The 2017 general election – not all doom and gloom for minor parties

The recent general election was quickly categorised by the media as a bad one for minor parties. That was certainly the case for Ukip, which saw its vote collapse and its status decline from temporary major party back to minor. The Green Party’s voters also deserted en masse, lured by the siren call of Corbynism and so-called ‘tactical’ voting. Yet, tucked away in the small print of last week’s election results were a few that ought to give food for thought to those wanting to see more devolution/autonomy/independence for Cornwall.

Because it wasn’t all doom and gloom for minor parties. For instance, the 21 candidates of the Yorkshire Party doubled their average vote. Admittedly, that was from a very low base and it’s still pretty feeble at 2.1%. Moreover, none of their candidates saved their deposit with the highest vote (at Rotherham) being 3.8%. Nonetheless, put that in context. In almost half a century of fighting parliamentary elections MK has never achieved a median vote higher than 2.1%. In addition, it’s only taken the Yorkshire Party two elections and three years to almost match MK’s highest ever vote of 4%.

The Yorkshire Party now claims it’s the third party in Doncaster and Wakefield. In seven of the 19 constituencies where they encountered Lib Dem opposition, the party came out on top. They also beat the Greens in five of the 12 contests where both were present, although they were unable to edge out Ukip in the 10 constituencies where they came head to head. The party did relatively well in Richmond, North Yorkshire and Barnsley in South Yorkshire, two very different areas, while its worst results noticeably occurred in the cities – Leeds, Sheffield and Huddersfield.

Meanwhile, the North East Party in Northumberland and Durham has adopted (or been forced to adopt) a different strategy. Instead of standing candidates across Durham and Teesside as in 2015, it focused on fighting just one seat at Easington, which includes its power-base of Peterlee. This turned out to be a successful strategy as the party almost tripled its vote, scoring 6.5% and saving its deposit, a first for a regionalist/nationalist party outside Ireland, Scotland or Wales.

The election also saw a couple of other very creditable performances by Independents that are worth a mention. Jim Kenyon stood in Hereford and Herefordshire South and easily saved his deposit, gaining 11% of the vote and coming ahead of Lib Dem, Green and Ukip candidates. Kenyon, mayor of Hereford, is a well-known local councillor for It’s Our County (Herefordshire).

However, by far the most inspiring result was achieved by Claire Wright in East Devon. She increased her vote by 8,000 from 24% in 2015 to 36% this time, coming a clear second in a crowded field of seven candidates. Her key policy stance was a pledge to amend the National Planning Policy Framework so that it becomes less about growth and more about balanced communities. She backed this up by demanding more funding for local infrastructure, protection of the countryside and doing more to comply with climate change targets. She was supported by the progressive alliance locally and managed to do so well with a campaign team of just 12 and a fraction of the resources available to the sitting Tory MP.

Strong, localist campaigns for a more balanced approach to the environment and alternatives to the headlong rush to gobble up resources in the name of growth and greed can clearly resonate with voters. The relative success of these Independent candidates and the solid showing for the northern regionalist parties surely have some lessons for Cornish autonomists and nationalists. But will we bother to learn them?

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Reports of death of ‘progressive’ alliance in Cornwall greatly exaggerated?

This morning confusion surrounds the whereabouts of the ‘progressive’ alliance floated for St Ives constituency in the general election. Last Saturday it was revealed that Green Party members meeting at Redruth had decided to stand a candidate in St Ives, thus dealing a cruel blow to those who’d been hoping for a ‘progressive’ alliance. The news was broke by Milo Perrin of Cornish Stuff.

No source was given, although a quote from Tim Andrewes, the Greens’ sole Cornwall Councillor, that he was not putting himself forward, implied that the story was based on a Green Party source. However, there was no actual Green Party news release or, indeed, any kind of official comment, just an uncorroborated facebook account of a secret meeting between unknown Lib Dem, Green and Labour participants last Tuesday at which agreement was not reached.

Since Saturday morning, after a predictable outburst of spleen from Lib Dem supporters in St Ives, things have been surprisingly quiet on social media about this purported development. Nothing seems to have appeared in the old, anti-social media either. We remain in the dark as to what may have happened to change Green Party minds since this appeared on the Progressive Alliance for Cornwall website on Thursday, the 20th.

It’s fair to say the supposed decision also came as a surprise to Green Party members themselves, judging by comments on the West Cornwall Green Party facebook page, which were not exactly favourable about the decision to stand.

