Posts Tagged ‘East Devon Alliance’

What do anti-Tory voters do where Conservatives have a more or less complete grip on all levels of government, despite only getting a minority of the votes? Where has Labour’s abandonment of its local voters – by failing to reform the electoral system, a failure that neither Corbyn nor Smith is really concerned about – left them? My account of the Devon situation is up on openDemocracy.

The Conservative hold on power in Britain is stronger than its majority of only 17 in the 650-seat House of Commons implies. Labour, the only alternative governing party, needs to gain around 100 seats even before the impact of the newly announced boundary changes is taken into account – or else forge an agreement with the Scottish National Party which looks no more possible than in 2015. As the Labour leadership contest draws to a close, the party’s road to power, whoever wins, is extremely difficult to forsee.

The Tory elective dictatorship rests on an almost complete dominance in southern England (outside large cities and university towns), which was also the principal area of support for Brexit. In the 2015 General Election, the Tores’ targeted wipeout of the Liberal Democrats across the South West delivered their unexpected majority. South and west of Bristol there is only one non-Tory MP (Labour’s Ben Bradshaw in Exeter). Even more than in the much-discussed case of Scotland under the SNP, the South West has become a virtual one-party state.

Some outside the region have speculated that a Liberal Democrat recovery might help enable a ‘progressive alliance’ as an alternative to Theresa May’s Tories. However a recovery to pre-2015 levels would not only be insufficient to offset Labour’s deficits in Scotland as elsewhere, but it ignores the extent to which the Tories have concentrated power to make it difficult for any opposition party to change the regional balance.

The situation in the region’s largest county, Devon, shows the depth of the problem. But at the same time, it is where local activists are devising new ways of doing politics that are challenging Tory control.

A microcosm of Tory power

The Tory monopoly in Devon is even more complete than in neighbouring Cornwall and Somerset. Conservatives have overwhelming control of local government (both unitary authorities, the County Council and almost all the districts). In the urban areas, the general election results were close and Labour (Plymouth, as well as Exeter where they recently consolidated their control of the City Council) and the Lib Dems (Torbay) remain in contention. But in the rural areas and small towns, the majority of the county, Tory dominance is almost absolute at every level – barring some town and parish councils where politics is less partisan.  

Some rural areas have never had a non-Tory MP. The Tories had six of the seven non-urban Devon seats even in 2010. At least one council, East Devon, has been Tory since it was created in 1973. In semi-rural Devon, even an unlikely Lib Dem revival would make little difference. How then can things ever change?

Minority rule

It is important to understand that Conservative rule is based neither on majority support or extensive party membership. In 2015, the party gained under 45 per cent of all votes. Even in the seven non-urban seats, the 2015 increase in Tory support brought them only up to a 49 per cent average; in the urban seats they squeaked in on the same 37 per cent that gave them their national majority. Yet the non-Conservative majority are virtually unrepresented.

The Tory party is hollowed out and probably has far fewer members than Labour. The party could only take Torbay and North Devon from the Lib Dems with the aid of the notorious ‘battle bus’ activists, whose costs their Torbay agent, Alison Hernandez – like many others – failed to declare. Even after Channel 4 broke the scandal in 2016, Hernandez was narrowly elected as Devon and Cornwall Police and Crime Commissioner, but refused to stand aside as she was investigated (the case was transferred to another force and is still pending).

As ever where one-party rule is so entrenched, corruption is not far away. Revelations like those in 2013, when East Devon Tory councillor Graham Brown was forced to resign after telling a journalist he could obtain planning permission in return for cash, fuel widespread cynicism about local power which make the ruling party vulnerable.

The flexibility of local Tory MPs over Brexit – ‘pro-Remain’ Neil Parish MP, Chair of the parliamentary Environment committee, quickly backed Boris Johnson and Andrea Leadsom in quick succession for the leadership and now describes Brexit as a ‘glorious opportunity’ – is likely to create a new constituency for opposition.

Failure of the opposition parties

The situation in which non-Tory votes largely fail to count is also because Labour and even Lib Dem leaders have failed to reform the electoral system for Westminster and councils. Tony Blair’s government never held the referendum on Proportional Representation to which its 1997 manifesto committed it. Current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has never campaigned for PR during his 33 years in Parliament, and together with his rival Owen Smith continues to fudge the issue in recent responses to the Electoral Reform Society.

Nick Clegg abandoned the Lib Dems’ longstanding committment to PR to obtain office in 2010, settling for the promise of a referendum on the weaker Alternative Vote without even securing government support for change. In the South West, the Lib Dems’ collective political suicide through the Coalition has broken the residual credibility of the first-past-the-post system.

