Cornwall and the myth that Labour can't win

Labour needs to start gaining ground and winning back voters by making in-roads into these communities if it is to have any chance of winning a majority in future elections. Only then can we realistically deliver the Labour government that Cornwall, and the country, so desperately needs.

In the run-up to the local elections, a wave of political leaflets start drifting through the door. Tories, Lib Dems, Independents. All with the same message: Labour can’t win here. It’s a two-horse race between the Tories and the Lib Dems. A Labour vote is a wasted vote.  

This myth becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: people believe Labour can’t win, so they don’t vote Labour, thereby reinforcing the idea that Labour can’t win here. In the 2015 general election, across the six Cornish constituencies, Labour received an average 12.5% of the vote. But how did it come to this? Twenty years ago in the 1997 landslide, Cornwall did elect a Labour MP, Candy Atherton, who secured 33.8% of the vote and held the seat of Falmouth and Camborne until 2005. Since 2005, Labour has seen a steady decline in votes across Cornwall, not helped by the changes to constituency boundaries in 2010.  The Labour candidate in the newly created seat of Truro and Falmouth in 2010, went on to receive just 9.6% of the vote – a 75% reduction in support from the 2001 peak, when Candy Atherton received 39.6% of the vote.

How did support for Labour erode to such a point that in 2015 Cornwall would elect six Conservative MPs?

Apart from Labour’s performance nationally, this decline in support is also partly due to the campaigning mechanics of the national Labour party, which has traditionally focussed on a list of target seats, and allocated resources and activists accordingly. This has been to the detriment of the Labour vote in rural communities, where seats are written off as ‘unwinnable’ leading to the erosion of support for Labour at a local level. This leaves local activists with a mountain to climb, with no resources and limited national support. Moving forward, Labour needs to look at how resources are allocated regionally – all Labour members in Cornwall pay a membership fee, yet how much of this is actually spent at a local level on equipping CLPs, campaigners and activists in Cornwall with the resources they need to reach voters in order to fight - and win - an election?

Cornwall is geographically and ideologically remote from Westminster, with its own nationalist movement in the form of the political party, Mebyon Kernow. In a county characterised by pockets of extreme wealth and poverty existing side by side, the European Union recognised poverty levels in Cornwall were comparable to parts of Romania and Lithuania, and provided funding to try and redress the balance. With Brexit on the horizon, that funding is now lost and unlikely to be replaced by funds from central government, meaning it’s now more than ever that Cornwall needs a Labour resurgence to protect the interests of the many and not just the few.

Heading into the 2017 general election campaign, many Labour activists are under no illusions about the huge struggle facing the party. From the ashes of this campaign, Labour will need to rethink all aspects of how it operates both as a party and as a campaigning machine. What good is attracting over half a million members if this doesn’t translate into votes when (and where) you most need them? The model that returned 418 Labour MPs in 1997 isn’t working – as evidenced by the SNP landslide in Scotland in 2015, and the threat of the Conservatives winning the popular vote in Wales at the 2017 election, something not seen since the 1850s. This gives some context to the scale of the challenge Labour is facing, when it’s losing ground in traditional heartlands. In rural communities with strong nationalist identities, Labour needs to build a flexible campaigning model that ensures CLPs and local activists have the resources and freedom needed to campaign on issues that matter to local people in their communities, and not a set agenda imposed from London which doesn’t translate on a local level.

In 1997, the country was ready for a change after eighteen years of Tory rule. We need to harness that spirit -  whatever the outcome on 8 June - and break the crippling myth that Labour ‘can’t win here’ and stop thinking of rural communities as ‘no-go’ areas. Labour needs to start gaining ground and winning back voters by making in-roads into these communities if it is to have any chance of winning a majority in future elections. Only then can we realistically deliver the Labour government that Cornwall, and the country, so desperately needs.

If you would like to support the general election campaign in Cornwall, details of campaigning activity in can be found on constituency websites, including St Austell & Newquay: http://staustellandnewquaylabour.weebly.com/ and Truro and Falmouth: www.truroandfalmouthlabour.org

 Chelsea Nelson is a Young Fabians member. Follow her on twitter at @ChelseaLNelson

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