovery looks less likely than in England. In Wales their poll rating is fairly dismal and a fall of around 15% in the number of Lib Dem candidates doesn’t suggest a party in rude health. Their best hope for gains is probably Cardiff, where they were the largest party before 2012 and where an anti-Brexit stance might bring more dividends.

Plaid has maintained its number of candidates at 583, rather fewer than the Tories but over twice the number of Lib Dems. They’ll be looking to get back over the 200 seat mark, as in 2008. Yet in many authorities their presence is limited. Indeed, in 10 of Wales’ 22 local authorities they have fewer councillors pro rata than MK does in Cornwall. Their strength is still heavily focused on Cymru Cymraeg (with the exception of Caerffili and the Rhondda) and their main hopes lie in their traditional heartland – Caerfyrddin, Ceredigion, Gywnedd and Ynys Môn.

Ukip is standing more candidates this time – 80. But this is many fewer than the other parties, or Independents for that matter, who are contesting more wards than any party other than Labour. In 2012 Ukip won two seats. It’s unlikely to do much better this time. Meanwhile, the Greens have around the same number of candidates as Ukip and will be crossing their fingers desperate to secure their first Welsh local councillor since 1999.

This may be the last local elections under a first past the post format, as the Welsh Government is toying with the idea of introducing PR for local government elections. Although it’s confusing matters somewhat by maybe letting local authorities decide. So can we expect any remaining Labour-run councils to resist PR and stick with the Victorian system? A test of their essential conservatism looms.

Seat predictions for the English local elections: sophisticated modelling or back of fag packet?

Every year Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher at Plymouth University reveal their seat predictions for the local elections in England. This is based on a model which uses ward-level by-election performance to calculate a ‘national equivalent vote’ which is then converted into seats likely to be gained or lost.

However, a bit like the ‘sophisticated’ computer models Cornwall Council uses when forecasting population and household growth, there’s only one small problem, The predictions aren’t necessarily that accurate. The media focus on the predictions but rarely if ever ask the obvious question – how well did they turn out in the past? As we can see from the table below the Rallings/Thrasher model usually gets the direction of gains or losses right, but the actual number of seats won or lost are sometimes well off.

Rallings and Thrasher’s predictions compared to outcomes, 2013-2016

2013 predicted    actual 2014 predicted    actual
Con -310 -335 Con -220 -236
Lab +350 +291 Lab +490 +324
Lib Dem -130 -124 Lib Dem -350 -310
Ukip +40 +139 Ukip +80 +163
2015 predicted actual 2016 predicted actual
Con -450 +541 Con +50 -48
Lab -50 -203 Lab -150 -18
Lib Dem -80 -411 Lib Dem +40 +45
Ukip +400 +176 Ukip +40 +25

Their worst performance was 2015 when they completely missed the rise in Tory seats at the expense of the Lib Dems and badly over-estimated Ukip’s performance. Last year too, they forecast a gain for the Tories, which turned out to be a loss. In 2015 the local elections were combined with a general election, when the polls missed a swing to the Tories, and a higher than usual turnout, which made predicting the results of the locals more precarious. Of course, this year we have the novel factor of local elections taking place while a general election has already kicked off, which may also affect turnout, but to a lesser degree.

Here’s what they are projecting this year.

Rallings and Thrasher prediction 2017

Con       +115
Lab -75
Lib Dem +85
Ukip -105

There are around 2,300 seats up for grabs in the county and unitary elections in England. On past performance we might expect Rallings and Thrasher to be around 200-220 seats adrift over the four parties. This could be critical for party morale as their predictions are often used as benchmarks by both media pundits and political parties. If a party does better than predicted, then morale is boosted, if worse it’s dampened.

There’s no evidence of any systematic party bias in Ralling and Thrasher’s model. However, in three of the last four years they’ve over-estimated Labour’s performance. Doing so again this year will only stoke the feeding frenzy of the Tory press. So is their prediction of a 75 seat loss for Labour in England feasible?

Four years ago, when these seats were last fought, Labour made 288 gains, although it was only an average year for them as in the previous set of elections in 2009 (under Gordon Brown’s leadership note) they had performed abysmally, losing 313 seats. Labour are now running at 25-27% in the polls, compared with 38-41% in 2013.This is much lower so some losses must be expected. So a predicted 75 seat loss looks to be on the low side and is surely over-estimating Labour’s performance based on current polling. This is particularly the case as the rural shire counties are hardly the best ground for Labour.

