Interesting times in Cornwall

Arwen Folkes reports from North Cornwall where the battle rages between Lib Dems and Tories

It is going to be interesting down here in Cornwall. The proposed unitary authority is a recent issue down here, as proposed and driven by our Lib Dem run County Council and I am particularly interested to see how the issue will affect turnout ... will less people vote because they believe the District Councils won't exist in two years time or will they turn out in their droves to protest at the abolition of such institutions?

If the truth be known, it seems only to be a big issue to people who are already involved in politics themselves. Certainly on the doorstep I have received more questions about fortnightly rubbish collections than I have the unitary authority!

And yet because politics is led by politicians, all of our opponents have tried to make the unitary proposals a real issue throughout their election campaigns.

Although the Tory campaign began with great gusto, seemingly fielding an impressive slate of candidates, the truth is a large proportion of them are actually paper candidates and little visible activity has been taking place cross the county. I'm not sure that Cornish Conservatives are quite on the same wavelength as David Cameron.

Traditionally in Cornwall it is effort that is rewarded, the Cornish like to see candidates on the doorstep and working hard for their seats and we hope that this stands true for this election. That is also the reason that so many hard-working independent candidates also get elected.

My own authority (North Cornwall) is led by an independent administration. The Lib-Dem campaign has been positive and highly visible and we are fielding 20 out of a possible 36 candidates. The Tories are fielding 21, a majority of them paper candidates. Control will be difficult to obtain but to increase our number whilst keeping the Tories low will be a good thing.

The most interesting ward up here has to be Poughill & Stratton (nr Bude) where our organizer and agent has been the sitting councillor for the last term. This is where the BNP candidate has appeared and also where the Conservatives have decided to place their own organizer - perhaps in the hopes of keeping our boy busy, but the scarcity of her campaign has not achieved this.

Down in Carrick, which is largely considered the heart of Liberal Democracy in Cornwall, we are fighting to retain control of the District Council and we have fielded 35 out of 47 seats for this election. The campaign "Let's keep Carrick working" has largely focused on the Environment (Carrick has impressive recycling rates), Affordable Housing and "Axe the Tax".

There is assumed to be strong Tory pockets in this area of Cornwall but again their visible campaign has been minimal (in fact one of our MP's has described it as the worst he has seen) and whilst the telephone canvassing will be under way there is little excuse in the electorate's eyes for not being on the doorstep with the beautiful weather we have been having here in Cornwall this month.

Do you notice what's missing? The Labour Party has never made much of an impact in Cornwall and Tony Blair has only been to the South West three times in the whole of his 10 year term. Apparently he has visited Japan more times than Devon or Cornwall.

Arwen Folkes, 30, is a currently defencing her district council seat in Cornwall. She also runs two businesses and is mother to two boys.
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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.