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.

Confessions of a bored psephologist

Is it just me, or is this general election the most tedious on record? Perhaps I’m getting jaded. Maybe the meaningless of the electoral ritual, after which the government always wins, is finally getting to me. But it’s proving difficult to get enthused, or even engaged.

Two weeks before polling day and we’ve had just one leaflet through the door from our complacent Tory MP, grinning like a Cheshire cat at the prospect of an easy return. Things on the streets seem eerily subdued, as if the people are sheep-walking to the inevitable Tory victory. Switch on the TV news and all we find is the BBC transformed into an extended Conservative Party Political Broadcast, wheeling out any old right-wing Labour has-been to fill a spare slot to have a go at that evil softie Corbyn.

As the BBC subtly hammers home the implicit contrast with the ‘strong and stable’ prime ministerial quality of the TMaybot, the only thing of interest left is how big a majority it’ll be. Will it qualify as a landslide? Will Labour survive? Will Tony Blair rise from the dead to reinforce belief in globalisation and greed?

On the right ex-Ukip voters appear stubbornly determined to punish Theresa May by ensuring she sees out the brexit negotiations and ultimately becomes the most reviled British prime minister ever. ‘Strong and stable’ fools nobody but the starry-eyed forelock-tugger.

Meanwhile, in the centre, as the likelihood of a Tory Government passes beyond inevitable, political discourse goes little further than a near hysterical call to the faithful to vote ‘tactically’. No matter whether it makes little psephological sense and ignores the numbers. No matter who the candidates are. No matter if it’s a blatant cover for tribalism or not. Just ‘stop the Tory’! I said ‘STOP THE TORY’!!

In Cornwall things are even more febrile. The number of candidates in this election is – at an average of four per constituency – the lowest since 1987. Furthermore, it’s easily the lowest of all the nations of the UK. In two constituencies the choice is confined just to the three old Westminster parties. Somehow, I can’t get that riveted by the prospect of a return to the 1950s and the politics of nostalgic deference. We seem to be drifting hopelessly towards a Gilbert and Sullivanesque political mind-set where

‘every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!’

It’s just getting altogether too weird. Recently we saw the Tories win the Cornwall Council elections, gaining 15 seats in the process. But then the same old coalition of incompetents as before – Lib Dems and Independents – end up in theoretical control of the Council, despite losing a combined seven councillors. The winners came second and third, the losers came first. Can we hope the general election gives us the same result please?

Corbyn’s crew enter Cornish lists: Labour candidates named

In a brilliant bit of timing and a blaze fizzle of publicity, the Labour Party quietly announced its ‘Cornwall’ general election candidates a week ago. This was just as the TMaybot’s team descended on Cornwall to bark ‘strong and stable’ as much as they could at the travelling media circus while locking local reporters in a small room. Only a few days later Labour’s announcement wasn’t exactly front page news in the press on the day of the local elections. Perhaps it was in the ‘volunteers wanted’ section.

So who are the horny-handed sons and daughters of toil who will lead the ‘Cornwall’ masses to the sunny uplands of Corbynia, a curious mixture of the 1970s and 1940s, a place where everyone is friendly and smile at each other all day while earnestly not making up their minds about Brexit.

Anyone volunteering to be Labour candidate in the two eastern constituencies must have a strong death wish. North Cornwall is the most torrid territory for Labour, which just managed to save its deposit there in 2015. Their candidate this time is Joy Bassett, an Anglican lay minister in Bodmin who works at the family’s solicitors’ firm. She’ll be trying not to get squeezed by the Lib Dems (an awful fate at the best of times.)

The young Labour candidate in South East Cornwall made news last time around by disappearing on holiday with his mum halfway through the campaign. Traditionally, Labour in South East Cornwall has turned to Plymouth as a useful store of potential candidates and this time is no exception. Their more credible candidate comes in the shape of 59 year old Gareth Derrick who lives in Ivybridge. You may remember – well, you probably won’t – that he was Labour’s candidate in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in 2016.

Gareth’s experience of 36 years in the Royal Navy, where he ended up as a commander, and a subsequent business background in management consultancy, defence contracting and a ‘development’ company should enable him to stand up well to Sheryll Murray, if he gets the chance. Labour in South East Cornwall are actually only 4,000 votes behind the Lib Dems, who have looked on helplessly as the social basis of Liberalism in the constituency – the chapel and the Cornish working class – has disintegrated. The area has suffered large-scale gentrification, which has transformed it into a safe Tory seat.

