Our friends in the north: the Yorkshire Party and the North East Party

If we travel over the Tamar and hurry on as fast as possible through middle England until we get beyond the Trent, we’ll find a relatively new phenomenon. English political regionalism made its appearance at the 2014 European elections. By the following year’s general election it came in three guises. In Lancashire there was a Northern Party. In Yorkshire there was Yorkshire First and in Durham and Northumberland, the North East Party (NEP). While the Northern Party soon expired, the other two are on their way to establishing themselves as permanent and serious presences in the northern political landscape.

Yorkshire First, which stood 14 candidates for the 52 Yorkshire seats in 2015, underwent a re-branding exercise in 2016 and is now called The Yorkshire Party (YP). Although it has yet to gain a councillor at the upper tier of local government it scored a respectable 11% average in May’s local elections, when it stood seven candidates for the two authorities in Yorkshire which had elections. Its candidate for mayor of Doncaster also won 5% of the votes and saved his deposit – just! This built on the 19 candidates who stood in the metropolitan and unitary elections of 2015 and the 16 of 2016.

Like MK, the Yorkshire Party is a full member of the European Free Alliance and its policies place it firmly on the centre-left. It calls for a Parliament for Yorkshire elected by PR.

Unlike the Yorkshire Party, whose candidates have been scattered across the historic county of Yorkshire, the North East Party is focused on the Peterlee area of east Durham. To the outside observer the NEP looks to be less professional and more conservative than the YP. Yet it has achieved greater electoral success despite far fewer electoral interventions. The NEP only put one candidate forward in the local elections of 2015 and 2016 in Tyne and Wear. It didn’t fight the North Tyneside mayoral election this year and its plans to stand for the Tees Valley combined authority mayor were dashed when it could only raise £2,000 of the £5,000 required as a deposit. This extremely high amount was promptly denounced by the NEP as an ‘affront to democracy’.

Nonetheless, the NEP has built up a power base at Peterlee, having won a by-election there to obtain its first town councillor only months after its formation. This year it won 20 of the 22 seats on the town council. It also returned three councillors to Durham County Council, all of them also from the Peterlee district. Meanwhile, the median vote of its 14 candidates in the Durham unitary elections compared well with MK.

Median Vote at recent elections

2015 GE 2017 local elections
Yorkshire Party 1.0% 10.6%
North East Party 1.3% 20.8%
MK 1.7% 19.3%

The NEP’s aim is to replace the 12 local authorities in the north east with an elected regional government, while devolving local government to the town and parish level.

The difference in approach between the two parties is reflected in next month’s general election. The YP is fielding 21 candidates, a 50% increase on 2015. But tellingly, only three constituencies contested then are being contested again this time. Contrasting with this scatter-gun approach, the NEP has just one candidate, a reduction from the four last time. But their candidate is standing at Easington, the constituency that produced its best result in 2015 and the one that includes Peterlee.

This will be a difficult election for all fourth (and fifth and sixth etc.) parties, as the clarion call to ‘vote tactically’ blares out from the old ‘progressive’ non-alliance parties. But in regions with safe Labour majorities like the north-east and parts of Yorkshire it may be less relevant or effective. We shall see.

When the fish, tin and MK have gone, what is the Cornish nationalist to do?

Manifestos are part of the hallowed ritual of general elections. The media report them, pundits pontificate and nerds (like me) might niggle, but for the vast majority they’re irrelevant, a far away country of which they know little. Moreover, if predictions of a comfortable Tory majority pan out, they seemingly care less. But as a public service let’s dive into the pullulating pit of platitudes that make up the party manifestos and see what they might say about one or two key issues. It’s a filthy job but someone has to do it.

First off, what do they offer the homeless Cornish nationalist?

Forward, you peasants, for our prosperous plutocracy

The Tories laud ‘our precious union’, but betray a serious problem of innumeracy as they go on to say ‘one nation made of four’. Recognising the Cornish as the fifth nation of these islands in 2014 was just a bad dream that’s thankfully been erased from their collective memory. Nonetheless, they’re in favour of devolving power ‘to improve local government’. This extends to giving ‘local government greater control over the money they raise’ (while reducing the money they get and directing lots of other money to unaccountable quangos such as the Local Enterprise Partnerships).

But never let a few inconvenient facts get in the way of a vague promise. The Tories live in their own strange, topsy-turvy universe. This is a place where saying things often enough is the same as actually doing them. When we look at the actual votes of our six, sad Tory MPs, working hard for hard-working folk, we find a very consistent record of voting against handing down more powers and resources to local government, as the West Briton has pointed out in some detail.

Turning to another traditionally centralist party, Labour promises it will set up a convention to consider the option of a ‘more federalised country’. If that looks a little too bland to get the towns and villages of Cornwall ablaze with enthusiasm, the priority they give this, which appears on page 102 of their (admittedly very long) manifesto, isn’t high. The only concrete policy they offer is to ‘restore regional offices’. Will someone please tell them this means re-centralization, not de-centralization, when viewed from Cornwall? Labour is careful to use the formula the ‘regions and nations of the UK’, but, as they ignore Cornwall, it’s not clear which, if either, they consider us to be.

