Liberal Democrat: Anatomy of an Election

I’ve always struggled to find a home politically, being uncomfortable with aspects of both left and right-wing policies and concepts. I’ve always been strong in my belief in the NHS, the environment and education, which might lead you to believe that I’d be a natural labour voter. Instead, parts of the left are greatly concerning to me, and thus I’ve found myself to be far more comfortable as a firm centrist. The Liberal Democrats has thus become my political home, despite the tuition fee fiasco and other aspects of the coalition that badly wounded the party in 2015. The Brexit vote reinforced this- the Liberal Democrats were the only party to take a united hard-line anti-brexit stance during the vote, and this continued during the 2017 snap election. As someone who has studied on a university campus largely funded by the European Regional Development Fund, living in a region that receives far more money from the European Union than it ever would from central government, the concept of brexit was (and remains) entirely unpalatable. Whilst I can appreciate the potential benefits of Brexit in some respects, I am steadfast in my belief that this country took the wrong decision. Labour didn’t take a strong stance on brexit- and Jeremy Corbyn certainly didn’t. 
That’s a rough synopsis of how and why I became a member of the Liberal Democrats, but that would be a boring story on it’s own, right? 

One way or another, I agreed to stand in the local elections as a Town Councillor for Arwenack Ward, and as a County Councillor for Penryn West. I wasn’t necessarily the most serious of candidates, and these areas were places that we (as a party) were likely to lose in. Thus, with very little literature sent out about my candidacy, the party would gather votes but as an individual I was never likely to win on any level. Regardless, I was kindly invited to the election count by Mathew McCarthy, the somewhat unorthodox town councillor for Penwerris and a strong figure in the party locally. The count night at Carn Brea, Camborne was one of the most fascinating and inspiring experiences of my life, with hundreds of people gathered because they wanted to make a difference to their communities, and having seen it in person I believe that this is the most organic end of politics, where people generally are genuinely running to make a positive impact locally. There were people of all parties present, from the Greens through to UKIP, with smaller regional parties such as Mebyon Kernow and plenty of independent candidates present too. With some 123 seats being contested, it was incredible to see so many people present involved and interested in local politics at the grassroots level. The press was in attendance too- though I never found a good image of myself! My results were interesting if unspectacular. In the county council elections I was able to take 151 votes off the popular incumbent Mary May (later elected the chairman of Cornwall Council and thoroughly nice to boot). The Greens did exceptionally well to come in 2nd place, whilst I narrowly lost by 4 to my Conservative student counterpart Ellie Phipps, which isn’t bad considering the surge they had across the county. With actual effort in my campaign it was obviously unlikely I’d ever dethrone Mrs May, but I could have had a good run at 2nd for sure. The town council election was less interesting, but I was only 30/40 votes off beating Jayne Kirkham, who was later the Labour MP candidate in my constituency, which is something. 

As events conspired, it was a good thing I wasn’t elected as I will now be moving away from Cornwall, but it was a great experience, and affirms my belief in the British political system. Whilst we electorally need a better form of proportional representation, the people at Carn Brea that night were deeply passionate about their ideas for their little area- and with 123 areas across Cornwall, that’s a warming part of local politics. Cornwall has an awful lot of people trying to make positive differences for you, and thus the whole ‘politics doesn’t represent me’ argument falls apart in my eyes. If you get involved, you can make a difference- and on a smaller level, your vote really counts. I saw elections decided by margins as fine as one vote, and elsewhere in the county it has to be decided by coin toss/pulling straws, demonstrating the value of what might seem an insignificant, unimportant single vote. There was emotion too, of course- political beliefs and hopes for your area run a lot deeper than the surface. 

Then Theresa May called a snap-election, and I was furious. The local elections had already phased me politically, and I was feeling more than a little worn-out when it was announced. This was the prevailing view I came across too- everyone I knew had enough of being bombarded in the press, social media and through the letterbox by politics- and now it was going to continue, at higher pace and at significantly higher stakes. URGH! 

I couldn’t help as much as I would have liked during the election, being seriously busy with my dissertation and upcoming exams, but I still did my bit. I helped our Liberal Democrat candidate, Robert Nolan, in the campaign for the Truro and Falmouth constituency. Rob was formerly the Mayor of Truro, and his campaign focused on defending our area from successive brutal conservative cuts, that have left our local NHS in bits in particular- just one visit to RCH Treliske is enough to show that (hello 1970s)! Our campaign received quite little support from Lib Dem HQ, and thus I was amazed at the efforts of all manner of local volunteers doing all kinds of tasks- from as menial and mundane as folding envelopes and delivering letters to the more demanding door knocking, press releases and events. We had a relatively small core team, but a much bigger team of volunteers who sprung up out of the woodwork in all areas of the constituency, of all ages and backgrounds, which was awesome to behold. I did a bit of everything, but enjoyed door knocking most of all- though I did get shouted at over the tuition fees scandal. At least she was passionate! On that note I was in frequent touch with counterparts in other parties, and the level of abuse levelled at some of them on a daily basis was despicable, from shouting and spitting to vandalism of signs and the like- we too suffered from many missing signs. When it seems like the only signs to survive were those of Labour, it’s pretty obvious where they disappeared to. Politics should not go that far locally- those standing are just normal people. They’re very human, and they feel just as much as everyone else. It was thus very disappointing to hear of and to witness this. 

