Constituency review 1: The outliers – South East Cornwall and Camborne-Redruth

The two constituencies of South East Cornwall and Camborne-Redruth may be far apart. But they share the distinction of being the weakest Liberal Democrat prospects in Cornwall. South East Cornwall is now a pale shadow of the constituency that once gave us Isaac Foot and Peter Bessell. It’s been transformed by in-migration into one of those Surrey seats that in the 1960s and 70s always had huge majorities for a red-faced, complacent, fat Tory, with Labour and Liberals left hopelessly floundering for second place thousands of votes in arrears. With a very large bunch of Ukip votes now up for grabs the swashbuckling Cornish fisherwoman Sheryll Murray should again reach harbour very safely with well over 50% of the vote.

The good ship Tory heads for shore

Sheryll made headlines when she celebrated joining the political class in 2010 by indulging in an all-nighter during the budget debate and being allegedly drunk on duty. Last year she endeared herself to many of her constituents when she was accused of filibustering a Disability Capability Training Bill for taxi drivers. She of course voted to slash benefits for disabled and ill claimants, supporting cuts in the Employment and Support Allowance, and only a few days ago managed to enrage some at a hustings by saying she was ‘really pleased we have foodbanks’ and then threatening to have the police eject an audience member who disagreed with her. Not that her fans would think there’s anything wrong with any of that. Her robust response to those misguided wimps who dare to criticise her is that she ‘will not tolerate keyboard warriors and trolls‘. So there.

She’s opposed by the Lib Dems’ nice but interesting Phil Hutty. Last time Phil erroneously claimed South East Cornwall was ‘very close’, just before losing by a stonking 17,000 votes. So this time take what he says with a large dose of salt. He faces a much more credible Labour opponent in Gareth Derrick, who may even threaten his second place. Meanwhile, the Greens’ Martin Corney has just posted a photo of his first new potatoes of the year on his Facebook page. Better things to do, Martin?

While there’s no point in voting ‘tactically’ in South East Cornwall to get rid of Sheryll Murray (it just won’t happen), there’s every reason to consider doing so in Camborne-Redruth to unseat George Eustice. Despite help from the Tories’ dubious practice of bussing in activists to marginal seats, resulting in a close encounter with prosecution for breaking electoral law, George sits on one of Cornwall’s lower Tory votes – 40% in 2015. Yet he still has a healthy majority of 7,000 to play with. Moreover, there’s another potential 7,000 homeless Ukip voters waiting in the wings and presumably very willing to vote for this former Ukip member with a long-standing eurosceptic record. All this should have made Camborne-Redruth, like the South East, a safe Tory seat. Until, that is, the recent Tory poll wobbles.

Labour is in a clear second place here. Yet, on the streets Camborne and Redruth haven’t been exactly pulsing with excitement at the prospect of losing its smooth PR lobbyist/earthy local farmer [delete as appropriate] Tory MP. At first, Labour appeared to be running a strangely lackadaisical and not a little shambolic campaign. A scattering of Labour posters were popping up in windows and odd people with dogs were spotted wandering the streets doing some canvassing. And then it suddenly dawned on Labour supporters a week or two backalong that they may have a bit more than an outside chance.

Graham Winter getting closer at Camborne-Redruth?

Their candidate, Graham Winter, provides a big contrast to their 2015 campaign, which was fronted by an abrasive second-home owner with anger-management issues. This time, their candidate appears calm and collected, with more than a passing resemblance to a competent if slightly boring local government officer. Whether this is a good thing or not is of course debatable.

The Tory campaign also seems pretty low key and a little complacent, perhaps over-confident, with George playing the local card as always, but again as always, not entirely consistently. For instance, a few years ago he was supporting campaigners who were appalled at the massive housebuilding and population growth targets being foisted onto the district, calling the targets ‘bonkers’. But then he enthusiastically supported a link road which would ‘unlock’ lots of lovely land for …. massive housebuilding and population growth in the district.

Meanwhile, there are two candidates called Geoff. Geoff Williams has been a local Liberal activist since the days of Lloyd George but is likely to see the Lib Dem vote here follow the Welsh wizard into the history books. According to the West Briton he also has a ‘MBW for services to local government’. This is presumably a typo for ‘BMW as a present for agreeing to step up for the Lib Dems in this lost cause at such short notice’.

Geoff Garbett is again standing for the Greens and must be getting used by now to George Eustice’s arguments on the hustings. Hopefully he’s retained his sanity. But at this election he’s vulnerable to serious squeezing by Labour. Even those rejecting tactical voting as the devil’s work are reputedly having second thoughts.

