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We need to talk about Devon

By examining the local politics of the nation's second-largest county, we can see just how tight a grip the Conservatives have on power.

Adjusting figurines at Babbacombe Model Village near Torquay in Devon. Photo: Barry Batchelor / PA Archive/Press Association Ima Adjusting figurines at Babbacombe Model Village near Torquay in Devon. Photo: Barry Batchelor / PA Archive/Press Association Images. All rights reservedThe Conservative hold on power in Britain is stronger than might be implied by its slim 17-seat majority in the 650-seat House of Commons. Labour, the only other party with a hope of forming an electoral majority, would need to gain around 100 seats even before the impact of the newly announced boundary changes is taken into account. Alternatively, it could settle for a coalition, and forge an agreement with the Scottish National Party; but this looks no more possible now than in 2015. As the Labour leadership contest draws to a close, the party’s road to power, whoever wins, is extremely difficult to forsee.

The Tory elective dictatorship rests on an almost complete dominance in southern England (outside large cities and university towns), which was also the principal area of support for Brexit. In the 2015 general election, the Tories’ targeted wipeout of the Liberal Democrats across the South West delivered their unexpected majority. South and west of Bristol there is only one non-Tory MP (Labour’s Ben Bradshaw in Exeter). Even more than in the much-discussed case of Scotland under the SNP, the South West has become a virtual one-party state.

Some outside the region have speculated that a Liberal Democrat recovery might help enable a ‘progressive alliance’ to form as an alternative to Theresa May’s Tories. However, a recovery to pre-2015 levels would not only be insufficient to offset Labour’s deficits in Scotland as elsewhere, it also ignores the extent to which the Tories have concentrated power to make it difficult for any opposition party to change the regional balance.The situation in the region’s largest county, Devon, shows the depth of the problem. But at the same time, it is where local activists are devising new ways of doing politics that are challenging Tory control.

A microcosm of Tory power

The Tory monopoly in Devon is even more complete than in neighbouring Cornwall and Somerset. Conservatives have overwhelming control of local government (both unitary authorities, the County Council and almost all the districts). In the urban areas, the general election results were close, and opposition parties remain in contention. Labour has strong representation in Plymouth, as well as Exeter where they recently consolidated their control of the City Council, and the Lib Dems enjoy considerable support in Torbay. But in the rural areas and small towns, the majority of the county, Tory dominance is almost absolute at every level - barring some town and parish councils where politics is less partisan.  

Some rural areas have never had a non-Tory MP. The Tories had six of the seven non-urban Devon seats even in 2010. At least one council, East Devon, has been Tory since it was created in 1973. In semi-rural Devon, even an unlikely Lib Dem revival would make little difference. How then can things ever change?

Minority rule

It is important to understand that Conservative rule is based neither on majority support or extensive party membership. In 2015, the party gained under 45 per cent of all votes. Even in the seven non-urban seats, the 2015 increase in Tory support brought them only up to a 49 per cent average; in the urban seats they squeaked in on the same 37 per cent that gave them their national majority. Yet the non-Conservative majority are virtually unrepresented.

The Tory party is hollowed out and probably has far fewer members than Labour. The party could only take Torbay and North Devon from the Lib Dems with the aid of the notorious ‘battle bus’ activists, whose costs their Torbay agent, Alison Hernandez - like many others - failed to declare. Even after Channel 4 broke the scandal in 2016, Hernandez was narrowly elected as Devon and Cornwall Police and Crime Commissioner, but refused to stand aside as she was investigated (the case was transferred to another force and is still pending).

As ever where one-party rule is so entrenched, corruption is not far away. Revelations like those in 2013, when East Devon Tory councillor Graham Brown was forced to resign after telling a journalist he could obtain planning permission in return for cash, fuel widespread cynicism about local power which make the ruling party vulnerable.The flexibility of local Tory MPs over Brexit  is likely to create a new constituency for opposition; ‘pro-Remain’ Neil Parish MP, Chair of the parliamentary Environment committee, quickly backed Boris Johnson and Andrea Leadsom in quick succession for the leadership and now describes Brexit as a ‘glorious opportunity’.

Failure of the opposition parties

That non-Tory votes largely fail to make an impact is partlythe repsonsibility of previous Labour and Lib Dem politicians. They have repeatedly failed to reform the electoral system, both at the national and local level. Tony Blair’s government never held the referendum on Proportional Representation to which its 1997 manifesto committed it. Current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has never campaigned for PR during his 33 years in Parliament, and together with his rival Owen Smith continues to fudge the issue in recent responses to the Electoral Reform Society.

Nick Clegg abandoned the Lib Dems’ longstanding committment to proportional representation to obtain office in 2010, settling for the promise of a referendum on the weaker 'alternative vote' system without even securing government support for change. In the South West, the Lib Dems’ collective political suicide through the Coalition has broken the residual credibility of the first-past-the-post system.