I would suggest a more realistic forecast would be for Labour to suffer a much higher loss, of around 170 seats,(which is still a couple of hundred better than 2009). With Ukip likely to lose over 100 of the 147 seats it won in 2013, the gainers will be the Tories and Lib Dems. The Lib Dems had a bad year in 2013, losing 130 seats, They may well claw back the majority of those. Which leaves a gain of around 150-160 for the Tories, with the Greens, Independents and others taking the balance.

So here’s my alternative prediction, drawn up on the back of a fag packet. By this time next week we’ll know which method has worked best.

Kernowpolitico prediction 2017

Con      +150
Lab -170
Lib Dem +110
Ukip -120

Minor parties and next week’s local elections

The London media seem to have largely forgotten about them in their eagerness to crown the May Queen but next week we have an actual vote to dissect rather than opinion polls. In four of the nations of the UK – rural England, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall – there are local elections on Thursday. Let’s look beyond the Westminster bubble to these more pressing elections. More specifically, what do the nominations at the locals tell us about the state of readiness of the byways of British politics, the margins, the extremes, the bizarre, those beyond the familiar be-suited landscape of the Westminster humbug centre?

Ukip is faltering. Their main policy objective apparently achieved and many of their policies now adopted by the Tories, they’ve lost direction. If the latest polls are anywhere near accurate, their support is collapsing fast. Ironically, Ukip, having set out to inject change into the political system, has served merely as a bridge from voting Labour to voting Conservative. The number of Ukip candidates in the local elections in England has fallen by a third since these seats were last fought in 2013, while their intervention in Scotland and Wales is feeble. We shall have to wait until May 4th, but it’s very likely that they will lose over half their current crop of councillors.

In terms of candidates, they’ve been overtaken by the Greens, who have increased their challenge at the coming local elections by almost 50%. With less to lose and everything to gain, they may come out of the local elections with increased morale. Nonetheless, this snap election will have caught local Green parties unawares. As a result they are most unlikely to contest anything like the 573 seats they did in the 2015 general election. Expect both Greens and Ukip to be nearer 300 than 500 candidates, with Ukip taking the opportunity not to challenge Brexit Tories and the Greens using the ‘progressive alliance’ as a cover for withdrawing from seats.

More generally, at the general election the broad pattern of growing numbers of minor party candidates since the 1980s, peaking in 2010, will be very abruptly reversed. Given the extremely short time to decide on candidates and raise the cash, plus the fact that parties are concentrating on the locals (something the May Queen no doubt took note of before making her decision) it’s likely that numbers will fall back from over 1,800 to under 1,000. The majority of those will be Ukip or Greens.

Few of the smaller parties are likely to put up as many candidates as last time. If the local elections are a guide, then TUSC numbers will fall dramatically, as the Socialist Party and its fellow travellers throw their limited weight behind Corbynite Labour. The state might not be withering away, but the left parties are. Respect has apparently disappeared, the Socialist Labour Party is disappearing, the Communist Party of Britain lingers on life support and the number of Scottish Socialist Party candidates in the local elections has halved since 2012. (Although Scottish Solidarity has increased its numbers to partially make up the deficit in Scotland.)

Meanwhile, on the far right, the BNP looks unlikely to rise from the dead any time soon, having watched both its electoral support and its activists being swept away in the Ukip tide. Ditto for the English Democrats. Between them, these two parties can only raise 15 candidates for the local elections, compared with 142 the last time around.

There are a few new kids on the block. The Scottish Libertarians are fielding 22 candidates in the local elections north of the border. The Womens’ Equality Party (WEP), with its celebrity supporters, is getting some media attention. But there are only three WEP candidates standing in the locals, plus another contesting the Liverpool City Region combined authority mayoral election.

Finally, the appearance of English regionalist parties in 2015 began to fill a gap hitherto only sporadically and quixotically occupied by the Wessex Regionalists. The Yorkshire Party is only standing two candidates for the 72 seats on North Yorkshire County Council. But its main support is in the urban areas of West and South Yorkshire, where there are no local elections this year, with the exception of Doncaster, which is out of sync. The party is putting forward five candidates there and fighting the Doncaster mayoral election. The North East Party is also building on the base established in 2015. It has 14 candidates competing for Durham’s 126 seats, someone up for the combined authority mayoral position in Tees Valley and a newly designed, more professional website. Nevertheless, it seems confined to south of the Tyne, with no candidates at all standing in Northumberland.

Nonetheless, both these parties will be hoping to make a breakthrough in the local elections and get their first elected councillor, something that would be a big boost to any general election exposure.