The legislative elections in Brittany

You won’t find too much in the British press about the other parliamentary elections our neighbours are having. No, not Devon and the English south-west, but Brittany. The first round of the French hexagon’s legislative assembly elections takes place in a week’s time, just three days after the UK general election. So what’s going on over the water?

Our electoral system is designed to prevent the emergence of challenger parties and reinforce the dominance of a two-party system. The electoral system of the French Fifth Republic – first past the post but over two ballots – was designed to prevent the emergence of centrist parties and give a clear choice between right and left. Both mechanisms are creaking under the pressure of a more diverse and multi-party society.

In Britain (although not Northern Ireland) the disassociation between the voting system and the party system is starkest. The 2017 general election is taking us temporarily back to a Victorian two-party system (with different parties involved in England and Scotland) and the possibility after a Tory victory and subsequent boundary changes of a permanently entrenched Conservative majority. In France the victory of Macron in the recent Presidential elections has accompanied the rise of an entirely new centrist party – En Marche!. In the UK the move towards a more diverse party system that better reflects society is being quashed; in contrast in France, despite the electoral system, diversity is flowering.

While in the UK there’s an average of five candidates per seat, in France the average is 14 as 7,882 candidates compete for 577 seats (contrast our 3,303 for 650). Voters can hardly complain there’s no choice. Parties are on offer from the Trotskyite left (sometimes two of them) to the royalist far right with all complexions in between. This contrasts with the pallid policies and the unchallenged assumptions (income tax is a burden, growth is always good, Trident must be renewed etc.) around which British elections are fought.

In Brittany of course, we have the extra dimension of Breton regionalism. While MK has gone AWOL in this election, in most of the 37 Breton constituencies voters have a choice of not one but two regionalist candidates.

On the left, the alliance forged for the regional elections in 2015 between the Union démocratique bretonne (UDB) and Christian Troadec’s Mouvement Bretagne et Progrès (MBP) is maintained. Its candidates are standing under the banner Oui la Bretagne (OLB). OLB describes itself as a coalition of regionalists, autonomists, greens and of the left. It’s putting forward 34 candidates. Of these at least 22 are UDB members, while at least seven are from the MBP. The latter are found mainly in the west, where Carhaix-Plouguer in Finistere provides the core of Troadec’s personal vote. It’s here where the OLB will probably score its highest vote.

The UDB’s first ever legislative assembly member Paul Molac is standing again in Ploermel, but not as a UDB candidate. Molac was given a free run in the 2012 elections by the Parti socialiste (PS) and the Greens. Since then he has drifted away from the UDB although, reflecting the UDB’s disenchantment with the Greens, he joined the Socialist group on the Regional Council. In March he declared his support for Macron and this time he’s standing for En Marche! Nonetheless, Molac is not being opposed by OLB.

Neither is he facing opposition from the other regionalist grouping led by the Parti Breton (PB). The PB, created in 2002, denies the right-left label and positions itself as a catch-all, centrist party with a long-term aim of an independent Breton Republic within the EU. For this election it has allied with the Mouvement 100% la force éco-citoyenne. Led by the Alliance écologiste indépendante (AEI), this consists of several citizens’ movements, green groups and micro-parties across the hexagon, as well as a few small regionalist parties. Like the PB (and Macron) it claims to transcend the old right-left divide, although its economic policies look distinctly Blairite.

In Brittany the coalition, headed by the PB, is standing under the label 100% Bretagne. It brings together the PB with the Parti Fédéraliste Européen (PFE) and two even smaller movements – Alliance Fédéraliste Bretonne and En Avant Bretagne. Two thirds of its 31 candidates in Brittany can be identified as PB members, with five from the PFE, while four have not been identified.

No candidate from either the OLB or 100% Bretagne is likely to make the second round. Instead, the two formations will be seeking to improve on past performances at legislative elections, which have been similar to that of MK, a fairly miserable 2% or less. But with the familiar soft regionalist option of the PS in meltdown, does this election offers some novel opportunities?

Climate change; the biggest elephant in the election

Trump pays back his fossil-fuel backers and takes the US back to the early 20th century

All praise President Trump. News that he was pulling out of the Paris climate agreement meant that the yawning absence of this election (and previous ones) at least got a mention. While journalists focus on the minutiae of who will lose out from taxing the top 5%, the costs of this or that policy and whether or not politicians are ‘strong’ or not, we can carry looting the planet and its natural resources with impunity.

A BBC journalist, when reporting the unsurprising Trump decision, inadvertently described dangerous climate change as ‘arguably, the most important issue we face’. Arguably? It’s only ‘arguable’ because the media allowed themselves to be duped by the lobbying of fossil fuel and some other corporate interests. These poured millions of dollars into climate change denial, effectively and maybe disastrously delaying action for decades. All to give themselves another generation of profits.