This time around, the atmosphere at Carn Brea was electrifying. So much hung on the next few hours nationally, and there was a sure buzz in the air. The press were far more numerous, and the stakes so much higher than last time. Even the election counters looked a little nervous- and from past experience they usually look as excited as a man watching paint dry. Only three elections were being counted that night, with the other Cornish constituencies counted elsewhere. We had Camborne and Redruth, St Ives and then our area, Truro and Falmouth to contend with. Whilst our canvassing had been positive, I thought it fairly obvious that Sarah Newton MP would likely hold T&F, whilst St Ives looked to be far closer between us and the conservatives. Counting each vote that came in, providing rough estimates for votes from different polling stations for future use and challenging any that were wrongly sorted, it was the longest of nights. I drank far too much Lucozade to stay awake, but it was badly needed. It took until 6:00AM to be nearly finished, and our areas were one of the latest in the entire country to declare. I saw some negative reports in the local press calling it an embarrassment, but in reality everyone worked their hardest- having arrived at 10pm, it felt like a miracle to get out at all! I certainly couldn’t attach any blame to the Cornwall Council staff for that. 

Counting our votes for the Truro and Falmouth constituency it quickly became clear that Corbyn-mania had truly permeated our area, with huge block votes coming in from parts of Penryn in particular. Even in our traditional core vote in Truro, labour polled unexpectedly well, matching our effort in places. Regardless, the Conservatives looked the strongest by far. To their credit, Jayne Kirkham ran a very effective campaign and was able to rely on a strong student vote, perhaps swayed by Corbyn’s tuition fee promises. This reflected, of course, the large swing nationally. When the election results were called out, it was hugely unexpectedly close, drawing a gasp from the crowd. Sarah Newton MP prevailed, with 25,123, but Kirkham’s Labour campaign did quite astoundingly, gathering 21,331 votes and vastly increasing their vote share from the previous election. We came a solid third, and given the lack of resources we had to deal with it was a strong effort with 8465 votes. We certainly didn’t expect the Labour surge to be as strong as it was locally, but in hindsight it was difficult to run an effective campaign against the fervour that Corbyn had been able to whip up across the country.

More exciting was the result in St Ives which prompted a recount, but sadly we didn’t quite succeed against the incumbent Conservative MP- losing by just 312 votes, a stellar effort. It raises that bittersweet thought though- just one more street, a few more letters and maybe it could have been won. The St Ives team ran a fantastic campaign and were so unlucky to not come up trumps in the event. Now there was a lot of talk across Cornwall of tactical voting, and I took a fair bit of abuse post-election from Labour supporters for not voting Labour or standing aside to them in our area. My defence of this is thus- all the major tactical voting sites at the time advised a Lib Dem vote, and regardless a brief discussion in the Truro and Falmouth Tactical Vote page on facebook revealed that nearly all of them voted for Corbyn anyway against that advice, so I believe there is little to be gained from that line of thought. In contrast, we needed just 312 votes in St Ives- and Labour took 7298 in a seat they had no chance of winning. Swings and roundabouts, then. Regardless, Cornwall could certainly have had one less Conservative MP if tactical voting had actually occurred. 

Final Thoughts

Being able to be a part of a political campaign from start to finish was an absolute privilege, and I express my sincere gratitude to Mathew McCarthy and the Truro & Falmouth Liberal Democrats in particular. I also give my commiserations to Rob Nolan, a lovely, lovely man who deserved far better and worked far harder than the results show. It was amazing to see the amount of effort that goes into a political campaign, from many different angles, and it made the election count a truly emotional experience. Despite being held in an old leisure centre, Carn Brea will forever be etched in my mind- watching the monument high on Carn Brea emerge in the morning mist as the entire nation awoke to a new political future will be one of those special memories that I’ll look back on with similarly misty eyes in the future. So much emotion and effort goes into a campaign- unless you’ve taken part, you just can’t understand. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I think we could have run a more effective campaign in some respects, but this is an observation on a national rather than local level. The Liberal Democrats put the farm out on being anti-brexit, but offered comparatively little else in the terms of policy. Whilst we recovered some seats, it was clear that the party was still badly tainted from the previous coalition, and this undermined our student vote in particular. This struck home particularly harshly during the election count, when the students of Sheffield Hallam voted out Nick Clegg, a true gentleman, scholar and a hugely important liberal voice. Our party will genuinely mourn his loss, and his service to the centre of British politics. Tim Farron did a good job, but was nowhere near dynamic enough as a leader to offer a truly innovative, exciting vision for Britain’s future, and that has to be a core aspect of a successful political campaign. That, to me, was the main failing of the Liberal Democrats as a party in this election. With a visionary leader, this was a great chance to seize the centre of British politics as Labour and the Conservatives pulled further apart on the political spectrum, but it just didn’t happen. With Farron now gone, we again have this chance in the next election, but we need to be careful. We are still tainted from the past coalition, and there are murmurs of a new centrist party in the works… The Liberal Democrats survived, and we have a good future- though I just wonder if bigger changes might be afoot. 

So, my foray into politics took me far deeper than most students go, and it has left me far, far richer for the experience. I’m a better communicator now, I understand local politics far more intimately than previously… I just gained so much from my time with the Truro and Falmouth Liberal Democrats. I’m moving on now, perhaps to Warwickshire or London, and thus Carn Brea will eventually become a distant memory- but I will never forget the determination of the Cornish people to make Cornwall better on all levels, be it in running for elections, doing interviews or even just folding envelopes- Cornwall has people who really, really care, and as one of the poorest regions in Northern Europe, it really needs every single one of them, regardless of their political orientation. 

Cornwall needs them, and British politics needs people like me, people like you and people like us. 

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