The UK Independence Party
The big story of the 2013 election was the Ukip surge. Its mean vote in the seats it contested rose by 8.9%, the biggest rise of any party. Moreover, this was accompanied by a large increase in number of seats fought, from 28 in 2009 to 76 in 2013, although in many of these Ukip could only put up paper candidates. Ukip’s haul of seats did not, however, reflect its voting strength, as its votes were spread fairly evenly across Cornwall. Three of its councillors were elected with the support of fewer than one in ten of the electorate and none of its successful candidates received more than 35% of the votes cast.
Seen in this light, the surge was more of a gentle ripple than a political tsunami, with fewer than one in ten voters ‘sending a message’ to Westminster. Given the Government’s economic problems and Cornwall Council’s various highly publicised cock-ups, this might indicate that apathy and alienation are the norm rather then active anger at incumbents.
Nonetheless, there is clearly a minority of ‘sod the lot of them’ voters out there, indicated by the fact that even where the Ukip campaign was non-existent, the party managed to pick up over 20% of the votes. What does it say about the voters of Tintagel, for example, that 313 of them (or 27%) still opted for Ukip’s Sue Bowen, even after she was disowned by Ukip after her public outing as an ex-BNP member? King Arthur must be turning in his grave, wherever that is.
Ukip might have actually missed a trick as their highest vote proportions tended to come in east Cornwall and especially in the old Restormel District, yet the number of candidates they put forward in those areas was less than in the west. Ukip did least well in the old Carrick District, polling around 7% lower there than generally. Was this a result of a more sophisticated electorate? Or is it more likely that there were other, more attractive, mainly Independent, recipients for the protest vote?
Conservatives and Liberal Democrats
Ukip’s high tide was mainly at the expense of the Tories, who lost 19 of the seats won in 2009 and sank from the biggest political group to the third biggest. (Although it should be noted this restores the Tories’ traditionally weaker position on the old Cornwall CC.)
The other wing of the central government coalition, the Liberal Democrats, in contrast rather surprisingly limited their loss to just two seats overall. Indeed, their mean vote went up very slightly, buoyed by the fact that they contested far fewer seats this time around and focused more on their stronger areas. As a result the Lib Dems are fast becoming a party of one part of Cornwall only. Their seats are now heavily concentrated in the east. They only have one councillor in their former stronghold of Truro and only four seats west of that town and are now an endangered species in Camborne-Redruth.
The Lib Dems, somewhat ironically for a party that supports proportional representation, also gained from the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system. If seats had been allocated proportionately according to the mean votes achieved the Lib Dems deserved eight fewer, whereas Ukip were denied 12 of the 18 seats their vote suggested they were entitled to. While Ukip could feel aggrieved about the outcome of this unfair voting system, so could Labour, MK and the Greens, each of which deserved two more seats than they actually won.
The Tories had campaigned on the basis of the Conservatives’ record in running a ‘can-do’ council. But the people’s verdict was more that it had been a ‘didn’t-do’ council, as the Tories paid the price for the Council’s policies. On the other hand, the Lib Dems have so far managed successfully to deflect their shared responsibility for the policies of central government. Given this, the Tories’ strategy, assuming the Lib Dems refuse to join them in a local version of the Westminster deal, should surely be to leave the Cornwall Council leadership to a Lib Dem/Independent coalition, as those are the two largest groupings. That would enable the Tories to play the Lib Dem game of posing as opponents of the policies devised by a government of which they are part. If they continue with the Tory/Independent Cabinet they’re only going to allow the Lib Dems to go on making patsies of them.
The largest grouping on the Council is now the Independents, who had a good election. Although it remains to be seen how this disparate grouping, containing ex-Tories, lifelong MK members, disaffected former Lib Dems, keen pro-housebuilding councillors and staunch opponents of excessive population growth, will operate as a unit. Independents seem to have gained from the backwash of the Ukip surge as voters turned to them in the absence of Ukip. And like the Lib Dems, they were also the lucky beneficiaries of our flawed voting system.
While Independents are found across Cornwall, their main areas of strength is a belt of rural territory between Truro and St Austell and the towns of Helston, Hayle, Liskeard and Redruth. Tories are concentrated in west and south east Cornwall and the Lib Dems in mid and east Cornwall. Meanwhile, Labour won its seats in those areas with a historical Labour presence – Penzance, Camborne, Falmouth and Gunnislake.
It was a mixed result for Labour. It did a lot better than last time, but last time was so awful, involving a total wipe-out, that that’s not saying too much. Labour’s eight seats is a slightly better proportion than the six seats it won in 2005, but not as good as the party’s performance in five of the six preceding elections. Furthermore, although its mean vote grew almost as much as Ukip’s, the lower median indicates that this vote was concentrated in a minority of seats.
The party will be pleased at its breakthrough in Mevagissey, gaining its first seat in the St Austell district for many years. But its tally of just three seats in the Camborne-Redruth district must give it food for thought. There’s a sole Labour councillor in Camborne out of five, and that one elected by just 20% of those voting and 5.6% of those registered to vote. Indeed, not one of the eight successful Labour candidates garnered more than 41% of the vote and most were in the low 30s, benefiting from split votes.
Its failure to take back Redruth North and the less than convincing victories in Falmouth (where its two wards were won even though 90% of voters didn’t bother to vote Labour) might suggest that a centrist Labour Party focused on gaining soft support in middle England makes it difficult to present a convincing clarion call to traditional supporters who are taking the brunt of the Tory/Lib Dem austerity project. As a result, it’s losing such voters to other parties or to none. Given that Labour had the added advantage of the media attention on the Parliamentary circus and should have benefited from the normal mid-term punishment of the incumbent government, its results show the considerable ground it still needs to make up.
MK and the Green Party
Although starved of the media publicity given to Labour, MK’s average vote share remained higher. In the 17 seats where MK and Labour were in competition, MK won more votes in nine of them. Nonetheless, MK will be disappointed at its tally of seats. Its average vote share rose, revealing steady progress, and it seems to have weathered the Ukip storm quite well. In fact, MK came very close to a spectacular breakthrough. If just 140 voters in five wards had switched to MK, the party would have won nine seats rather than the four it ended up with and celebrations would have been widespread. As it is, a solid performance and an impressive manifesto provide a good base for expansion. The party must now look to ways of hoovering up those who will become increasingly disaffected by the London-orientated parties and the lack of an alternative to centralising neo-liberal policies.
Finally, the Greens increased their number of candidates and will no doubt be happy to see the first Green Party councillor at County Hall/Lys Kernow since the days of the old Ecology Party back in the early 1980s. Although the party’s vote share showed little change from 2009, the increased number of candidates and their solid base in St Ives augers well. Indeed, they were only seven votes short of electing a second Green councillor in St Ives West. As the growing contradictions of an economic system mindlessly fixated on growth become clear, the Greens (and MK for that matter) need to position themselves to take better advantage of the next protest vote surge.