And yet little is heard of this in the election. As George Monbiot points out, politicians of all hues run scared of confronting capitalism’s central conundrum – how to square environmental damage and economic growth. No-one dares to suggest that there are limits to our right to consume. No-one (apart from the Greens) question the ‘presumption that there are no limits’… ‘they build their economic programmes on a fairytale’, refusing to admit we live on a finite planet.

The Tories’ stance is one of the better examples of their habit of saying one thing and doing the exact opposite while hoping no-one will notice. The rest of us tend to call this lying through their teeth. Climate change gets five explicit mentions in their manifesto. No actual policies to prevent it are cited but the UK is apparently a ‘world leader’ in combating it. Meanwhile, the word ‘growth’ appears 30 times, clearly informing us where their priorities lie.

The Tories are in fact little better than Trump, just more disingenuous. Every one of our Tory MPs in Cornwall voted nine times in the last Parliament against measures to prevent climate change and not once in favour. Over the longer run, the worst record is George Eustice’s, the best (though hardly good) Sarah Newton’s.

Both Labour and the Lib Dems at least pledge to oppose fracking and recognise that reliance on shale gas will lock us into fossil fuel dependence well after 2030, by which time we’re supposed to be virtually carbon-free. But both complacently persist in pursing the chimera of environmental protection AND never-ending ‘growth’. Both mention ‘growth’ positively in their manifestos about the same number of times as they mention ‘climate change’ negatively.

Two former Lib Dem MPs standing again have positive records on climate change, although still not 100%. Dan Rogerson voted for measures to prevent climate change 75% of the time and against 25%. Andrew George was 60% for and 40% against. Meanwhile, as on other issues, Stephen Gilbert’s record was closer to the Tories. He voted 40% of the time for measures to prevent climate change and 60% against. What a pity there’s no Green standing in St Austell & Newquay.

They can’t be serious! Now traditional Tory press in Cornwall predicts Tory losses

An unexpected source, but is this more evidence for a historic surge towards Labour in Cornwall? The West Briton group of local papers is complementing the YouGov prediction of a clean sweep for the Tories with the results of its own survey. Recently, the newspaper group has been considerably less supportive of the Tories than usual. This is partly because Theresa’s May’s handlers wouldn’t allow their reporters to film her or ask certain questions when she visited Helston earlier in the month.

The paper launched a Cornwall Survey 2017 on their website a month ago. In addition to a rather eclectic set of questions, including one asking people which illegal drugs they’d taken recently, they asked them for their voting intentions (presumably when not under the influence of those drugs). The findings, for what they’re worth, back up the YouGov prediction of a sharp rise in the numbers of those intending to vote Labour next week.

Having got over 3,000 responses, Cornwall Live is reporting that Labour is in the lead not only in Camborne & Redruth but also at St Austell & Newquay, which, like Truro & Falmouth, sees a close three-way split between Tory, Labour and Lib Dem. Sheryll Murray remains way ahead in South East Cornwall, which looks increasingly rock-solid for the Tories.

Boris considers jumping on hearing latest polling results

There’s even some good news in this survey for Cornwall’s Lib Dems. In North Cornwall Cornwall Live reports that the Tories’ Scott Mann and the Lib Dems’ Dan Rogerson are neck and neck. Meanwhile, at the other end of Cornwall in St Ives, contradicting the YouGov prediction, Andrew George and Derek Thomas are also too close to call, although an earlier report from Cornwall Live showed Andrew well ahead.

But what are these findings worth? Cornwall Live’s ‘Survey’ may be worth precisely nothing and merely reflect the social media presence of party supporters. Unlike the bona-fide polling outfits, they don’t give us the detailed tables of raw results to check for ourselves. It’s totally unscientific, with a self-selected sample, which is neither random nor properly stratified. As it’s online it’s likely to be skewed towards younger and/or computer-savvy voters, a group that is less likely to be Tory than the inert lump of pensioners who will (famous last words) keep them in power.

Yet, taken together with the YouGov model, one clear message comes through. This is that tactical voting only makes sense in North Cornwall and St Ives (for the Lib Dems) and possibly Camborne-Redruth (for Labour). In the other three seats forget it. There, you can safely vote for what you believe in.

Pollsters predict another Lib Dem wipeout in Cornwall

Typical. On the very day I confidently pronounced that Labour didn’t have a hope in hell of winning next week’s election, based on polling evidence, YouGov launched its election prediction model with the shock news that we’re heading for a hung Parliament and Tory losses. Their model also provides the first relatively solid evidence for voting intentions in Cornwall (although based on a state-wide methodology).

