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
2017 local elections
North East Party
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.
We now know the 99% certain line-up for Camborne & Redruth a few hours before nominations close for the general election. After several days of prevarication the Liberal Democrats finally revealed their candidate as Geoff Williams. As predicted here, Illogan-based Geoff was chosen, according to the Lib Dems, at a ‘packed’ meeting. Might have been a small room though. Geoff was a founder-member of the Lib Dems in the 1980s and is described as a ‘veteran’ local politician, having been around since the time of Gladstone.
Farmer/PR man and sitting MP George Eustice, won’t lose many nights sleep over the Lib Dems. Now buoyed up by escaping a spell in prison, George will be even less worried by the Greens’ announcement that their candidate is strangely also called Geoff. Coincidentally, Geoff Garbett (68), who contested the constituency in 2015, is, like the other Geoff, also a retired teacher and lecturer. Even more uncannily, he’s also a founder member of his party in the ‘south west’. And, stretching the bounds of credibility to their utmost, he’s also a parish councillor.
The Greens, having, as implied here last week, eventually decided not to stand in St Ives, will be trusting local Lib Dems might do the decent thing and return the favour. Fat chance. So far Liberal Democrats have displayed not a glimmer of any willingness to reciprocate in Cornwall and indulge in so-called ‘progressive’ allying. They’re sticking to their tried and tested Gilbert and Sullivanesque presumption that anyone who isn’t a little Conservative must be a little Lib Dem. The Greens’ less than startling performance in the local elections is unlikely to alter that.
And sadly, there’s no MK candidate. For a few moments last weekend MK considered standing in St Austell & Newquay and Camborne-Redruth. But instead the party has decided to save its money and go into hibernation for four years. Knackered by the locals, they’ve been wrong-footed by the TMaybot’s evil plan to call a general election merely in order to undermine the chances of Cornish nationalism for another generation. It remains to be seen whether Cornwall will survive this latest blow.
Not that, for the Tories, there can be any Cornish nationalism of course, as there’s no Cornish nation. And if some people, like the Council of Europe, say there is, then they’re European and automatically wrong and deluded and, well, just foreign and can’t be believed. So, you Cornish oafs and mugwumps, clear the road and leave ‘our country’ safe from the separatists and fit for foxhunters, offshore investors, hedge funds, speculative developers and the super-rich.
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.
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.
In 2002, political scientists Simon Henig and Lewis Baston wrote that MK was ‘a serious and committed presence on the Cornish scene with potential for growth’. However, this is one growth that Cornwall hasn’t seen. So what is it that holds MK back? Is it technical issues and the electoral system, or policy positions, or something broader, involving institutional or cultural constraints?
The immediate disadvantages within which MK operates hardly require restating. Put simply, the electoral playing field is anything but level; it’s utterly slanted against MK. For example, as long as Cornwall is regarded as part of England, any regionalist party will be barred from airing party election broadcasts. MK’s Dick Cole has spent many hours fruitlessly banging his head against the stubborn, illogical ‘rules’ behind which the broadcasters hide and sums up the position comprehensively here.
But no-one imagines that if MK were only granted a few party election broadcasts everything in the garden would be rosy. However convincing Dick or his colleagues might be on the small screen, it’s difficult to imagine broadcasts alone triggering massive support, with crowds of people queueing up to vote MK. Let’s take a short detour into MK’s history. In policy terms MK is a child of the 60s. Its ‘left of centre’, broadly social democratic, greenish policy stance mirrors that of Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the UDB in Brittany. However, unlike Plaid and the SNP (but like the UDB), MK missed out during the first nationalist surge of the 1960s and then failed to break through in the 1970s. Moreover, unlike the UDB, it’s been unable to take advantage of an electoral system slightly kinder to minority parties and benefit from alliances with Greens or other left of centre parties.
In contrast, an antiquated Victorian voting system combines with the disdain of the media to conveniently marginalise MK. But how do voters actually regard MK? On the one hand it’s a more Cornish version of the Greens and on the other a leftist version of the Lib Dems. But it’s not clear whether there’s enough electoral space in Cornwall for two Lib Dem parties. That’s even more the case for two Green Parties; in fact it’s not obvious there’s enough room for one.
