Posted on: January 28, 2020 Posted by: grahamsmith Comments: 1

Cornwall’s Liberal Democrats: flogging a dead horse?

By Phil Kerridge

As we enter a new decade, the future of the Liberal Democrats as a political force in Cornwall is doubtful to say the least. For three general elections they have won no seats. Only in St Ives are they serious challengers. That may change once former MP Andrew George steps aside from the fray. Next time Labour will start best placed to gain seats: in Truro/Falmouth and Camborne/Redruth.

Ten years ago it was different. The Lib Dems held every Cornish parliamentary seat. They had lost control of Cornwall Council but probably only because they supported the unitary Cornwall Council and getting rid of six district councils.

In retrospect this was the right decision even if it was hugely unpopular. Saving well over £1/2 million on six chief executive officers, together with a lot more on scores of support staff and rationalizing offices has helped front line Cornish local government services better survive a decade of austerity.

Tory incompetence has allowed the Lib Dems to retain a foothold on Cornwall Council.  Alec Robertson's 2009 coalition imploded before the 2013 elections, when the Lib Dems bounced back.  In 2017 the Tories failed to take control of the council despite being the largest party.

Prospects for the future look dismal. Many supporters like me lost faith with the austerity politics of the coalition. Even worse thousands of core Lib Dem supporters in Cornwall wanted to leave Europe and have voted accordingly.

Their campaigning tactics are out of date and no longer work. Bombarding voters with literature, between their flying start leaflets when an election began and the dawn drop good morning greeting on polling day, was crucial to their success in the nineties and the noughties. In 2019 I never saw a Scott Mann Tory leaflet.

He ducked out of all the meetings too. Yet he won 60% of the vote. He must be campaigning on the telephone and on social media in ways the Lib Dems barely grasp or understand.

If the Lib Dems believe political leaflets have a future, they need to be a lot better. Let's have something worth reading instead of inane drivel.  Maybe including star signs, sudoku or crosswords might delay instant disposal from door mat to wastepaper basket. One idea that worked for a while was a blue or cream letter with a bogus personal message inside an addressed envelope. Lib Dems persisted with this gambit long after the novelty wore off.

My copy hit a new low in 2019. Even if the target elderly postal voting audience wanted to read it, they were going to struggle to cope with the tiny all but illegible handwriting.

Once again Lib Dem enthusiasm to print leaflets was well beyond even their ability to post them through letter boxes. As I write Lib Dem activists will be heading off for recycling centres to dump piles of undelivered paper. So much for their environmental credentials.

There will be political opportunities created by the Johnson government. Will Cornwall lose out whilst Boris is investing in the north. Will we still be waiting for a reliable railway the Newquay spaceport and the Truro rugby stadium?

For how much longer can we tolerate the growth of rough sleeping, foodbanks and begging? By all the statistical measures and targets he NHS has got worse in the last 10 years. Will it get any better in the next five? Will the infinitely more complex Brexit stage 2 be as straightforward as the Tories have led us to believe?  Or the disaster so many experts predict?

As Boris does next to nothing to tackle climate, will the consequences become apparent to more of us? The question is whether the Lib Dems can step up to take advantage? Or will Labour, the Greens or whatever far right party materialises post-Farage get in first?

A major handicap will be the absence of any values or policies recognised by the electorate.  Another nightmare will be picking the next leader. Eleven MPs offer very little choice. Only three have much experience.  Two are compromised. The third, Ed Davey,  might be leader now, if party members hadn't thought the unfortunate Jo Swinson was less boring and more dynamic. Past form suggests inexperienced leaders are a big risk. At the last three elections their leaders have been dismal, dire and discredited.

The next Lib Dem challenge will be to retain council seats in May 2021. Recent by elections are not promising. As we have got more angry, Independents, untainted by the mess that's national politics, have begun to win. Bodmin St Mary's has been a banker Lib Dem seat since Alastair Quinnell took it in the 1980s.

Last month the Lib Dems were trounced in a Bodmin town council byelection by an Independent, taking more than 80% of the vote. If they want to get back Lib Dem councillors should be very worried. They need to foresake the joys of County Hall for grass roots bread and butter campaigning in their own backyard.

Working hard to tackle problems faced by your voters used to be called pavement politics.  Forty years after this was pioneered by the likes of David Penhaligon, few among their current crop of Cornwall councillors are very good at it.

Phil Kerridge is a former Liberal Democrat councillor

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  1. This is a very good article by Phil. The analysis could equally apply to other partys.Community based politics at local level can make real differences to peoples lives.Having to preside over constant cuts and contractions to services at County hall whilst having to increase Council Tax above inflation is never going to win many friends. Perhaps there needs to be a radical rethink rather than just carrying on implementing National cuts at County hall!

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