As of today YouGov is predicting four likely Conservative wins in Cornwall and two safe Tory constituencies. In every seat, the Tories are comfortably ahead by more than ten points. There is however a wide margin of error in YouGov’s estimates, as they admit. Thus on a good day, they’re suggesting that the Lib Dem vote in St Ives could be as high as 41% (an increase of 8% on 2015). But on a bad day for the Lib Dems it could slump as low as 25%. And, given that Derek Thomas’s equivalent range at the 95% confidence level is 38-51% Andrew George needs a very good day to sneak past him.

Here are the current details of YouGov’s predictions for Cornwall (estimated % of support and change on 2015).

St Ives Camborne Truro St Austell North South East
Con 45 (+7) 50 (+10) 45 (+1) 50 (+10) 47 (+2) 56 (+5)
Lib Dem 33 (nc) 11 (-1) 19 (+2) 23 (-1) 33 (+2) 21 (+4)
Labr 23 (+14) 37 (+12) 28 (+13) 27 (+17) 17 (+12) 20 (+11)
Green 3 (-3) 4 (-5) 3 (-2)
Ukip 5 (-7)
May gets out and meets her adoring public in Helston.

The big surprise has to be the rise in the Labour vote, which is very bad news indeed for Lib Dem strategists hoping to squeeze that vote. In fact, in Truro & Falmouth and St Austell & Newquay YouGov is suggesting that Labour will come second and even in South East Cornwall, it’s a very close thing, with Lib Dems and Labour tied on around 20% each. Is this really likely? It’s perhaps possible in Truro & Falmouth, where Labour are well organised in Falmouth and Penryn. It’s difficult to imagine an improvement of 17% in the Labour vote in St Austell & Newquay. And it would be a historic first and a symbolic end to Cornish Liberalism if Labour were to edge out the Lib Dems in the South East.

Nonetheless, however sceptical we might remain and however much weight we might give to the ‘local factors’ that YouGov ignore, there are implications here for those being swayed by the calls to vote ‘tactically’. Keep an eye on YouGov’s model, which they tell us will be updated daily. Things may yet change radically in the week left before the election. If you’re considering your postal vote I should hold off until the last moment possible.

Moreover, there’s another far less scientific ‘poll’ that might give a little more credibility to YouGov’s predictions for Cornwall. More on that tomorrow.

Can Labour win? Is St Jeremy on his way to Number 10?

If I was to believe my Twitter bubble over the past few days I’d be thinking something astonishing was about to happen. Labour tribalists are all aquiver. Jaded, dispassionate cynics are waking up and smelling the coffee. Even the BBC’s correspondents, having casually written Corbyn’s Labour off weeks ago, are forced to admit things are getting closer. Too close for Tory HQ, where the apparatchiks are giving headless chickens a run for their money as they press the panic button. Can Labour really pull off the biggest election shock since 1945?

The answer is still a short and simple no.

In 1945 there was no polling. Even though the polls got it badly wrong in 2015 (understating the Tory vote note) they can’t be that wrong. Its true there’s been a dramatic shift since the local elections, and more particularly since the Tory manifesto was launched. The Tory lead has been almost halved, from overwhelming to merely comfortable. Most of the change came in the week after the 18th, when there was a small fall in the Tory ratings but a larger rise in Labour’s.

The average of ICM, YouGov, Opinium and ORB polling

It seems that those who were don’t knows but previous Labour voters at the beginning of the campaign have now overcome their qualms and are swinging back behind Labour. Previous Ukip voters, although still heavily Tory, are slightly more likely now to return to Labour. At the same time Corbyn’s strategy seems to be enthusing younger voters, where Labour support is consolidating.

Policy is less important as an attractor or repellent than image. The superficiality of the Tory reliance on parroting ‘strong and stable’ and contrasting May with Corbyn hasn’t worked. Even through the distorting mirror of the media, people can spot May’s flip-flopping over care for the elderly. She just doesn’t come over as ‘strong and stable’, proving that marketing myths have to have some credible core in order to work.

Tory panic is now displayed in their strategy for the remaining days. All they can come up with is a renewed attack on Corbyn while ratcheting up the abuse. They’re now using their tame press to imply he supports terrorists, re-running the British state’s war with the IRA and ridiculing his personal qualities. The aim is not to convince waverers so much as shore up the Tory vote and prevent further defections. This is a high-risk strategy as it depends on ensuring the same questions aren’t asked of Theresa May.