In St Austell & Newquay and in St Ives, Labour also came fourth in 2015 and with very similar proportions of the vote – 9-10% – as in the South East. Kevin Neil in St Austell & Newquay is described as a ‘former resident’ who’s been back working in Cornwall since 2016. Kevin believes in democratic socialism and is working with Momentum trying to introduce such ideas to the Parliamentary Labour Party.

In St Ives Labour has chosen Chris Drew, a Cornish born and bred community worker and scion of a well-known Penzance family. Chris says he will offer a ‘real alternative’. It’ll be interesting however to see how much effort Labour puts into this seat, in the face of Lib Dem Andrew George’s desperate pleas for a ‘progressive alliance’. There are still 4,500 Labour votes up for grabs and George needs as many of those as possible to stand any chance at all against the fundamentalist-Brexit margins of Cornish politics.

Labour’s best two performances in 2015 came in Truro & Falmouth, where they scored 15% and almost beat the Lib Dems into second place, and Camborne and Redruth, where they did beat the Lib Dems (into fourth place) and got 25% of the vote. In Truro & Falmouth Jayne Kirkham is their candidate. She moved to Falmouth in 2006 and is a Labour member because she ‘believes in equality’. For her sake, let’s hope there are some redistributive policies with real teeth in their manifesto then.

Camborne and Redruth is Labour’s only realistic hope, but it’s still a very slim one. Trailing George Eustice by 7,000 votes in 2015, they need to ruthlessly squeeze every last Lib Dem vote, given the 7,000 Ukip voters who will, it’s reliably reported, have no Ukip candidate to vote for and will turn like sheep to what they think is a ‘strong and stable’ sheepdog but which turns out to be a ravenous wolf that’ll eat them alive.

Labour’s candidate has to be an improvement on Michael Foster, who they cruelly inflicted on the long-suffering local citizenry last time. This time they’re putting up a local resident who, to my knowledge, doesn’t have a second home. Graham Winter works as a senior advisor in waste management, a useful training for the House of Commons one might have thought. Born in Barnsley, he moved to Camborne in 2005 and is involved in various local activities.

Postscript: the Liberal Democrats in Camborne and Redruth are still keeping the identity of their candidate under wraps, while their websites seem to have been last updated in 2010. Here’s a suggestion for them – save your money and don’t bother.

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.

Will 2017 be 1931? Or 1974?

The Prime Minister made an ‘appeal to the nation’. ‘It is essential that the nation’s support of Government policy is placed beyond the shadow of a doubt … An election, of the result of which there must be no uncertainty, is also necessary to demonstrate to the whole world the determination of the British people to stand by each other in times of national difficulty’.

Sound familiar? The appeal for unity? The strident British nationalism? The confident expectation of victory? But it wasn’t Theresa May. The words were those of Ramsay MacDonald, leading a hastily assembled Government dominated by Conservatives into the 1931 election.

The Tories went on to win 471 of the 615 seats, leaving Labour with a pitiful 46 (plus six Independent Labour). It was the biggest landslide in British history. Theresa May and her advisers are no doubt dreaming of something similar, if not quite that spectacular. After all, there are some analogies. A snap election, the context of austerity politics, attacks on the living standards of the poorest and a Labour Party in Parliament at loggerheads with its own Leader.

So can we expect a re-run of 1931?

Or will it be more like the last snap election, which occurred in February 1974? Ted Heath, confronted by the miners, called an early election to establish who ruled the country – the government or the unions. But his call for national unity fell flat, as voters informed Heath that whoever ruled ‘the country’, it wasn’t him.

The Times reports the 1974 election

That election turned out to be a disaster for the Tories. They lost their majority and saw their poll percentage slide from 46% in 1970 to 38%. They also ended up with fewer seats than Labour (although with more votes!) The big gainers were third parties. In Scotland and Wales sufficient voters demanded their countries back to propel seven SNP and two Plaid MPs into Parliament. In England the beneficiaries were the Liberals, whose vote tripled to six million or 19% of the total.

So can we expect a re-run of 1974?

Although there are some similarities – economic uncertainty (caused by inflation in 1974, Brexit in 2017), a confident Scottish nationalism, political tension in northern Ireland and an unpredictable international context – there are also differences. The Labour Party was more united in 1974. The unions retained their social base. There was no far right populism and the Liberals had been riding high in the polls.

Moreover, before any Lib Dems get carried away by the analogy of 1974, their 19% vote share only gave them 14 seats. Given their refusal to countenance any talk of ‘progressive’ alliances and continuing dalliance with the Tories it could be a similar story this time around.

Corbyn’s Labour: delectation or distraction?

