Mebyon Kernow and the art of the possible

Politics is the art of the possible (Otto Von Bismarck)

Cornish_AssemblyIn a post back in November I argued that Cornwall’s Mebyon Kernow should be encouraged by UKIP’s by-election successes. So I decided to take a look at MK’s website to see how the party’s policies are being presented ahead of important local elections later this year. What I found wasn’t pretty.     

Mebyon Kernow needs to decide what it is for. Here’s my opinion: it is, and always will be, a local party and should focus on what is possible in that role. Anything that detracts from the core goal of getting representatives elected to positions where they can influence policy and improve the lives of Cornish people should be avoided. But while success in Cornwall should be a more than sufficient goal, the MK manifesto is littered with ‘policies’ relating to national and global issues over which the party will never have any influence. It starts with MK’s ‘mission statement’.

‘Mebyon Kernow is a modern and progressive political party, campaigning for a better deal for Cornwall and a fairer, more equitable World.’

It was all looking good right up to those last six words. I’m sure many of us share their desire for a ‘fairer, more equitable World’ but in that quest, wouldn’t you be better off supporting organisations like Oxfam or the UNHCR? They are probably in a better position to deliver it than Mebyon Kernow. We then find an entire section of the manifesto modestly entitled ‘Global Justice’, complete with calls for global nuclear disarmament and writing off third world debt, along with ‘radical reform’ of the global financial sector’. This is about as credible as a Miss World contestant saying that what she really wants is world peace and free kittens for everybody.

Then we get down to UK-specific policies, which are only slightly less ambitious. They include the abolition of the House of Lords, implementation of Proportional Representation and withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. So what are they going to do AFTER lunch…?

Ok, so this stuff might all be pretty bonkers, but what’s the harm in having it in the manifesto? Won’t the electorate just ignore it? Perhaps. But since no sane person believes that a Cornish-based party is ever going to be able to influence those issues, including them in the list of policies makes MK seem deluded. It’s a sad fact of life that all non-mainstream political parties struggle to break free of the ‘lunatic fringe’ tag; the last thing they should do is to hand evidence of their delusions to their detractors.

This global fluff also dilutes the party’s local credentials. Including these grandiose national and international aspirations implies that success in Cornwall alone is not a sufficient goal for MK. This is a very bad message to send to the electorate. It distracts from the core, concrete local issues where a regional party can have an influence. MK needs to identify these issues and make them the absolute focus of their campaigning. What might these be? A short list would include local housing policy, transport, the future of town centre shops vs. out of town supermarkets and the environment (by which I mean specific local issues such as waste management, not global warming); in short, the issues that affect people on a daily basis. The good news is that MK does address some of them, particularly housing, but a more concerted approach to policies in the other key areas is needed.

Unfortunately, as with the global aspirations discussed earlier, generalisations too often triumph over specifics. Who wouldn’t agree with the manifesto’s calls for ‘Social Justice’ and ‘Prosperity For All’? The problem is that these terms are so vague as to be almost meaningless and that limits their electoral appeal to voters who are deeply cynical about vacuous ideological slogans. Again, they need to be fleshed out with specific proposals before anyone will take them seriously.

Moreover, it also appears that few if any of the policies have actually been costed. Voters have been duped far too often by politicians who promise the earth, only to find that there is no money to pay for the policies once they get in power. The MK manifesto comes up badly short in this area as well. And repeating the tired mantra about the need for the UK’s deficit to be reduced while opposing ‘savage cuts’ and talking about the need to defend ‘front line services’ is nowhere near good enough. Those bland words could have come from the manifesto of pretty much any British political party and are equally shallow here.

The only hint as to how MK policies might be paid for comes from the part of the manifesto calling for reform of the national taxation system, replacement of the Council Tax and other measures such as abolition of the Trident nuclear programme. Not only is there a complete lack of specific numbers, but these are also national rather than local issues. Is the manifesto implying that the viability of the party’s proposed solutions for local issues is dependent on changes at the national level? If so, we have a big credibility problem.

Finally we turn to the perennially contentious issue of Cornish nationalism and where that fits in the MK electoral tool-kit. The question of Cornwall’s constitutional status within the UK may have been a powerful driver for MK in the early days, but in 2013 we have to ask how relevant it is to the Cornish electorate. Cornwall’s distinctive character, its remoteness from the centre of political power which often results in inappropriate policies being imposed from Westminster and the need for a stronger local voice should undoubtedly be at the core of MK’s appeal. But this should not mean the party becoming mired in obscure constitutional debates about the historical nature of Cornwall’s relationship to Britain. Regardless of the historical justification for the arguments, the reality is that banging on about a thousand years of English oppression is a political dead-end. The Duchy Charters of 1337 may well support the notion of Cornwall as a separate constitutional entity, but 676 years later, very few people care. That might sound harsh, but 60 years of MK history tells us that those issues have very, very limited appeal to the voters (and at the margin, may even put some voters off).

So when people ask ‘why should I vote MK and support a Cornish Assembly?’, the answer should not be ‘because a 14th century charter proves Cornwall isn’t part of England’. The man or woman on the Camborne omnibus just doesn’t care.  The answer they are looking for is, ‘because we can show that giving more power to people who understand the needs of Cornwall will make your life better’.

In short, MK needs to narrow its focus to the key local issues and explain how they will implement and pay for the clearly thought out policies that will make life in Cornwall better. It’s not as glamorous as campaigning for nuclear disarmament and the eradication of global poverty or arguing endlessly about English oppression, but it’s a damn sight more relevant to the people who they need to vote for them.

Mebyon Kernow is undoubtedly made up of committed individuals who care deeply about Cornwall. We do need a credible alternative to the big Westminster parties and MK is by far the best placed to fill that role. The party owes it to itself, and to the people of Cornwall, to take an honest look at what it is offering voters because the message of previous elections is that something is missing.

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