More interestingly, Jacqueline Merrick, Green council candidate in Camborne, rather cryptically stated on that site on Saturday evening ‘stop jumping to conclusions, please’. Last night Amanda Pennington, Green candidate for Truro & Falmouth, followed that up by tweeting ‘nothing decided yet’. An official Green Party statement on who stands where will follow the local elections.

So was Saturday’s report fake news? Were the Greens bluffing? Or have they blinked and changed their minds in the face of a generally hostile reaction? Perhaps, just perhaps, electoral pacts in Cornwall shouldn’t be written off just yet. Perhaps also, more open discussion and fewer secretive meetings might be a good idea.

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.

The state of the others. Should MK stand in the general election?

We’ve seen who the Lib Dem candidates will be in June’s general election, with one exception. The situation at Camborne-Redruth is unclear. Julia Goldsworthy is definitely ruled out. Yet Lib Dem insiders are quoted in the West Brit as claiming that ‘the party has chosen all its candidates in Cornwall’. So if that’s the case, who’s the mysterious sixth candidate? And why is he or she being kept a secret? Rumours circulating in the constituency claim it’s a councillor not a million miles from Illogan.

The state of our once-great country. Unknown man stalked by banner-waving fanatics.

But that may be fake news deliberately spread by Labour, whose candidate is presumably as I write being selected hundreds of miles away in Exeter or Bristol. If you were a member and could have dreamt up an answer to questions like ‘what makes you a great campaigner’, you too could have applied to become Labour’s candidate. Too late now though, as the deadline was last Sunday. There must be several seats in Cornwall that will struggle to appear as the applicants’ ‘preferred constituency’, unless they were feeling especially suicidal.

What about the other minor parties? The Greens are off the block, announcing over a week ago on Twitter (though strangely nowhere else that I can discover) that Amanda Pennington from Wadebridge would be fighting Truro & Falmouth. This makes sense as that was the constituency which gave them their best result last time around. They’re meeting today to discuss whether to stand in St Ives. Meanwhile, nothing has been heard from Ukip, who may be fully occupied trying to defend their single seat on Cornwall Council and coming up with more policies to restore the 1950s.

Should MK stand? The party is quite properly waiting until the more important Cornwall Council elections are out of the way before deciding on what it will do, which gives it just a week to spring into frenetic action.

Even at the best of times the party has to contend with a system rigged so blatantly against it, the most absurd aspect being the demand it stands candidates in 89 constituencies in order to obtain a party political broadcast, that it’s beyond ludicrous. There was already an argument that, until we have a fair voting system, MK shouldn’t bother throwing away money on Westminster elections but focus on the Cornish level. The danger with this is that, given a Westminster-centric media, it would probably lead to even greater marginalisation.

To be taken as a serious contender, MK has to stand in one or two constituencies. The obvious place is St Austell & Newquay, where Dick Cole is a well-known candidate and the party has built a level of support. However, even here, expressions of sympathy don’t extend to sufficient actual votes at the parliamentary level. What about the rest of Cornwall? Here’s one scenario.

MK tries to cut a deal with the Greens. It stays out of Truro and east Cornwall as long as the Greens give it a clear run in St Austell. At St Ives it takes up Andrew George’s suggestion of a progressive alliance and publicly backs him, although calling on Lib Dem voters to reciprocate that in St Austell and one other … for instance Camborne-Redruth??

The thinking has to be long-term. It looks as if the election after this one will be 2022, with or without a new devonwall constituency. By that time, the massive Tory majority and the elective dictatorship it brings will have hopefully become so discredited that people start turning to an alternative. So positioning and establishing a presence in 2017 is critical.

Camborne-Redruth is the most ‘Cornish’ constituency in identity terms. It’s also the only Cornish constituency which is neither a safe Tory seat nor a Tory-Lib Dem marginal. Traditionally a three-way marginal, tactical voting was always questionable here. Predictable calls to vote tactically for Labour are unreal in the context of the media demonisation of Corbyn and the stubborn failure of the Labour leadership to make any concessions to the idea of a ‘progressive alliance’. Moreover, the Labour candidate is as yet unknown and may be as bad as Michael Foster was.

The Lib Dem could well be equally hopeless. In addition, it’s possible Ukip will leave ex-Ukip member and staunch pro-Brexiteer George Eustice alone. Which means a lot of Ukip votes will be up for grabs. That can’t all vote Tory can they? (Stop whimpering! [ed.]) If the Greens don’t stand then MK could end up being the most credible alternative to Eustice. Watch this space.

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.

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.