It’s the good old Lib Dems, with Cornwall ‘sort of’ coursing through their veins according to the late Nick Clegg, who daringly utter the word Cornwall in their manifesto. Cornwall pops up as an example of a promise of devolution of revenue-raising powers to regions on page 44. The Lib Dems’ ‘devolution on demand’ is part of a rather quaint package of ‘home rule all round’, harking back to the days of Gladstone. The seriousness of this nostalgic offer remains in doubt however, when we read that they intend ‘greater devolution of powers to councils or groups of councils working together, for example to a Cornish Assembly or a Yorkshire Parliament’. This curious wording reads as if they’re still equating Cornwall Council with a Cornish Assembly. It suggests they still haven’t learnt the difference between devolving powers to an unfit for purpose local authority and creating the new institutions that will help to reinvigorate democracy in Cornwall.

Not surprisingly, Ukip doesn’t mention Cornwall by name either. ‘Our nation’ crops up 11 times but then we read of a promise of ‘a fair deal for all four [sic] nations’ which are to have ‘broadly similar devolved powers’. In Ukip’s utopia Cornwall will therefore be trapped in England. As England’s first colony, any Cornish claims to self-determination are likely to receive even shorter shrift there than within a multi-national UK. Meanwhile, the Green Party’s ‘Green Guarantee’ makes no explicit mention of devolution. Perhaps they think their commitment to localism covers the point.

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.

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.

Brittany votes

How did Brittany vote on Sunday in the first round of the Presidential election for the French hexagon? Bretons gave a much clearer victory to the centrist Macron than France in general. Macron polled about five percentage points higher in Brittany. Meanwhile, Le Pen’s Front National still struggles to gain traction in Brittany, along with western France more generally. Le Pen’s 15% was a full six points lower than she managed across the hexagon.

The traditional Gaullist candidate Fillon and the leftist Melenchon polled at levels similar to their general support. Melenchon just pipped Fillon to second place, despite his Jacobinism and what have been seen as anti-Breton statements. (He described Breton as an intellectual language created by the Nazis during the Second World War). Interestingly, Hamon of the Socialist Party scored rather better in Brittany than elsewhere.

The UDB and the Mouvement Bretagne et Progrès, which have come together to fight the forthcoming legislative elections, declined to advise their supporters how to vote in the first round. Christian Troadec’s attempt to stand as a regionalist candidate had fallen victim to tighter French rules on candidatures which make it very difficult for a regionally based candidate to be nominated. The UDB is now advising its supporters to vote Macron in the second round and the MBP will no doubt follow suit.

Overall, votes for leftist candidates in Brittany combined totalled about 31%, with 29% for Macron and 24% for the traditional right (plus 15% for the FN). All of which suggests the legislative elections, the first ballot of which will be a few days after the UK’s general election, may well be unpredictable.

Italian regionalist parties and the Constitutional Referendum

Italians vote today in a constitutional referendum which is being ridiculously over-simplified by the British media as the third round of battles between Brexit/Trumpite populism and the ‘Establishment’. It isn’t.

Yes, Italy’s populist (though hardly far-right Ukip-lite) Five Star Movement is calling for a No vote, as is the right-wing autonomist Lega Nord. But then, so is Sinistra Italiana (Italian Left), which combines former Communists, other left-wingers and greens. Meanwhile, one conservative party (the New Centre-Right) is found in the Yes camp, while a second – the Conservatives and Reformists – which explicitly and unaccountably models itself on the British Tories – is in the No camp.

The problem with this referendum is that it can easily be read as a centralising move that neatly fits the anti-democratic project of the neo-liberal elites running Europe (and the UK). Matteo Renzi, the Italian Democratic Party (similar to Labour) Prime Minister is making this an issue of confidence and sees himself as a ‘moderniser’. But this is business-friendly, Blairite ‘modernisation’. It’s no coincidence that the Italian employers’ organisation backs a Yes vote, as does the European Commission, while stock markets are getting jittery about a No vote.

The Italian autonomous regions
The Italian autonomous regions

Fundamentally, the constitutional reform proposes weakening and reducing in size the Italian Senate. It replaces direct elections to the Senate by indirect elections (by Regional Councils). While this still leaves the Italian Senate more democratic than our House of Lords, it also means the Chamber of Deputies becomes the dominant element in the formerly bicameral constitution. At the same time, some argue that ordinary regions in Italy will be rendered powerless, although the five autonomous regions (Val d’Aosta, Trentino, Friulia-Venezia Giulia, Sicily and Sardinia) are left untouched. Meanwhile rural provinces, a level of local government, look likely to be abolished.

The PATT in Trentino calls for a Yes vote
The PATT in Trentino calls for a Yes vote

So where do Italian regionalist parties stand on the referendum? Of the five members of the European Free Alliance (the group that contains the SNP, Plaid and MK), four are calling for a No vote, even those in unaffected regions. In the Val d’Aosta the EFA member and leftist Autonomie-Liberté-Participation-Ecologie supports No, while the centre-right Union Valdôtaine is on the Yes side. This mirrors the position of the dominant catch-all parties in South Tyrol and Trentino, the Südtiroler Volkspartei and the Partito Autonomista Trentino Tirolese, which are both supporting Renzi. But again, the EFA member, the centre-right Süd-Tiroler Freiheit says No. In Venetia, the EFA’s Liga Veneta Repubblica is now part of Noi Veneto Indipendente, which strongly supports No. Finally, the Sardinian Partito Sardo d’Azione calls for a No vote too. (The fifth EFA member – the Slovene Union – I’m not sure about as I can’t read Slovene well enough!)