When it comes to what we might term the soft Cornish vote MK has traditionally lost out to the Liberal Democrats. The Liberals seized ownership of the anti-metropolitan issue back in the 1960s and have retained it for over half a century. The Lib Dems just do enough, with their recurrent (though hollow) calls for a ‘fair deal for Cornwall’, to hang on to that soft ‘Cornish’ vote. Ever the opportunists and conveniently policy-lite, these chameleon Cornish are quick to jump on any bandwagon going, from EU Objective 1 funding in 1999, to housing campaigns, to struggles against border-blurring, to support for a Cornish Assembly (even though in practice this somewhat ludicrously turns out to mean one or two enhanced powers for a discredited local government institution and more money for undemocratic quangos.)
This is why Ben Gilby’s call for MK to manufacture the issues that can convince Lib Dems to ‘jump on the bandwagon’ is fundamentally mistaken. Mistaken that is if the aim is to project MK as the more credible voice of Cornish devolution. Lib Dems have been all too adept at jumping on the bandwagon in the past. Invariably, this has meant them siphoning off support, capturing MK issues and policies but in the process neutering them, stripping them of content or otherwise discrediting them. In fact, the Lib Dems’ persistent success in doing this has been an important factor in MK’s failure to grow. MK will only achieve credibility and become a major player over the dead body of the Cornish Liberal Democrats.
The Lib Dems’ disastrous dalliance with the Tories during the coalition government opened up an opportunity, but it was one MK was unfortunately unable to exploit. Ben says that the Cornish situation will remain perilous ‘until there is someone in Parliament who can speak for Cornwall’. However, in the last parliament there was. Liberal Democrat Andrew George spoke for Cornwall. Here was someone who had impeccable Cornish credentials and could really have made a difference. If only Andrew had resigned the Lib Dem whip (over NHS ‘reform’ perhaps or his party’s support for a Devonwall constituency). Then he might have built a base for an independent broader Cornish alliance ( maybe including MK) and held on to his seat. Unfortunately, he didn’t take that chance, preferring to stick with the sinking ship of the Lib Dems, and went down with it. Until someone like Andrew breaks with the Lib Dems, or we elect an MK MP, we will continue to have no-one in Parliament who can forthrightly ‘speak for Cornwall’.
However, consigning the Lib Dem illusion to the dustbin of history, like party election broadcasts, is no magic bullet. MK faces more profound structural problems, problems related to culture, identity and social change. While recent years have seen a growing willingness of people to assert their Cornish identity, a strand of pessimism, defeatism and despair also still runs through the Cornish psyche. This is hardly surprising in the context of the massive social changes since the 1960s and the colonisation of our institutions by an incoming project class seemingly unaware of our heritage or status, or even hostile to it.
Sadly, any subdued resentment that might be smouldering away in Cornish communities has been as likely to find its outlet in voting Ukip as in voting MK. In fact, a lot more likely in the past few years. The populist turn we have seen since the bankers’ crash of 2008 – either the xenophobic right populism of Ukip or the French Front National, or the radical left populism of the SNP, the Corbynistas or Podemos in Spain – seems to have passed MK by.
Nonetheless, as voter volatility and de-partisanship increases, does another opportunity open up for MK? Can the party tap into it? Is it best prepared to do so? Cornish political scientist Joanie Willett has convincingly argued that ethnic nationalism is more inclusive than the ‘regional brand’ of civic nationalism hesitatingly deployed by elites in Cornwall. The former is potentially more emancipatory and open to anyone with an attachment to Cornwall, whereas civic nationalism is based on consumption, greed and lifestyle. This demands a level of income that puts it beyond the reach of most Cornish folk.
Combine this with the fact that, as the mainstream parties have converged in their economic policies (all adopting neo-liberal, corporate-friendly policies in slightly differing shades), identity politics have become more salient. Should MK not therefore adopt a more forceful identity politics than the determinedly liberal, yet rather anodyne, civic nationalism that has been its hallmark since the mid-1970s? In parallel, is to time to play down its overt left of centre position and adopt a more catch-all position, a post-ideological stance if you like. This might combine an opposition to neo-liberalism and campaigning for democratisation of our institutions with a public focus on a few key populist policies (for example second homes and border-blurring), combined with a strongly pro-Cornish attitude. At present MK can seem merely like a mini-version of Plaid or the SNP. But does it need to be more distinctly Cornish?
To do that, a couple of other things seem in order. MK historically grew out of the Cornish cultural revival. This adopted a set of values that prioritised medievalism over modernity, the rural over the urban, Celtic purity over English regionalism, the Cornish language over the Cornish dialect. This had its strengths, in that it allowed a coherent counter-narrative to Englishness to emerge and to a degree thrive. But it also had its limits.
