The rebel and the ponytailPosted: April 30, 2015
When David Cameron and Nick Clegg are in town on two successive days you know that the election campaign is serious.
The battle for St Ives, the most southerly constituency in Britain stretching round from the Lizard to Land’s End and then out to the Isles of Scilly, is very close. And it is part of a wider struggle in Cornwall and the South West between the two coalition partners (though Labour does have seats in Exeter and Plymouth and hopes of more) that could have a big impact on the result next week. It’s one of the 23 seats the Tories need to win for an overall majority and one the Lib Dems must hold if they are to have a hope of influence in the next parliament.
St Ives is one of three Lib Dem seats in Cornwall, and 14 in the wider South West, that could be vulnerable. The Western Morning News reported on Wednesday that the Tories are now even targeting Yeovil (held by David Laws but former constituency of Paddy Ashdown) in a sign of rising confidence in the blue camp.
Liberal Democrat Andrew George took St Ives from the Tories in 1997 and has held it ever since. However, his majority was reduced to just 1,719 votes in 2010 after boundary changes moved his home town of Hayle into a different constituency. The Tory challenger is again Derek Thomas, a candidate once hailed by David Cameron as ‘the model of modern Conservatism’ who cut off his ponytail to make himself more electable.
The battle mirrors the one taking place across Cornwall as a whole. The county was Tory-free from 1997 to 2010 (the Lib Dems took the one Labour seat in 2005) but the Conservatives fought back to win three of the six seats at the last election. Two of the three Tory seats are super-marginal but the weakness of the Lib Dems in national polling suggests they they don’t have much chance of winning them back. As elsewhere, the Lib Dems’ best hope is that incumbency will help them hold on in St Ives, North Cornwall and St Austell and Newquay.
But there is also a strange game of shadows being played out between the two main contenders. Tory election literature says virtually nothing about the Lib Dems and concentrates on attacking Labour (who have no chance) and the SNP (whose nearest candidate is 450 miles away). In St Ives, Andrew George’s leaflets say nothing about Nick Clegg and make much of his record as the most rebellious Lib Dem MP in the last parliament. He has also told several public meetings there will be no second coalition with the Conservatives.
Unsurprisingly, the Tories are desperate to unseat him. Ministers have ‘love bombed’ the constituency with a series of visits and announcements over the last year. David Cameron made a brief trip to Penzance for a closed rally of Tory supporters in a shed on the local industrial estate. He (sort of) promised funding for a stadium for Cornwall, rather unconvincingly tried to claim that HS2 will benefit the South West and pledged cash for dualling the main road west (except that the money runs out just as it gets to the constituency).
In contrast, Nick Clegg was up early for a photo op at Newlyn fish market. He pushed the Lib Dem policy of doubling the council tax on second homes, a popular move in Cornwall, but also directly contradicted George’s stance on a second Tory coalition.
The polls and betting suggest the election will be very close. Local issues such as the stadium, the future of Penzance harbour and badger culling could have an impact either way. Incumbency should work in Andrew George’s favour as many voters will know somebody he has helped in his 18 years in parliament.
However, the crucial factor in the election will be whether supporters of the other parties (Labour, the Greens, Mebyon Kernow and UKIP) decide to stick with them or vote tactically. George’s rebellious record and promise to put constituency before party should help here. To me it feels genuine, rather than the ‘strategy’ to get re-elected that Allegra Stretton claimed it was on Newsnight on Wednesday.
At a hustings I attended last week, George pointed out that he did not just vote against the coalition’s trebling of tuition fees but Labour’s introduction of them in the first place. He voted against the Health and Social Care Act and worked with Caroline Lucas of the Greens on a Bill to ‘fully restore the NHS as an accountable public service’.
From a personal point of view, I don’t think I could vote for a Lib Dem who had supported the bedroom tax and especially one who still tries to justify that decision now. However, George was a Lib Dem rebel on the Welfare Reform Act and also came close to securing substantial changes to it with a Private Member’s Bill that passed its second reading but was then blocked by the Conservatives. At the hustings, in contrast, Derek Thomas could only offer a mixture or untruths and Shappsian statistics about the ‘spare room subsidy’ in response.
What could make the difference is the performance of the other parties. As elsewhere, UKIP will take some Tory votes but it is not making a serious challenge and its candidate looks the least effective of the six on offer. The attacks on the SNP look calculated to persuade Kippers and maybe some Lib Dems to switch back to the Tories.
In contrast, Labour looks stronger after winning two council seats in Penzance in the last local elections. One of them is standing for Westminster rather than the usual no-hoper parachuted in from London at the last minute. And, perhaps most worryingly for Andrew George, the Greens are fighting a highly visible campaign and fielding a councillor from St Ives.
Many non-Lib Dems I know still think it’s crazy to vote for anyone else but many have either had enough of the coalition or are determined to vote for what they believe in this time. Will today’s leak of Tory plans for child benefit and child tax credit have an impact on them?
St Ives is usually one of the last seats to declare. The result is as difficult to call here as in the rest of the country: the betting and one Lord Ashcroft poll put Andrew George ahead; my gut instinct is that Labour and especially the Greens will eat into his vote. Whoever wins the battle of the rebel and the ponytail could already be celebrating in the wider South West. If it’s the ponytail, the Tories could have done much better than the current polls suggest.