Noi Veneto Indipendente explains why Venetians should vote No
Noi Veneto Indipendente explains why Venetians should vote No

English regionalism – here to stay or a flash in the pan?

How are the English regionalist parties faring, three years after Yorkshire First and the North East Party appeared on the scene? Has English regionalism – the dog that failed to bark in the night – finally found its voice? This might be a little unfair on the tiny Wessex Regionalist Party which has been plugging away for some decades now. That party was formed way back in 1974 but disappeared from the electoral scene after its high point in 1983 when it contested 10 parliamentary seats. Since 1997 one candidate for the party, in fact the same chap, has stood at each general elections, where he’s struggled to get over 100 votes.

Another, fourth English regionalist party has already come and gone since 2015, a case of last in, first out. The Northern Party, which, despite its name, appeared to be a party for Lancashire folk only, contested five seats in 2015, scored a mean 118 votes and then promptly de-registered itself within a year.

More serious efforts come in the shape of the North East Party (NEP), which did significantly better, contesting four seats with a mean vote of 535, or 1.4%. But the biggest intervention at the last general election was by Yorkshire First, which fought 14 seats, scooping up an average 487 votes with a mean vote of 1.0%. Here’s the 2015 general election results compared with those for MK.

General election results 2015

% of seats contested mean vote mean % vote median % vote
NEP 14% 535 1.4% 1.3%
YF 26% 487 1.0% 1.0%
MK 100% 946 1.9% 1.7%

Unlike MK, the northern regionalist parties have the opportunity to contest elections every year at a local level. In 2015 the local elections were held on the same day as the general election, a factor that inevitably squeezes the minor party vote. The results earlier this year probably provide a better guide to their performance. Here they are, with MK’s performance at the last Cornwall Council elections back in 2013 for comparison.

Local election results

No of wards contested (%) Mean vote Median vote
NEP 2015 1 (1%) 2.9% n/a
NEP 2016 1 (1%) 16.0% n/a
YF 2015 15 (3%) 3.8% 4.1%
YF 2016 17 (7%) 7.9% 7.1%
MK 2013 26 (21%) 24.1% 16.0%

Both parties have a way to go to reach the level of support for MK in local elections. However, the North East Party seems to have the potential to capture a respectable vote. The party’s sole candidate at the local elections in the Redhill ward of Sunderland in 2015 and 2016 managed to increase her share of the vote and go from fourth in 2015 to second this year, ahead of Tory, Lib Dem and Green candidates. Yet the party’s website looks a little amateurish and, worryingly for Cornwall, its submission to the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee in 2014 stated that the ‘most coherent and consistent devolution would be to the level of the English regions’. Their policy on devolution seems to be to replace local government structures with a ‘small, lean and powerful regional government’, devolving local powers to parish and town councillors.

Moving on, last month Yorkshire First changed its name to the Yorkshire Party (YP), a symbolic shift that indicates its growing ambition. In terms of presence, number of candidates and professionalism, if not yet votes, the Yorkshire Party appears better organised and resourced than the NEP. It made steady progress in the 2016 local elections and has a good basis on which to build. It seems more active in the metropolitan districts than in rural Yorkshire, although this may be a function of the electoral cycle, with its best scores garnered in Barnsley, Rotherham, Sheffield, Leeds and Wakefield. Yet a District Council by-election candidate in Northallerton in North Yorkshire scored almost 12% in May, showing it has the ability to appeal in rural areas too. In its early days, the YP also contested the European elections (remember them?) in the Yorkshire and Humberside region, when it won 19,017 votes, or 1.5% of the total.

The YP’s policy positions look more coherent and worked out than those of the NEP. Like MK, the party is now a member of the European Free Alliance, although unlike MK its policies are broadly ‘catch-all’ and centrist. For example on the economy, it calls for investment in infrastructure and the energy sector, saving money by cutting the number of councillors and giving tax-setting powers to a Yorkshire parliament. There’s nothing much there to overly scare the neo-liberal horses. Meanwhile, it taps into the local opposition in Yorkshire to fracking, but there are no detailed policies on the environment or climate change on its website.

On the core issue of devolution it calls for a Yorkshire Parliament with powers over policing, transport, health, energy and education – a large step up from the insultingly feeble ‘devolution deals’ offered by the Tory Government. On local government it envisages a tier of unitary local councils. But it’s unclear whether these are town and parish councils or something bigger and whether any of the current structure will remain.

YF tweet

Nonetheless, with a professional website, an active social media presence and calls on its supporters to support petitions in favour of Cornish language funding, the YP looks like a very useful ally for devolution campaigners in Cornwall. We’ll now have to wait to see if it can make further progress in the 2017 round of elections.