The unexpected personality cult that has developed around Jeremy Corbyn has both positive and negative aspects. Positively, it reflects a groundswell of support for a new kind of politics, more honest, more open. Many look forward to a politics that can root out the malign and corrupt, over-powerful ‘traditional’ influences, from the media, through corporate lobbyists to the City. Others wait impatiently for a politics that can confront the narrow economistic agenda of neoliberalism and the greed it feeds.

On the other hand, Corbynism is formless and vague, more a well-meaning yearning for a better world than a coherent strategy for change. Corbyn himself seems rooted in the 1980s left and has yet to convince he is capable of transforming the rusting hulk of the Labour Party into a streamlined vessel of radical change.

The jury has to remain out on the Labour Party’s capacity to act as the midwife for any ‘new move’ in British politics. While the party is inviting submissions on policy from people beyond its boundaries, there is little evidence as yet of a fundamental shift in its values. Meanwhile, the embittered rump of the parliamentary party have few alternatives to neoliberal economics or support for Trident, are lukewarm on devolution and appear to have little awareness of the issue of climate change and the implications it has for our addiction to fossil-fuelled ‘growth’.

From the outside, whether right or left, too many in the Labour Party still seem wedded to tribalist politics. They cling desperately to the delusion that Labour can wrest power away from the Tories alone, with no need to emerge from its bunker or engage in a radically new politics (as opposed to new policies). Many Labour folk appear to find it difficult to shake off an arrogant and/or condescending authoritarianism in their relations with progressive forces outside the party.

If the Labour Party can’t deliver then all that Corbynism offers is a massive distraction from the long-term struggle to remove the toxic Tories. Energies that could be directed into grassroots struggles or other parties will be sapped in years of internal Labour machine politics and internecine (and obscure) institutional wrangling that will be of absolutely no interest to the majority of voters, whose understanding of politics these days seems to have plumbed new depths.

Electorally, prospects do not look good for Labour. A number of factors, some external, some internal, suggest it faces an uphill battle to appeal to voters, even if Corbyn’s circle can overcome their vocal opponents within the party.

Externally, Labour will lose out from the regular boundary redistributions between elections that are now the norm, the last tired gasp of an electoral system that became unfit for purpose in the 1920s. Regular boundary changes will consolidate the Tories’ ability to transform 40% or less of the votes into massive parliamentary majorities. Strangely therefore, why is Labour so reluctant to make proportional representation a central part of its policy plank?

The structure of party competition also works against Labour. The Liberal Democrats are living evidence of the short-term memory of the British people as they recover from their traumatic coalition caper. As long as they offer a safe home for a soft protest vote, anti-Tory voters will be tempted into the meaningless charade of voting Lib Dem.

Third, the BBC and the press, even the purportedly liberal Guardian, are hell-bent on removing Corbyn and will go on encouraging Labour dissidents, while rubbishing their leader. Expect the current ‘hard left’ and ‘anti-semitic’ abuse to pale into nothing as soon as a real prospect of an election begins to appear on the horizon. Corbyn’s Labour can expect consistently biased media treatment and little opportunity to discuss its policy initiatives sensibly or rationally. So how does it intend to counter this?

And then we have the internal factors militating against Labour success. The first is the patent lack of party unity. The traditional, conservative power-brokers of the party are refusing to bow out gracefully and loath to give up the reins of power to activists at the grassroots. Egged on by their media chums, they’ll fight the internal war as long as it takes. While Labour dithers over whether it’s a socialist or a social democratic, or a centrist party in this way, voters will continue to be uncertain what they’re being asked to vote for.

In such a context they may well vote for the Lib Dems. They’ve already deserted en masse for the SNP in Scotland, And in England of course (and Wales and Cornwall) there’s also Ukip or another far right party. Corbyn’s relaxed attitude to population growth and immigration – he’s ‘unconcerned’ by the numbers – is unlikely to play well outside London and a few liberal cities. Many will see it as smug, the views of a comfortable metropolitan elite out of touch with the realities of everyday life for those who, rightly or wrongly, feel ‘left behind’ and powerless in the face of capitalist restructuring. Unless Corbyn’s Labour Party can come up with a credible (and progressive) alternative on immigration and population growth they’re leaving the field open for Ukip and similar parties.

In a context therefore of an antiquated electoral system in which non-Tory voters are scattered over a number of parties, intense media hostility, internal disunity and the presence of the soft alternative of the Lib Dems and the populist alternative of Ukip, the task of Labour seems formidable to say the least.