The revivalist movement never found it easy to build a bridge to the bulk of the Cornish people. With the rise of the ‘industrial Celt’ in the 1990s this became easier but a tension remains between revivalism and a populist Cornishness that sometimes finds it difficult to live up to the impossibly pure cultural demands of revivalism. Another Cornish academic observer, Neil Kennedy, has argued that the current revivalist project is flirting with a second wrong turn. It’s in danger of compromising or even sacrificing traditional ‘proper Cornishness’ in pursuit of the chimera of a tourist-friendly, consumerist ‘celtic’ culture that appeals to native and new-ager, resident and visitor alike. The danger in this lies in distancing revivalism even further from the everyday Cornishness and concerns of local communities.
If Neil is right then MK might be well advised to make a final break with the conceits of Cornish revivalism. This also means playing down the revived Cornish language, which should be treated merely as a useful symbol of difference than some ideal cultural destination. For too long, the much more widely used Cornish accent and dialect has been disparaged and downgraded. Yet the popularity of cultural commentators such as Kernow King, online and in person, hints at a resurgence of interest in the dialect and, more importantly, the possibility of creatively re-using it as an emancipatory tool.
Can we detect in this the seeds of a new Cornish populism, one that is neither ‘Celtic’ nor English, but Cornish and proud of it? However, to take advantage of this, MK surely needs a re-launch. New policies would ideally be combined with a long overdue name change, ditching the outdated and revivalist connotations of Mebyon Kernow. The name Plaid Cymru makes sense in the Welsh context, when a fifth of voters still speak Welsh and the language has an everyday presence; it’s less clear that slavishly copying the Welsh makes sense in the Cornish context when hardly anyone speaks Cornish. Instead of ‘MK: the Party of Cornwall’, why not just ‘The Cornish Party’ for example?
So there we have it. I seem to have argued myself into proposing a post-ideological, post-revivalist, populist Cornish party rising out of the ashes of traditional Cornish nationalism. Hopefully, this iconoclasm won’t be too shocking; it’s offered with the best motives. I remain convinced MK remains our best (and only) hope; but perhaps not exactly in its present shape.
MK has called for 2016 to be the Year of Cornish Recognition, when Cornwall’s territory, its right to an assembly and the Cornish identity and language become mainstream issues across the UK. For that to happen however, 2016 and, even more so, 2017 have also to become the Years of Cornish Resistance.
In May next year, Cornwall Council is up for re-election. The first Conservative/Independent unitary council administration wholeheartedly embraced the regeneration myth and a growth strategy that basically encouraged the continuation of large scale population transfers into Cornwall. The second Lib Dem/Independent administration has been more ambiguous about this strategy but has abysmally failed to offer much meaningful opposition to central government diktat or austerity politics. Moreover, it’s not even begun to galvanise the Cornish public behind calls for devolution or lead campaigns for fair treatment or a genuine re-democratisation of Cornwall. Quite the opposite in fact, as the general view of Cornwall Council on the streets, after a string of cock-ups, plumbs hitherto unseen depths.
The next elections are therefore critical. Here’s the chance to replace the majority of the current crew of councillors, who either ineffectually bleat about how they’re being bullied, or actively collude with the transformation of Cornwall into a lifestyle choice and a profitable playground for upcountry developers. But replace them with what? There are two obvious choices for any self-respecting Cornish patriot. The first is Mebyon Kernow (MK) the long-standing face of responsible Cornish nationalism, with four councillors at present out of 123. The second is less visible, the promising though somewhat shy movement around Cornwall for Change (C4C) or what’s occasionally called the ‘Alliance’.
Neither seems that convincing at the time of writing. Those of us opposed to Cornwall Council’s direction of travel have been unable to establish a convincing, membership-based and open campaigning group over the three years since disquiet over the Council’s plans for Cornwall first surfaced. There’s been a lot of talk, some bloodcurdling threats, some lobbying of elected members, promises of undisclosed forthcoming action, but nothing substantial. Even a website has still to appear, let alone a coherent strategy or the material basis for a credible intervention in the 2017 elections.
Which leaves us with MK. Since last year’s General Election disaster and in particular since the new year MK has come in for a degree of criticism. It’s not doing enough; it’s not visible; it’s not well organised. There’s nothing new in this. Since the 1970s at least, Cornish nationalism has comprised of an organised core, a constitutional party fighting elections and competing with the state-wide parties in Cornwall, plus an unorganised and fluctuating penumbra or margin. The latter snipes away at MK’s ineffectiveness and promises, though never quite achieves, unspecified more effective action.
