View from St Ives: a region that hates the EU – but relies on its money

Cornwall receives an average of £60m from Brussels a year. Now it will lose that funding.

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“I’ve not earned a penny this week,” says Trevor Tyldesley, smoking on the pier as the tide comes in. He points out his modest but freshly painted blue-and-white fishing boat bobbing in the harbour. “It’s hard to make a living here.”

Tyldesley, 55, has been fishing mackerel off St Ives for more than 20 years, having lived in the Cornish coastal town since he was three years old. He often goes out in his boat six or seven times a week; his beard is flecked with salt.

With its cobbled roads, wild, turquoise waters, boutiquey shops and art scene, St Ives is famed as a smart holiday resort. Incomers from “up country” here are known as “emmets” – Cornish for marching ants (which are red and travel en masse) – whose effect on property prices and living costs is mentioned by almost every resident I meet.

“Some of the houses are as much as £1m now,” says Tyldesley. “Most who actually live here are on minimum wage.”

He hasn’t seen locals benefit much from politics, he tells me, trudging up the pier in his splattered yellow wellies and big red hoodie.“We all voted for Ukip,” he says, gesturing to the harbour and tangled piles of lobster pots. Like 57 per cent of people in Cornwall, he voted for Brexit. But Tyldesley won’t be voting this time; he doesn’t see a party that will change anything for him.

He represents just one shift in the complicated politics of this sprawling constituency at the southern-most tip of Cornwall. In the 2015 general election, the Conservatives took all six of Cornwall’s seats – holding three and winning three, including St Ives, from the Lib Dems.

Andrew George was the Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives from 1997 to 2015. He is standing again to try and oust the Tory MP Derek Thomas, who won a majority of 2,469 two years ago. But George doesn’t seem optimistic. Although he believes voters won’t give the Lib Dems the same “punishment beating” for being part of the coalition government as they did last time, there are different obstacles to victory.

“I’m not predicting that we’re going to win the seat, but the enthusiasm and desire is greater than last time,” George tells me. I join him for a cup of tea in his living room, where I vie with a big black cat for armchair space. He lives in a picturesque pink house in Hayle – a 20-minute bus ride from St Ives – which is no longer part of the constituency.

“The population over the last 20 years, since I was first the MP, has changed, as a lot of wealthier, right-wing retirees have come to the area,” George says. “It’s a tough one to win.”

He adds that his party’s pro-Europe manifesto isn’t helping. “The Tim Farron narrative that apparently is working well, aimed at the metropolitan areas, or London at least, that we should have a second referendum and so on, doesn’t play well here,” he says, raising an eyebrow. “So I’m distancing myself from that position . . . I don’t think that is a response to the problem; I think it’s part of the problem.”

Even so, Cornwall is a great beneficiary of EU subsidies. As one of the less-developed regions in the European Union, the county receives an average of £60m from Brussels a year for infrastructure and development. Now it will lose that funding.

But locals of many political persuasions feel they don’t benefit from this EU ­money, saying it gets swallowed up by the council. “We needed to remove a layer of bureaucracy. Brexit will be totally positive almost immediately here,” says Kim Mole, 57, who is mixing cement in the drizzle. He has worked as a carpenter and builder in St Ives for 19 years.

“There’s a longer [tourism] season already, the British holiday’s coming back again – people are afraid of going abroad because of terrorism, and the pound’s not strong. So they’re staying in Britain.”

Mole will vote Labour, a party with little presence in this part of the country. But I detect growing enthusiasm among residents to vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s party – or, at least, to stop voting tactically – perhaps because the Brexit vote has shattered politics-as-usual.

“I was always told Labour is a wasted vote,” says a 49-year-old woman in a Breton dress who is selling boat trips to tourists on the seafront, and asks that her name not be used. “But people are fed up of being bullied into voting Liberal to keep the Tories out. We are on lower wages; there needs to be something for locals.”

This attitude will further dent the Lib Dems’ chances of winning the seat back from the Tories. An irony, as Cornwall will suffer from a hard Brexit. But, as Tyldesley concludes, stamping out his cigarette: “Every time we vote, and we seem to be voting all the time, nothing seems to be happening; my pockets aren’t getting any fuller.”

You can find the rest of our consituency profiles from the 2017 general election here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 01 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning