Politics of Kernow: a ‘distinctive phenomenon’?

Thomas Fidler


Described as a ‘Distinctive phenomenon’ by Adrian Lee, the Politics of Cornwall can by no means be described as conventional, and one thing is for sure, the 4th May will no doubt provide a number of surprises. With 123 seats on Cornwall Council to be filled, the political activity on the streets and the media is beginning to rear its head once again as independent candidates, the major political parties and Cornish nationalists compete to represent the various communities of Cornwall.

When looking at the 2015 general election in which Cornwall elected six Conservative MPs it seems surprising that in 2013 Cornwall elected a Lib Dem-Independent coalition to lead Cornwall Council. In fact, since its formation in 2009, Coalition has been the key to power at local government level in Cornwall, with the first election resulting in a Conservative-Independent coalition, again with the major party failing to achieve overall majority. But a lot has changed in politics even since 2013. No longer with a Coalition government in Parliament, the impact of Britain’s EU referendum vote still to be determined, the defection of a number of Cornwall Councillors across the political spectrum and a number of key Cornish issues that will undoubtedly be in the back of the minds of voters on Polling day, it is very difficult to say which way Cornwall will vote.

The ‘Liberal Tradition’ of Cornwall has been well studied by academics, recognising the high base-level of support for the Liberal Democrats and Liberal Party before that in Cornwall when compared to other parts of Britain, certainly large swathes of England. Amid the backdrop of the ever popular trend in the Liberal Democrats of the #libdemfightback, the party have a lot to be excited for. In all-bar-one of the by-elections for Cornwall Council held in 2016, the Liberal Democrats topped the polls, strengthening the position of them with more incumbents. However with some individuals not standing for re-election, perhaps most noticeably Jeremy Rowe, and the backdrop of a Pro-European party across almost universal ‘Vote Leave’ territory, it remains to see how the party will fare and whether it will maintain enough support to remain in coalition or win outright control.

Illustration: Kate Williams

Meanwhile the Conservative Party, buoyed by its outright control of the United Kingdom and fresh from the successes of Copeland will look to build on the successes they made at Parliamentary levels in Cornwall. At the 2013 election, they were only seventeen seats behind the Liberal Democrats and will look to squeeze th

e UKIP vote to which they lost a number of Cornwall Councillors. As previously mentioned they have always polled well in Cornwall, and as the opposition, have increased pressure on Cornwall Council. How much are they gaining ground in a number of the key wards that could hold the balance of power? There are strong murmurs of discontent being raised in local papers, but to what extent will this play out when voters are asked to cast their vote?

It is difficult to know about the Independents, as obviously the successes of candidates are subject to their personal popularity in their individual wards. So far there has not been much discussion regarding any incumbents choosing not to stand for re-election, but in many cases not getting the media presence of the political parties, how will their vote share have changed in the four years since they last asked voters to lend their support? It is likely however, given how close it may be, this important group of independents (NOTE: This is not all independents, some have chosen not to join the group), may yet hold the balance of power after the 4th May in forming a majority.

A lot has been made of the Cornish Nationalist movement in Cornish Politics, more for their impact ideologically in dictating some sections of the ‘Cornish’ agenda, though they have not necessarily manifested itself in elected representation. Currently holding four seats on Cornwall Council, the party has been continually squeezed by the Liberal Democrats and independents who have tried to promote themselves as local ‘Cornish’ champions, emphasising their candidates Cornish roots, image and agenda. Though, with the looming threat of “Devonwall” the blurring of the border between Devon and Cornwall in Political constituency and in the delivery of services, perhaps now is the time that the Party becomes a force in Cornish Local politics.

This is not to exclude Labour. Particularly in Falmouth and then in far West Cornwall, the presence of Labour Councillors was certainly noticeable in 2013 winning seven seats. However, since then, they’ve lost one of their councillors and the party’s image nationally has been hit quite hard. That said, a number of local parties are strong supporters of the Momentum movement. If they are successful in holding their seats and maybe gaining one or two, they will be happy with progress. Perhaps their biggest impact will be their vote share in the individual wards, and where that vote comes from; whether winning over the Nationalist, Lib Dem, Conservative or Anti / independent vote. Similar rhetoric could be used for the Green Party. With one seat on Cornwall Council, it is highly unlikely that they will significantly increase their representation, but if they split the vote for the other parties, it may be the difference between winning and losing.

Political sketch illustrated by Kate Williams, demonstrating the rise in awareness of Cornish Politics in the South West.

It is early days yet with the notice of election due in March and therefore the manifestos, list of candidates and the key political debates not yet known. But what is important to note is how much every vote counts. In a by-Election in 2014, the difference in a by-election that covered the Campus was decided by a single vote. Likewise, in Falmouth, the growing student population could hold the balance. Even if you’ve never really done politics before, start reading the literature that comes through the door, check out the party or candidate’s websites and most importantly register to vote! Your vote could provide a significant twist in the already complex and exciting political backdrop of Cornwall.