Lib Dem bloggers and tweeters are all of a twitter in Cornwall since Thursday’s by-election victory at St Austell Bay. John Oxenham, the successful Lib Dem candidate, overturned a 361 Tory majority to win this seat by 15 votes, increasing his party’s proportion from 33.5% in June to 48.2% in the process. The fact that this should be one of the Tories’ safest wards in Cornwall merely added to the Lib Dems’ excitement and the Tories’ gloom.
Across the length and breadth of Lib Dem Britain their activists have been quick to follow Matthew Taylor’s lead and claim St Austell Bay was a result of ‘how quickly the tide is turning against the Conservatives in Cornwall now people can see the reality of their approach at County Hall’. Sure enough, the Tory leadership at Truro have hardly wasted their time in turning Leader Alec Robertson’s pledge of ‘openness and transparency’ into a hollow joke.
Just six months in and his rash promise is looking increasingly ludicrous as the Tories manage to shoot themselves in the foot. Repeatedly. They’ve ignored the council scrutiny process and pushed through changes in severance pay for council staff; they’ve been accused of secrecy in handling matters as diverse as childcare services, closure of village schools in north Cornwall and running Newquay airport; their Green Paper on Cornwall’s economy has been subject to widespread ridicule. Word has it that cracks are already opening up between the Tories and their Independent coalition partners.
Meanwhile the Lib Dems are frantically wielding their crowbars in an attempt to widen those cracks further. With reported ‘growing disillusion’ with the Tory-led Council comes the ineptitude of the Tory ppc in St Austell and Newquay – self-help guru and media empty-head Caroline Righton. Lib Dems in mid-Cornwall must think that Christmas has come early this year.
Caroline, the Tory candidate who hadn’t a clue what PFI meant, managed to score an embarrassing own goal by sending an email which quoted a tweet by hyperactive Lib Dem rival Steve Gilbert. This had in turn apparently described her as a ‘d**kh**d’. The only slight problem was that Gilbert hadn’t actually used the offending word (too naughty for the Western Morning News to publish). ‘Dickhead’ had been added to Gilbert’s tweet by an over-enthusiastic Tory activist.
Cue indignant and shocked letters from St Austell and Newquay Lib Dems to Righton, Cameron and anyone from whom an ounce of publicity could be squeezed. One thing the Lib Dems can certainly do well is outraged innocence. It reminds me of the unfortunate Anna Pascoe, the council hopeful in Camborne who described MK’s Stuart Cullimore as a ‘greasy-haired twat’ in an election leaflet earlier in the year. Although come to think of it, wasn’t Pascoe a Lib Dem?!
Lib Dems have curiously selective and short-lived memories. Matthew Taylor writes that since 1974 ‘people can see that the Lib Dems are local people committed to putting Cornwall first, a fact they clearly value’. Although oddly not enough to re-elect them back in June. Their St Austell campaign manager Hamish McCallum echoes this wishful thinking; the voters ‘have turned to the Lib Dems as the only party that will consistently stand up for a fair deal for Cornwall and will deliver action not just words’. The absolute shambles bequeathed by David Whalley and his merry band at County Hall and the irreparable damage done to Cornish democracy by the ill-fated unitary authority has completely faded from the memory bank. In its place returns the comforting and nostalgic glow produced by that never-never land where Lib Dems always provide a ‘fair deal’ for Cornwall.
It is likely that, even though the electorate also has an unfortunately short memory span, Tory cock-ups at County Hall are not the main reason for the Lib Dem victory in St Austell Bay. Another reason was that their candidate was a well-known local man and that the Tory was party hack Bob Davidson. Davidson had been Restormel District Councillor for St Austell Bethel from 2007 to 2009 but is better known as the (non-Cornish)man behind the Tories’ parliamentary campaign in Cornwall. Having already missed out in St Austell Bethel by just 18 votes in June Davidson’s candidature had the whiff of desperation about it and seemed to be taking the local electorate for granted.
So what does this result augur for next year’s General Election? First, it should be seen in the context of local elections elsewhere. Last week the Lib Dems similarly gained two other seats from the Tories at High Peak (Derbyshire) and Stratford on Avon. But they also lost a seat to Labour on Merseyside and did spectacularly badly the week before in Doncaster (3.3% of the votes) and Falkirk (2.8%). All this suggests that the Tory vote is hardly as strong as the polls suggest and that everything is still to play for. But it also implies that voting patterns are diverging enormously from one part of the UK to another. In such circumstances predicting the outcome of the election becomes a hazardous exercise.
While the Lib Dems are congratulating themselves – at least they might now have a realistic chance of holding on to a majority of the Cornish constituencies – the Labour party looks doomed. Their bounce in the polls looks very much like a dead-cat bounce, and is not replicated in actual local elections outside Scotland and some urban areas. The Labour votes in High Peak and Stratford – 4.3% and 5.9% - were as awful as in St Austell Bay, where their candidate scored a measly 4.6%. The 66 Labour votes were 32 fewer than back in June, when they won 7.0% in St Austell Bay.
Furthermore, in August Labour candidates came fourth and last behind MK and the two unionist parties in all three town council by-elections in their former strongholds of Camborne and Falmouth. Which suggests that Labour in Cornwall is on its last legs. Isn’t it about time remaining progressives in Labour looked to more relevant and realistic homes in MK or the Green Party? Although this assumes that there still are any progressive activists left in the Labour Party.
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