Failing services

Because Tory dominance is so extensive, the party has largely taken voters for granted. Devon is suffering sharply from the general underfunding, Balkanisation and creeping part-privatisation of public services. The NHS trust running the flagship Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital has been forced from a healthy surplus into deep deficit. The NEW Devon Clinical Commissioning Group, also in chronic deficit, tried to bar some patients from routine operations until obliged by public pressure to abandon its plans. Local Community Hospitals have lost beds and have been handed over to NHS Property Services, which can put up rents or, worse, sell off the sites.

Devon is a region of heavy immigration, mainly of retirees from other English regions (although with some international migrants, concentrated in its cities). As in the NHS, the gap between funding and need threatens adult social care. Child protection services are deemed inadequate. Since Tory Devon retains grammar schools, there are concerns about the effects of Theresa May’s proposed expansion of these schools on the excluded majority of children.

Phoney devolution

Devon Tories’ unaccountability is also evident in how they have embraced the half-baked, patchwork ‘devolution’ launched by George Osborne, which offers limited ‘additional’ money – while core government funding for local services is pared down or eliminated. Although Devon is a much larger and more populous county than neighbouring Cornwall which has a sole devolution deal, Devon is being forced into a merger with Somerset in a new brand, an affront to local identities, ‘Heart of the South West’.

The principal rationale for the linkage seems to be to create a larger base for the anachronistic and hyper-expensive Hinckley C nuclear project. Any benefits, if they materialise, will be overwhelmingly for the neighbouring county. The proposed devolution, with a hyper-aspirational prospectus which bears comparison to Vote Leave’s notorious offer, is being run through the Local Economic Partnership, dominated by unelected business leaders.

County election challenge

Devon County Council comes up for reelection in May 2017. In 2013, the Tories won 38 of the 62 seats on a mere 35 per cent of the vote. Under first past the post, the divided Lib Dems, Labour, Greens and Independents between them won only 20 seats for 41 per cent of the vote. (UKIP, which polled 23 per cent, won 4 seats.)

It is obvious that none of the three centre and left opposition parties can win a majority in 2017. The Lib Dems may keep some strongholds, but they are still picking themselves up from their 2015 battering, and elsewhere local activists are thin on the ground.

Despite a deep conflict between Bradshaw and pro-Corbyn Momentum activists, Labour will probably keep its Exeter seats, but is unlikely to win in the rural areas and small towns. Rural Labour parties have seen the Corbyn surge in membership but with modest benefits for local activism – a constituency party which has trebled its membership to 500 may still only get about 15 people to its meetings. Members vote for their preferred leader, but have too little scope to change things locally. Even if it advances, Labour is starting from a very low base, and the Greens are smaller.

New politics?

The 2015 elections saw important steps forward for a different kind of politics in semi-rural East Devon. From a standing start, Independent candidate Claire Wright leapfrogged UKIP, Labour and the Lib Dems to take second place in the East Devon parliamentary constituency of Hugo Swire, a ‘Cameron croney’ since knighted in his resignation honours. It was the only Independent second place anywhere in England, after a grassroots campaign typically ignored by the national press.

In parallel, the East Devon Alliance, formed in 2013 out of revulsion at the Brown case and East Devon’s pro-developer bias, put up over 30 district council candidates and succeeded, despite the simultaneous Tory general election victory, in taking ten seats from the Tories (this writer was an unsuccessful candidate). Independents led by EDA replaced the Lib Dems as the official opposition.

An investigative blog, East Devon Watch, has played an important informational role in the new politics, now matched by a South Devon Watch site. An Independent group successfully challenged for control of Buckfastleigh Town Council, in the Teinbridge district, at the same time as the better-known ‘flatpack democracy’ of Frome in Somerset. A loose Independent network is emerging across the South West, including Cornwall.

Although social media played an important part in these campaigns, many relied heavily on old-fashioned doorstep campaigning. A new campaign to influence the County Council elections, Devon United, is perhaps the first – certainly the most ambitious – initiative to be actually launched through social media. Its first meeting in October will be addressed by Paul Hilder, co-founder of OpenDemocracy.net and CrowdPac and former global campaigns director for Avaaz and Change.org.

I have written recently about the limitations of the national progressive crowdsourcing campaign organisation, 38 Degrees, during and after the Brexit vote. It remains to be seen what happens when crowdsourced politics meets local electioneering, and how the division of the anti-Tory vote will be overcome. But this initiative shows that the new politics is alive and kicking in a county where the old politics has so manifestly failed.

My surprising local angle on Britain’s 2015 General Election. At the last election, in 2010, I was in Brighton, and my comment on the battle between Caroline Lucas’ Greens and Labour was much-read. This time I’m in East Devon, where local campaigns against property development and hospital closures, and for local democracy, are having an impact which I analyse in this piece which has just appeared on openDemocracy.