The key polls come this weekend when we’ll know whether the gap continued to close this week. At present the few polls published with fieldwork since the 25th suggest it’s stabilising. In order to win however, Labour needs, both this week and next, to gain support as it did last week. This is unlikely as it nears its historic recent peak. (Last week it was five points higher than Miliband’s score in 2015).

Therefore, it now depends on the Tory vote slipping. But here Labour faces a long-term problem in the proportion of over-65s who intend to vote Tory. A solid 60% or so of pensioners are sticking stubbornly with the Tories. This lump remains unmoved by May’s U-turns, more expensive social care, the collapse of the NHS and the promised end to safeguarding their pensions, having done relatively well out of recent Tory Governments. Thirty years of neo-liberal conditioning, relentless authoritarian British nationalist brainwashing and the lack of an alternative have done their work well and produced a politics of deference and a collective resignation that results in a perhaps wearisome but nonetheless dutiful Conservative cross on the ballot paper.

Labour’s only chance lies in previous non-voters confounding the pollsters and turning out to vote in larger numbers. Or in tactical voting.

A three or four week election campaign is hardly enough time to convince the poor and dispossessed to stop voting against their own interests. Or to persuade them to give up their cynicism about a political class (Tory, Labour and Lib Dem) that has royally stuffed them for the best part of 40 years. It’s going to take more than the patience of St Jeremy when being savaged by Oxbridge-trained journos to overturn that. Why should they believe that Labour has suddenly changed its spots and offers a credible alternative? Indeed, if the polls can be believed, non-voters in 2015 are as likely to be intending to vote Tory now as Labour.

As for tactical voting, this will only have a marginal impact of a few thousand votes in a handful of constituencies in the absence of any encouragement from the Labour and Lib Dem party leaderships.

Things might have been different. There’s a lot of what ifs floating around. Such as …

  • What if the parliamentary Labour Party had united behind Corbyn last year instead of using the Brexit vote to stab him in the back?
  • What if Labour could have become less arrogant and tribalist, able to move into the twenty-first century and recognise the need for a new politics, one more open to other forces?
  • What if Labour had embraced proportional representation?

But it hasn’t. So it won’t (win, that is). And of course, had it done these things Theresa May would never have been advised to call an election in the first place.

Fair voting – what do the parties say?

If the anti-Tory parties were serious about getting rid of the Tories then surely they would prioritise getting rid of a first past the post system that guarantees the Conservatives healthy majorities on well under half the votes cast. This method, devised for a straightforward two-party system, has long outgrown its usefulness and now merely serves to prevent the incursion into the political mainstream of much-needed alternatives.

Moreover, nobody knows how it’s supposed to work. Apparently, it’s actually all about ‘tactical’ voting. So you have to decide which candidate you dislike the least in order to get rid of the one you hate the most, if your actual preference is unlikely to win. Then you have to decide whether your dislike of the candidate you don’t want to win is sufficient to overcome any qualms about voting for your second choice. Although you must then calculate whether that second choice is really in with a chance of winning. If not, maybe you’d be better to vote for a third choice, but only if you detest a fourth candidate enough to do that. Finally, you have to ponder the implications of helping your originally preferred choice obtain a miserable vote, thus allowing others to belittle and ignore the ideals you hold dear for another four or five years.

It’s all so damn complicated. Far simpler to follow the vast majority of the democratic world and institute a fair voting system where every vote counts and none is ‘wasted’. However, there’s little sign of enthusiasm for that in the manifestos of two of the old centralist parties. The Tories bizarrely want to extend FPTP, doing away with the alternative vote used for mayoral elections. The other conservative party – Labour – makes no mention of PR at all.

Imagine what this diagram would look like if it was Cornwall, not England!

The Lib Dems do include a pledge to introduce ‘fair voting’ and specifically the single transferable vote. But, stuck on page 89 of 95, it hardly seems to be a top priority. And of course, Lib Dems had the chance not that many years ago when they were part of the coalition government and spectacularly blew it. They could then have demanded STV for local elections, as in Scotland, as part of a deal with the Tories, allowing the latter to gerrymander Westminster constituencies. Given that no-one in Parliament cares a fig about local government this might well have had more traction than a pathetic referendum on the alternative vote, plainly chosen to maximise Lib Dem party gains.

The other parties – Greens and UKIP – are both in favour of PR, possibly again for selfish party reasons. Ukip’s suggestion of replacing the House of Lords with an English Parliament elected via the additional member system as in Scotland and Wales, with a UK-wide slimmed down House of Commons elected by PR is actually remarkably innovative and co-exists uneasily with the bulk of its back to the future programme.