Its only chance is to transcend the old politics and embrace the zeitgeist of the new, opening out to others and seeking a progressive electoral alliance. An early test of this arrives in the shape of next year’s local elections, now not much more than six months off. In Cornwall particularly, Labour’s historic weakness means a Labour vote is often wasted and merely serves to split the opposition to the Tories. Is there any sign that Labour is looking to join a progressive alliance, opening out to parties such as MK or the Greens, or even to elements among the Liberal Democrats, in order to maximise the anti-Tory potential in next May’s elections? Or will it stick with its old, familiar, tribalist instincts?

A submission to the Government and MPs on the proposed devonwall constituency

Dear …..

In 2011 the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Government steered the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill through Parliament. As a result of this legislation, and in pursuit of the aim of relatively equally-sized constituencies, a cross-border Bideford, Bude and Launceston constituency is being proposed by the Boundary Commission. This will draw 43% of its electors from Cornwall with 57% from Devon. As you are no doubt aware, this has caused bemusement, dismay, anger and even outrage across Cornwall. For the first time since the Commons was elected in the 13th century, a constituency will straddle the administrative border of Cornwall.

Attempts by parliamentarians to amend this legislation in both Commons and Lords in order to exclude Cornwall from its provisions unfortunately failed. This was despite other places – Orkney and Shetland, Na h-Eileanan an Iar and the Isle of Wight – being exempted from its provisions.

Unlike the Scottish island constituencies, which will have electorates after the Act of around 21-22,000 and 33-34,000, or the Isle of Wight (with two constituencies of 52-53,000 each), the people of Cornwall are not asking for greater representation. Indeed, they would be perfectly content with lesser representation in order to maintain the integrity of Cornwall for the purpose of elections to the House of Commons.

On the basis of electorate statistics in December 2015, five Cornish constituencies would average 78,775 electors. This is just 268 voters above the Boundary Commission’s window of 71,031 to 78,507. For the sake of just 1,340 voters the historical integrity of the Cornish border, critical for maintaining and enhancing the sense of place of the Cornish people, is being consigned to history by the arbitrary 5% variation limit in the legislation.

However, since the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act was passed, a completely new context has arisen. In April 2014, the Government ‘fully recognised’ the Cornish as a national minority under the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. At the time the Chief Secretary to the Treasury stated explicitly that this gave the Cornish ‘the same status … as the UK’s other Celtic people [sic], the Scots, Welsh and the Irish’. [https://www.gov.uk/government/news/cornish-granted-minority-status-within-the-uk]

The proposed cross-border constituency rides roughshod over the fundamental guarantee provided by the Government as recently as 2014 that the Cornish would henceforth be treated on an equal basis. The territories of the other four indigenous nations of these islands are being respected in the boundary revision and not breached. It is entirely unjust and illogical therefore not to treat the Cornish in the same manner.

Moreover, the imposition of this constituency will directly and indirectly breach

a) Article 5, paras 1 and 2 of the Framework Convention

The Parties undertake to promote the conditions necessary for persons belonging to national minorities to maintain and develop their culture, and to preserve the essential elements of their identity, namely their religion, language, traditions and cultural heritage.
Without prejudice to measures taken in pursuance of their general integration policy, the Parties shall refrain from policies or practices aimed at assimilation of persons belonging to national minorities against their will and shall protect these persons from any action aimed at such assimilation.

as well as

b) Article 15
The Parties shall create the conditions necessary for the effective participation of persons belonging to national minorities in cultural, social and economic life and in public affairs, in particular those affecting them.

There are four immediate possibilities therefore.
First, the Government repeals this Act and instead seeks ways to reform democratic processes in the UK in order to bring them up to date with practice in other European states.

Second, the Government recognises the very marginal exception necessary to provide five constituencies for Cornwall, thus respecting its historical boundary, and amends the Act accordingly, following the precedent of the treatment of Orkney and Shetland, Na h-Eileanan an Iar and the Isle of Wight.

Third, the Government redraws Cornwall’s administrative boundary with Devon to include the areas of north west Devon that are proposed to lie within the Bideford, Bude and Launceston constituency, thus bringing the administrative and representational boundaries again into line with each other.

Fourth, the Government changes (or recognises) the constitutional status of Cornwall so that it becomes a Crown Dependency, like the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. This would obviate the need for representation at Westminster.

Which of these options will you be urging on the Government? Or is there an alternative possibility I have not considered?

I note that one of the slogans at the recent Conservative Party conference was ‘A democracy that works for everyone’. For this laudable aim to be translated into reality, more tolerance and sensitivity towards the special case of Cornwall’s border and its significance for Cornish people must be displayed.

I look forward to your response.