Why is Labour so weak in Cornwall? (And what can we do about it?)

Last week I received an email entitled “The Cornwall Labour Party is opening branches near you”. It wasn’t, I live in Islington North, home of Jeremy Corbyn and the metropolitan, socialist elite, which has never lacked for local Labour branches. (Islington also has some of the worst pockets of deprivation in the country but let’s not let facts get in the way of a stereotype.) Unfortunately, not updating a mailing list in three years is the least of my old CLP’s defects.

Cornwall has six seats and six Conservative MPs, and it’s 15 years since any Labour representative was returned. This electoral malaise is mirrored in rural areas across the country but what makes Cornwall unique is that the Conservative domination is unhindered by startling levels of poverty. Wages are low but utility bills, house prices, and transport costs are high. EU figures show that purchasing power in Cornwall is the second lowest in the UK, ‘beaten’ only by West Wales and The Valleys, a region which overlays no fewer than 16 Labour seats.

The problem definitely isn’t a lack of progressive voters, they’ve just all been captured by the Liberal Democrats. These ‘Orange Socialists’ have voted Lib Dem all of their lives, yet most desperately want a Labour government. I’m not just talking about tactical voters (though there are many) but people who’ll proudly tell you they are Liberal Democrats, defend the Party’s policy platform, and even go canvassing come election time. But ask their actual political opinions and the answers won’t differ from Labour voters all over the country: Pro-welfare, pro-services, anti-trident, tax and spend, etc.

I took this a step further than most. My first and only job in politics was with my local Liberal Democrat MP, albeit I had just been made redundant so would’ve taken almost anything. During the interview he asked me if I was a member of any political party and I awkwardly confessed to being a Labour member. I expected this revelation to terminate proceedings but instead he smiled benevolently and said “I understand how it is”. He then told me that the previous Labour PPC had instructed her own activists to tactically vote Lib Dem, so established was the progressive alliance!

Finally, however, there seems to be desire within the Party to change things, both from activists on social media and from the Party leadership. When I last spoke to Jeremy Corbyn, he had just returned from Cornwall and was excited about attending the upcoming Labour South West conference. If, as our leader says, we are going to try breaking into Labour’s ‘no-go areas’, Cornwall is the obvious place to start. However, there are currently three big factors holding us back:

1. No electoral tradition

Voting is habitual and we have never inculcated the habit of voting Labour. Across the North, and in Southern cities, Labour has a history of strength from organised labour and immigrant communities. We used to be strong(ish) in the industrial parts of Cornwall, and Candy Atherton held the now defunct Falmouth and Camborne from 1997 until 2005. But this demographic has dwindled in the decades since the last tin mines closed, and with little support elsewhere it was impossible to withstand the tactical drain to the Liberal Democrats. Just to make clear how bad the situation currently is, in the general election Labour finished behind UKIP in four of the six constituencies…

In normal circumstances I would argue First Past the Post made attempts to win such seats futile. However, with the Liberals’ moral credentials tarnished by their role in government, and damaged on a practical level by their electoral disaster, there may be a historic chance to establish Labour as the main alternative to the Tories. PPC Michael Foster did an excellent job in the new seat of Camborne and Redruth, returning Labour to second place. Hopefully other constituencies can follow, though they will need their own champions – Jeremy Corbyn will not be asking Foster to mastermind a county-wide strategy anytime soon…

2. No party structure

The first task must be to provide some outlet for activists and new members to interact with the Party. When my parents rejoined this summer they had to set up their own informal Labour club because there were no local branches in the entire constituency. CLP meetings were held an hour’s drive from where they live. They received no response to their emails asking how to get involved, and it was six months after the election which had prompted so many new joiners before a branch meeting was finally organised. This isn’t just an issue in Cornwall, I’ve heard similar stories from all over the country in constituencies that haven’t traditionally been winnable.

I don’t blame CLP officers for this, they’ve been ignored by the rest of the Party for a long time and some are already taking the necessary steps. But the Party hierachy now needs to establish contact and ascertain which CLPs require central ‘consultants’ to whip them into shape. Every month that goes by we miss a golden opportunity to engage with new members while they are still enthusiastic. Without an activist base to carry our message into Cornish communities we will achieve nothing.

3. Cornish identity

I would say Cornish identity is the strongest sub-national identity within the UK but the ‘sub’ part of that term would go down very badly. In the 2011 census 14% of people gave Cornish as their national identity despite it not being an option on the form. I can even remember a county council ethnicity survey being reprinted and redistributed because people were so outraged by the lack of Cornish as an option alongside British.

Labour politicians are versed in a number of jargons (trade unionist, social justice warrior, old Marxist, Westminster elite, etc.) but nothing that sounds like rural England, and certainly nothing that speaks to Cornwall’s unique identity. As we discovered in Scotland, this can be terminal for a party’s electoral ambitions. It’s not just that locals reject Labour explicitly on these grounds but that concerns specific to the local way of life take on disproportionate symbolic importance. The Liberal Democrats always emphasise their local credentials by going on about, say, farming even though only 4% of the workforce is employed in agriculture.

Labour doesn’t need to sacrifice the urban poor we fight so hard to represent. Many of our policy standpoints equally apply to people struggling in rural areas like Cornwall. We just need to direct some of our rhetoric towards them. For example, Labour MPs rightly go on about empty properties in London and the consequent lack of affordable housing for young people. Likewise, in Cornwall, second home ownership has driven house prices beyond the reach of first time buyers. It has also decimated local communities as so many homes are now left empty. When was the last time a Labour politician brought this up?

Unfortunately the problem self-perpetuates: we have no MPs from Cornwall, so none of them know much about Cornwall, so none of them talk about Cornwall, so no one supports Labour in Cornwall, so we have no MPs from Cornwall… This cycle is understandable but not acceptable. At the moment we aren’t even trying to represent Cornish people. Until this changes they’ll be saving their red flags for the beach.


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