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By Graham Smith
This article is nothing more than gossip, rumour and speculation. I am however looking for a bookmaker who might be happy to receive my investment.
I forecast that by 7th May, Cornwall Council will have become a radically different organisation. There will be a new leader, a new leader of the Opposition, and several of County Hall’s senior officials will be tempted to seek new opportunities elsewhere.
For the first time in its history, Cornwall Council will resemble a vaguely modern local authority. By this I mean there will be a single political party with overall control. Cornwall might be 80 years late, but County Hall will finally start to behave as if it has some connection with the voters, rather than be controlled by its own (no doubt talented, but also self-serving) bureaucracy.
I believe that the political party in charge will be the Conservatives, who I think will succeed in getting more than 44 councillors elected. They managed to get 46 Cornwall councillors elected in 2017, they won every Parliamentary seat in Cornwall in 2019 and since then have delighted in watching their opponents implode.
The Independents were always going to struggle, having to campaign in larger divisions in areas where their reputations as a local hero might be unheard. Even those who are very well known close-to-home, such as current council leader Julian German, must now embrace very challenging campaigns in much wider territory where they will need a street map.
The May elections will also be contested in a Covid environment. This will favour well-funded political machines which are already organised to deliver postal and proxy votes. There will be no door-to-door canvassing and as-yet-unknown restrictions on volunteer leafletting. But commercial deliveries will be permitted. Again, the political parties with the most money stand to benefit most.
The success of the National Health Service in vaccinating thousands of people in Cornwall against Covid-19, each and every day, means that Tory government cock-ups over the previous year – responsible for scores of unnecessary deaths in Cornwall – might be forgotten or forgiven on the grounds that any Opposition would probably have made similar mistakes.
The Conservatives look likely to field a candidate in every council division. No other political party looks able to come even close. The Tories do have some difficulties which I will come to later. But these difficulties are more likely to manifest themselves after the election.
The real contest is for second place, and who might become leader of the Opposition. This person will be either a Liberal Democrat or Labour councillor, and at the moment you have to say that either prospect appears unlikely. Yet it will be one or the other.
The leader of the Opposition will head a political party which has at least 22 councillors. There are currently only four Labour councillors and more than 30 Liberal Democrat. So surely the Lib Dems will be the largest Opposition party? Not necessarily.
For a start, there is no such thing as a “safe” Liberal Democrat seat. There is no such thing as a safe Labour seat either, but the boundary changes, and the reduction in the size of the council from 123 seats to only 87, bring huge uncertainties.
The Lib Dems therefore have the most to lose. The boundary changes alone could easily cost the party a dozen councillors.
The council elections are to be held on the same day as the Police and Crime Commissioner elections, increasing the turnout. The PCC elections are already a year overdue, because of Covid, which could stimulate further interest.
In 2016, the last time the PCC contest was held, Labour came a close second to the Conservatives and the Lib Dems came fifth. In the 2019 general election, Labour beat the Lib Dems in four out of Cornwall’s six Parliamentary constituencies.
In 2019 Labour got only 32% nationally. The Lib Dems national share was even worse, only 12%. Today, according to the opinion polls, Labour and the Conservatives are tied at around 40% each. The Lib Dems and the Greens are locked in combat for third place at around 5% or 6%.
Also, the Lib Dems on Cornwall Council are stained by the stench of a failed incumbency. For eight years, they have led a council which has staggered and stumbled from one crisis to another – in office, but not in power.
Whether it is sending senior officers on all-expenses-paid champagne-fuelled jollies to the south of France, or screwing up a major regeneration in Truro, the Lib Dems have found themselves blamed for a long series of unfortunate events.
There are rumblings - within the Liberal Democrat group of councillors and particularly within the wider grassroots’ membership – that the party needs a dramatic rebrand. “The Old Guard must go,” one Lib Dem councillor told Cornwall Reports. “The trouble is, that would include me.”
It is not entirely fanciful to imagine councillor Adam Paynter facing a leadership challenge within the next few weeks. Given that Mr Paynter took over as group leader only a couple of months ago, some explanation is needed:
The re-arrangement of deckchairs between Mr Paynter and his now-deputy councillor Malcolm Brown was more to do with the Cornwall Lib Dems trying to send a message to their national party about Mr Paynter's continuing difficulties over an internal disciplinary issue.
The national party wants this issue resolved quickly. It has dragged on for the best part of a year already. But a majority in the Cornwall group of councillors wants it delayed until after the election. Most Lib Dems councillors fear that if Mr Paynter is brought down before 6th May, they too will be consumed in the flames.