It is the unlikeliest place to look for evidence of Europe’s new political turbulence. Forecasters agree that in South West England, the main issue in the May 7 General Election is between the two Coalition parties. Will the Liberal Democrats manage to cling on to their seats or will David Cameron’s Tories take them, offsetting Labour gains elsewhere in England and Wales – which combined with the SNP’s capture of Labour seats in Scotland will allow Cameron to remain in Downing Street?

Certainly, the insurgent soft-racist party, UKIP, will advance a little here, but it is nowhere near to capturing seats as it may elsewhere. Likewise the ‘Green surge’ may conceivably work in regional capital Bristol, but there is no sign that rural constituencies will see strong Green advances. With the Lib Dems the fall guys of the UK’s first coalition since the Second World War, sitting Tory MPs must be feeling complacent about their own returns to Westminster, even if the national outcome remains on a knife-edge.

This will undoubtedly have been the case in the East Devon constituency, where the academic site electionforecast.co.uk projects national trends to give the Conservatives 40 per cent, Labour 16, the LibDems and UKIP 15 each and the Greens 7. However the site willingly acknowledges that local constituency-level knowledge is not included in its model, and Lord Ashcroft’s programme of constituency polling has also not reached here.

It is therefore understandable that national media have so far overlooked a very English local insurgency which has produced a serious independent candidate,Claire Wright, who aims to oust Tory foreign office minister, Hugo Swire.

Independent MPs are rarely elected in UK general elections, but the rare exceptions are often in safe Tory seats where (as here) both Labour and the Lib Dems are weak. In recent times, Martin Bell (a BBC reporter) toppled ‘sleazy’ Tory Neil Hamilton (now a leading UKIP figure) in Tatton in 1997, although when Bell stood down in 2001, the seat reverted to the Tories’ George Osborne. Consultant Richard Taylor captured Wyre Forest in 2001 on the back of a strong campaign to save Kidderminster’s hospital, holding it until 2010.

Could East Devon be 2015’s case? Wright is not a celebrity capitalising on a national scandal, as Bell was, nor does she have a single decision like Kidderminster’s hospital closure to rally opposition to local Tory dominance (although local hospital closures are important issues, and Wright is part of a campaign against cuts in the Ottery St. Mary hospital). It might therefore be thought that her chances are slim. Yet she is building on very broad opposition to the ruling Tories on East Devon District Council (EDDC), widely perceived as a one-party state where developers rule – if not a hotbed of corruption (Tory Graham Brown was forced to resign in 2013 in a ‘councillors for hire’ scandal).

Wright has a broad local base. A youthful district and County councillor, she came to prominence in a mass movement which brought 4,000 people onto the streets of the district capital and seaside resort of Sidmouth (population 14,000) in 2012, in protest against a development on open green space proposed by the EDDC. Already there was a scent of wider anger with a one-party regime on the council (the Tories have ruled for 35 of the last 39 Years). ‘Without the ventilation of change, the council has, some feel, begun to smell’, wrote the editor of Country Life at the time.

Unlike most such protests which quickly fade, Save Our Sidmouth spawned a movement, the East Devon Alliance (EDA), which is now challenging for power on the council. EDA is aiming to contest at least 45 of the 58 council seats and end Tory rule. The election takes place on the same day as the general election and the Lib Dems have no chance of gaining control, while Labour and the Greens will be lucky to gain any seats at all.

Syriza or Podemos, EDA is not. Yet this local movement of mainly middle-aged, middle-class southern English is one of many local resistances to the Tory-led Coalition’s National Planning Policy Framework, widely seen as a property developers’ charter, who are nationally united in the Community Voice on Planning (COVOP).

Like the London tenants fighting the sale of their estates to developers, EDA contests the increasing bias of the British state towards property developers, local and international. The difference between EDA and other anti-developer resistance is that EDA, including several sitting independent councillors, is now challenging for district power. With implicit backing from the local press, EDA threatens a major upset in this quiet backwater.

Without EDA’s challenge to the local council, Wright’s independent campaign might seem quixotic. Yet simultaneous local and national elections, with synergies between the campaigns, give her a chance. Bookies now have herahead of the Lib Dems and Labour, and a respectable second place is clearly possible. Wright’s challenge is to persuade Lib Dem, Labour and Green voters who will vote EDA in the local elections to also support her – while at the same time trying to eat away at the Tory vote.

In what has been called Britain’s most unpredictable election – as I write, electionforecast projects a mere one-seat Labour plurality over the Tories (283-282 in a parliament where 326 seats are needed for a majority) – clearly every seat counts. Experts expect wide variations between constituency outcomes, and East Devon is another to watch. They would also do well to take on board the significance of the local elections: in East Devon on May 8, the most likely change is an end to decades of Tory council rule.