“What have the Liberals ever done for Cornwall?”- A brief History of the St Ives Constituency.
In the last 100 years, this most Western of constituencies has been politically quite volatile. The Borough of St Ives town sent MPs to Westminster from the reign of Mary Tudor onward, and in the 19th century was reorganised as one of six Cornish constituencies incorporating Penzance, the Scilly Isles and the district of West Penwith. Its boundaries then progressively expanded to take in Helston and the villages of the Lizard peninsula. Historically, there had been an unusual degree of agricultural “owner-occupation” in the area, and numerous religious non-conformists and political “radicals”. This history of religious non-conformity and the prevalence of Methodism is shared by other “peripheral” areas of the UK- the Scottish Highlands and Islands, Cumbria and Wales- and to this day that pattern is still reflected in the’ geographical distribution of ‘hardcore’ Libdem seats held in Westminster (excepting Wales, where the advent of Plaid Cymru changed the patterns of Political allegiance.)
During the UK’s political re-alignment and the eclipse of the Liberal Party by Labour in the early 20th Century, Conservative dominance in West Cornwall was never seriously threatened, but St Ives and Camborne formed a “hotspot” of Labour support due to the importance of the mining and engineering industries in these areas- membership of Union branches numbered above 10,000. In today’s terms, St Ives was a Liberal-Conservative ‘Marginal’, swinging from one to the other, but with Labour at one point winning up to a third of the vote. The 1920’s and 30’s saw a big contraction of mining and associated industries, from which ensued unemployment, hopelessness and demoralisation, worker emigration and shrinkage of Union branches.... Labour support in Cornwall slumped, and Cornish Liberals like Isaac Foot (MP for Bodmin) successfully mobilised support by campaigning from within the still robust Methodist/Non-conformist traditions, whose adherents tended towards Liberalism.
A national Liberal revival and a Labour collapse saw Liberal MPs returned to Westminster in the decisive General Election of 1929...St Ives’ claim to fame at this time was the victory of Hilda Runciman in a by-election held in 1928; her husband was the prominent Asquithian Liberal statesman Walter Runciman (subsequently elevated to the Lords as Viscount Doxford) who had lost his Dewsbury seat years earlier. In 1929, Hilda stepped down and Walter stood for the seat successfully, in a quite unusual example of intra-marital political cooperation!
Post 1945, Liberal fortunes declined nationally- by 1951 the party was down to a handful of MPs in Westminster. However, Labour support in St Ives never returned to pre-war levels (although recent years have seen Labour support rise to seriously challenge Conservatives in the adjacent Camborne & Redruth seat.) The St Ives seat was held by “National Liberals” (effectively, Conservatives) and “full-fat” Conservatives. The most notable incumbent was Sir John Nott (Defence minister under Thatcher) who owned land around St Erth.
Andrew George gained the seat for the LibDems in 1997. Like a number of other Cornish Liberal politicians, he had been a member of Mebyon Kernow and championed greater recognition of distinct Cornish regional identity. Andrew (born in Mullion) followed in the path of Truro Liberal MP David Penhaligon by openly asserting his “Cornishness” - he swore his Parliamentary induction oath in Cornish rather than English, the first MP so to do. Significantly, he held the seat continuously for 18 years, one of the longest Liberal tenancies in the South-West.
As part of the group of Cornish Libdem MPs who made Cornwall a Conservative-free zone between 1997-2015, Andrew formed part of an effective advocate group for the county to be defined as a separate “region” from Devon and Somerset. Once the Libdem County Council made the statistical case for this, it became clear that Cornwall’s economic status was very disadvantaged relative to the rest of England. Thus, in 1998 the EU recognised the county as a distinct “Economic Development Region.” Its low per capita income qualified it for EU economic development aid under the Objective One programme in 1999. This brought significant investment into education (creation of Falmouth University, expansion of 6th Form Colleges) new enterprise, (including The Eden Project) and infrastructure (including upgrades to the A30, retention and upgrading of rail link to Paddington, and installation of superfast broadband connections …) Another positive outcome of “Regional Status” allowed various local products to acquire “unique denomination of origin” designation.
The Cornish constituencies all underwent significant boundary changes: for example, Falmouth & Penryn had returned a Labour MP, but were then joined to Truro, altering the voter make-up in favour of the Conservatives. The St Ives Consituency acquired the Helston municipal wards and all the Lizard villages between 1950-1983, and also incorporated Hayle. In 2010 the Boundary Commission review reduced the number of Cornish constituencies; during this process, Hayle was detached from St Ives and incorporated into Camborn & Redruth. Once again, this change altered the voter make-up in favour of the Conservatives; George had enjoyed a substantial majority prior to the 2010 election, but no longer. During the campaign of 2015, Conservative national strategy was repointed towards targeting Libdem seats in the West of England (chronicled on the website “Conservative Home”): the result saw Andrew and most of the West-country Libdem MPs ousted in one fell swoop.
The current Conservative MP for St Ives, Derek Thomas, has not enjoyed a large majority and in 2017 after a vigorous election contest with George, only held onto the seat by 312 votes. Once again, St Ives is to be regarded as a two-way marginal...now one of the closest in the UK. Early in 2018, the Constituency Party re-selected Andrew as its parliamentary candidate. Meanwhile, more controversial boundary changes to the Cornish constituencies are proposed, which if implemented will alter the voter make-up yet again - it’s very wrong to view St Ives as a sleepy backwater where not much has changed and little of significance ever happens!