But others – arguably a younger cohort (younger = under the age of 60) – are looking further to the future. Do they toss their hats into the ring now, or wait until after 6th May? Which side is their bread buttered? They don’t know, but they do know that current tensions cannot hold for long.
Mr Paynter enjoys considerable personal support within the Lib Dem group. He is an immensely likeable man, and although he has been a councillor forever he is still relatively young. He works all hours to achieve what he considers best. He is perhaps somewhat on the Right of his party, which suits his councillors but not his grassroots’ activists.
It is Mr Paynter’s politics, rather than his personal qualities, which risk labelling the Liberal Democrats as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. The Lib Dems’ support for the Conservative government in 2010 still casts a long shadow.
Perhaps even worse, within County Hall Mr Paynter is regarded by many as a figure of fun, completely under the thumb of senior officers. It doesn’t matter that this impression might be unfair: it is real, the joke is shared widely even within his own party, and as every day brings a new cock-up, Mr Paynter steps forward bravely to shoulder the blame.
Conservative Linda Taylor: only three months away from replacing Independent Julian German as leader of Cornwall Council?
Liberal Democrat Andrew George and Labour's Jayne Kirkham: will the bookies offer odds on either of them being the next leader of the Opposition at County Hall?
Looking further ahead, the next council seems likely to include former Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament Andrew George among its membership. Mr George is an able and energetic campaigner who would make an excellent group leader. He might become terminally, and dangerously bored if he were anything less.
Mr George, 20 years ago, had been a supporter of former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy, back in the days when Mr Kennedy was leading anti-war protests while Tony Blair was preparing to bomb the Middle East back to the Stone Age.
I understand that Mr George has not yet finally decided if he will stand for election. I shall nevertheless be inviting my bookmaker to consider the prospect.
Other potential Lib Dem leaders might include Lostwithiel’s Colin Martin, but his popularity among the wider party membership is not reflected within the current group. After the election, he might be more popular within a smaller and more Left-leaning group.
As for Labour, and I speak as a former activist, the coming election will be the trippiest trip into the unknown that the party could imagine.
While even Lib Dems struggle to remember the name of their 2019 leader (Jo “I stand before you as your next Prime Minister” Swinson) a very large number of Labour Party members still believe that the past 12 months have proven that Jeremy Corbyn was right about everything.
March 2019 saw a Cornwall Labour Party conference which recruited scores of potential council election candidates and developed a considerable and detailed body of local policy. Previous years had seen Mr Corbyn attracting thousands to attend his mass outdoor rallies. Crowds at Boardmasters chanted his name.
Last year Mr Corbyn’s successor slipped in and out of Cornwall without many in his own party even noticing. Scores of Labour activists, including some council candidates loyal to Mr Corbyn, have resigned in protest at what they perceive as the party’s lurch to the flag-waving Right.
Despite this (or perhaps because of it?) Labour’s national opinion polling is today significantly higher than it was at the 2019 general election. Could Labour get 22 councillors? Will Labour even have 22 candidates? My bookmaker sounds very generous with his odds on this first question; I think that with aggressive targeting of campaign resources, the bet is good value.
The most likely leader, under current Labour Party rules, would then be Falmouth’s Jayne Kirkham. Both Ms Kirkham and Mr George are naturally concerned with the immediate task in hand - getting elected. But they are both bridge-builders, seeking co-operation without formal coalition. For the Lib Dems, this would present their first opportunity in 11 years to rebrand themselves as a party of the centre-Left, at least in Cornwall.
Back to the Tories, and their potential post-election difficulties. Throughout 2018 and 2019, the Conservative Party grew in size because of the defection to it of thousands of Brexit (“I can’t believe it’s not UKIP”) Party supporters. Motivated almost exclusively by anti-European sentiment, these people were instrumental in the defenestration of Theresa May and the installation of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister.
The former Brexit Party crowd are very, very Right-wing and they are still around. Some of them are going to be Conservative Party candidates and, therefore, councillors. I’m as confident as I can be that St Ives Conservative councillor Linda Taylor will be the next leader of Cornwall Council. But a few months down the road, she should watch her back.
I shall conclude with a brief word about the Green Party. I think the Green Party will do very well in the elections on 6th May. The Greens will get more votes in local council elections than ever before. The Greens can also expect to pick up thousands of former Labour votes, particularly in areas where Labour is unable to field a candidate. But, because of the first-past-the-post electoral system, I will be astonished if the Greens get more than one or two councillors.
I now have only one question: does my local bookmaker listen to gossip and rumour?
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