Back in the 1970s for example, we had the Stannary short-cut. People jumped at the opportunities presented by never-repealed, long-ignored charters to point out that we already had our own Parliament. ‘All’ that was needed was UK Government recognition of our legal rights and there was the short-cut to independence. Nothing could be simpler. Except that central government will only begin to take this seriously when ‘the law’ is backed up by a massive show of resistance that challenges the legitimacy of the London Government in Cornwall. Given the state of public opinion this is at present unlikely.
The MK activist would rightly respond that, for this to happen, years of patient and solid work are required, electioneering, publicising, agitating, leafleting, arguing for devolution. Given the constant need in Cornwall to educate new generations of residents, the democratic road is a long and thankless one. No wonder that many of us, and I include myself in this criticism, shirk the task. After a few years active in MK, we shrug our shoulders and retire to other, less onerous and more immediately productive, fields of endeavour.
Although it’s understandable, it’s too easy from outside to criticise MK for its inability to make its presence tell. If anything, this is more acutely felt because we so desperately want it to succeed. We put our faith in MK. But that investment is then regularly dashed in the cold baths of succeeding electoral cycles. We swing from wildly over-hyped pre-election enthusiasm to bitter post-election gloom. Hope turns to despair, love turns to hate as we decide never again to invest our dreams in MK. Or at least not until the next election.
All of which is deeply frustrating to MK members as their fair-weather friends come and go, offering a litany of advice and complaints but insufficient solidarity and support. As one contributor on Facebook rightly put it, MK ‘needs all hands on decks’, especially given its lack of resources. But instead, we prefer to skulk on the sidelines and moan about those lack of resources.
While a lot of the criticism levelled at MK is unrealistic or unfair, this is not to deny that the party needs to re-assess its position and recognise that at present it’s been treading water and not going anywhere electorally. Of course, things can always change and change quickly. We’re told a week is a long time in politics. But MK has been waiting 65 years for that week. Can it do anything to bring it a little closer? Is it time for a fundamental and long overdue re-think? In the second part of this blog I’ll try to stop rambling and offer a few thoughts on a possible change of direction.
Although there’s been a considerable shift back to the two familiar parties since last year, this poll shows very little change since the last one taken in March. Rogerson continues to eke out a narrow 2% lead, but one still uncomfortably within the margin of error. It looks like the winner here will be he who squeezes the other parties most in the last five days. Mann has a 14% Ukip share to aim at, while Rogerson can try to steal back a 13% Labour/Green/MK share. Neither has an obvious advantage in the tactical vote struggle, therefore.
Moreover, the total score for others, at around 27%, has not shifted over the last month of campaigning. It could be that the low hanging fruit was picked over the winter. The Ukip and Green vote now looks fairly stable. Moreover, the leap in the score for others over the last month by 2%, from 1% to 3%, may prove welcome news for MK. Here’s the change since the last election.
As the election ritual stutters on to its consummation in the bonfire of ballots in a week’s time, let’s check that the corporate press is doing its duty. How many headlines has each party got per candidate over the last month? (The source is the Nexis news database)
The SNP are so far out in front as to be almost out of sight. Of course, most of the headlines outside Scotland are not exactly complimentary. More like scaremongering, hysterical or just plain daft. The headlines for Labour, given the way the media has pounced on Ed Milibland’s meeting with Russell Brand, the spawn of Satan, are no doubt similarly negative. But, on the adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, Labour are holding up well in the corporate media.
Ukip are doing slightly better than the Lib Dems, who these days are not of much interest to corporate journalists or anyone else (which may explain increasingly desperate Lib Dem leaks). Plaid do better than both of these parties, given their candidate numbers. Even MK’s ten ‘headlines’ give them a better rating. But here we must note a small problem with using this measure. All the 10 MK ‘headlines’ were in fact topping opinion pieces invited from the candidates by the local press. Not one was a story about the party as opposed to a political policy position from the party. These ‘candidate pieces’ make up only a very small proportion of other parties’ headlines.
Why no Greens in the chart? Because the search facility in the Nexis database doesn’t allow an easy distinguishing between the political party and village greens, golf greens or even green tea.
When it comes to alternative socialist voices, TUSC, who have arguably produced one of the liveliest party political broadcasts, has only managed to generate eight headlines, despite having 133 candidates. That’s 0.06 per candidate, compared with around 4 for the Westminster austerity cheerleaders. So good to know our corporate press can still do its job and report these rituals fully and fairly, isn’t it.