What do the dates 23rd April, 30th November, 1st March, 17th March and the 5th March have in common? The first four you may be familiar with as the dates of St George’s Day, St Andrew’s Day, St David’s Day and St Patrick’s Day – the four Patron Saints of the four nations of the UK. The 5th March – today – you may be less familiar with. This is of course unless you are from Cornwall (like me).
Today is St Piran’s Day, the Patron Saint of Cornwall, and “Gool Peran Lowen!” is simply Happy St Piran’s Day in Cornish. The story of St Piran can be found in more detail here, but put simply he annoyed some Kings in Ireland so they threw him in the sea with a millstone tied around his neck. As the legend goes he successfully ‘sailed’ the stone across the sea, ending up on the Cornish beach of Perranporth.
In Cornwall the day is practically a public holiday (our MP’s have repeatedly called for it to be an official one), with some schools closing and council departments closing for the day so everyone can enjoy the celebrations.
Cornish people are fiercely independent. I self-identify Cornish first, British second. If you’ve ever wondered who’s making use of the ‘other’ box on a census that would be me! With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that we have our very own independence party, Mebyon Kernow.
Events last week in Eastleigh showed that smaller parties can receive a surge in popularity as discontent grows with the ‘big three’. UKIP garnered 28 per cent of the vote, their best ever election result, and took second place in a seat both Coalition partners were desperate to win. But what does the experience of UKIP in Eastleigh have in common with Mebyon Kernow in Cornwall?
Firstly, like Eastleigh, all six constituencies in Cornwall are Conservative-Liberal Democrat marginals. As it stands both parties hold three seats each (down from 6-0 to the Lib Dems pre 2010) – so you could call us the “Coalition County”. And like Eastleigh, all six constituencies will be high on both parties target lists going into the 2015 election. What this mean is the 2015 election in Cornwall will be a tight contest with money poured in from Party HQ, numerous visits from the political big wigs, and both parties (but particularly the Lib Dems) going hard after the vote of the small parties – Labour, Green, and Mebyon Kernow in particular.
Secondly, like UKIP, Mebyon Kernow (MK) is seen as a ‘one man band’ with a charismatic leader who appeals to the masses. Like UKIP’s Nigel Farage, MK’s Dick Cole has unsuccessfully stood at the Parliamentary level a number of times, punching above his weight and the rest of his party, but still far short of winning a seat. He does however hold a seat on Cornwall’s unitary authority and has been an outspoken critic of the unpopular Conservative-Independent coalition which runs the Council.*
UKIP did well in Eastleigh as they picked up support from across the political spectrum, with the stats showing voters punished both Coalition parties almost equally. The result was far more anti-Government than pro-UKIP, but they were the obvious beneficiary from this sentiment, with some calling UKIP the new ‘none of the above’ party.
Furthermore, polling has shown that despite what you may read in the press, or hear Farage say on the TV, the Eastleigh result almost certainly owed little to UKIP’s anti-Europe stance. Opinion polls consistently show that European issues rank towards the bottom of most voters’ principal concerns. Instead voters care about the necessities – jobs, taxes and rises in the cost of living.
In Cornwall 2015, assuming the economy has failed to pick up, these concerns will be same. With both parties of Government fighting each other, voters may be tempted to give politicians a bloody nose with a protest vote a strong possibility. For years the Liberal Democrats have been ‘squeezing the vote’ from the Greens, Labour, and MK – the other three centre-left parties which stand in Cornwall – using the tried and trusted message of vote Lib Dem to keep the Tories out. These three parties, which generally do better at European and Council elections where voters are less likely to be squeezed, may find a number of disenfranchised soft Lib Dem and Tory voters available to be woo’d.
Do I think Mebyon Kernow could take a Cornish Independent to Parliament? Almost certainly not. They lack the finances, discipline and organisation of the UKIP campaign in Eastleigh to emulate the recent success of Farage and co.
But is there the potential for an upset, with a surge in support to take a second or third place? Maybe. MK is by and large a centre left party campaigning for a more progressive and fairer country. Like the SNP and Plaid Cymru, it won’t be their calls for independence which brings electoral victory, but rather the position as a Westminster outsider who will better the lives of the ‘nation’ they seek to represent.
If I was advising MK I would suggest they pooled resources behind one seat and one candidate – Dick Cole in St Austell & Newquay. The Liberal Democrat incumbent is weak having been elected with substantial support from Labour and Green voters. They should then position themselves as the ‘Westminster’ outsiders aiming to pick up as much of the ‘none of the above’ voters as possible.
To do this, and to garner wider support, their policies on jobs, housing, health and education need to be fleshed out (and costed) better than before. These are the big issues for Cornish voters, and often where the desires of the Cornish people is at odds with what the main parties think is best for the Country.**
It will be an almost insurmountable task for MK to secure victory, but regardless of what happens at the 2015 General Election, there is a part of me (which watches too many Hollywood movies) that would like to see a fairy tale ending for the Cornish underdogs on election night in 2015.
*Having had the pleasure of working with Mr Cole during the 2011 AV Referendum, and having seen him at hustings during numerous elections, I am in no doubt he would be an MP if he was in any other party.
**For example the city of Sheffield and Cornwall have the same population, but Sheffield has three well performing hospitals – Cornwall barely has one full hospital, with some specialist treatment requiring a visit across the Tamar to neighbouring Plymouth.