Failing services

Because Tory dominance is so extensive, the party has largely taken voters for granted. Devon is suffering sharply from the general underfunding, balkanisation and creeping part-privatisation of public services. The NHS trust running the flagship Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital has been forced from a healthy surplus into deep deficit. The NEW Devon Clinical Commissioning Group, also in chronic deficit, tried to bar some patients from routine operations until obliged by public pressure to abandon its plans. Local Community Hospitals have lost beds and have been handed over to NHS Property Services, which can put up rents or, worse, sell off the sites.

Devon is a region of heavy immigration, mainly of retirees from other English regions (although with some international migrants, concentrated in its cities). As in the NHS, the gap between funding and need threatens adult social care. Child protection services are deemed inadequate. Since Tory Devon retains grammar schools, there are concerns about the effects of Theresa May’s proposed expansion of these schools on the excluded majority of children.

Phoney devolution

The unaccountability of Devon Tories is also evident in how they have embraced the half-baked, patchwork ‘devolution’ launched by George Osborne, which offers limited ‘additional’ money - while core government funding for local services is pared down or eliminated. Although Devon is a much larger and more populous county than neighbouring Cornwall which has a sole devolution deal, Devon is being forced into a merger with Somerset in a new brand, an affront to local identities, ‘Heart of the South West’.

The principal rationale for the linkage seems to be to create a larger base for the anachronistic and hyper-expensive Hinckley C nuclear project. Any benefits, if they materialise, will be overwhelmingly for the neighbouring county. The proposed devolution, with a hyper-aspirational prospectus which bears comparison to Vote Leave’s notorious offer, is being run through the Local Economic Partnership, dominated by unelected business leaders.

The county election challenge

Devon County Council comes up for reelection in May 2017. In 2013, the Tories won 38 of the 62 seats on a mere 35 per cent of the vote. Under first past the post, the divided Lib Dems, Labour, Greens and Independents between them won only 20 seats for 41 per cent of the vote. (UKIP, which polled 23 per cent, won 4 seats.) It is obvious that none of the three centre and left opposition parties can win a majority in 2017. The Lib Dems may keep some strongholds, but they are still picking themselves up from their 2015 battering, and elsewhere local activists are thin on the ground.

Despite a deep conflict between Bradshaw and pro-Corbyn Momentum activists, Labour will probably keep its Exeter seats, but is unlikely to win in the rural areas and small towns. Rural Labour parties have seen the Corbyn surge in membership but with modest benefits for local activism: a constituency party which has trebled its membership to 500 may still only get about 15 people to its meetings. Members vote for their preferred leader, but have too little scope to change things locally. Even if it advances, Labour is starting from a very low base, and the Greens are smaller.

New politics?

The 2015 elections saw important steps forward for a different kind of politics in semi-rural East Devon. From a standing start, Independent candidate Claire Wright leapfrogged UKIP, Labour and the Lib Dems to take second place in the East Devon parliamentary constituency of Hugo Swire, a ‘Cameron croney’ since knighted in his resignation honours. It was the only Independent second place anywhere in England, after a grassroots campaign typically ignored by the national press.

In parallel, the East Devon Alliance, formed in 2013 out of revulsion at the Brown case and East Devon’s pro-developer bias, put up over 30 district council candidates and succeeded, despite the simultaneous Tory general election victory, in taking ten seats from the Tories (this writer was an unsuccessful candidate). Independents led by EDA replaced the Lib Dems as the official opposition.

An investigative blog, East Devon Watch, has played an important informational role in the new politics, now matched by a South Devon Watch site. An Independent group successfully challenged for control of Buckfastleigh Town Council, in the Teinbridge district, at the same time as the better-known ‘flatpack democracy’ of Frome in Somerset. A loose Independent network is emerging across the South West, including Cornwall.

Although social media played an important part in these campaigns, many relied heavily on old-fashioned doorstep campaigning. A new campaign to influence the County Council elections, Devon United, is perhaps the first - certainly the most ambitious - initiative to be actually launched through social media. Its first meeting in October will be addressed by Paul Hilder, co-founder of OpenDemocracy.net and CrowdPac and former global campaigns director for Avaaz and Change.org.

I have written recently about the limitations of the national progressive crowdsourcing campaign organisation, 38 Degrees, during and after the Brexit vote. It remains to be seen what happens when crowdsourced politics meets local electioneering, and how the division of the anti-Tory vote will be overcome. But this initiative shows that the new politics is alive and kicking in a county where the old politics has so manifestly failed.

About the author

Martin Shaw is a political sociologist interested in war, genocide and racism, who now works on political change in Britain. His website is here. He is research professor of international relations at the Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals(IBEI), professorial fellow in international relations and human rights at the University of Roehampton, and emeritus professor the University of Sussex. Among his books are The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and its Crisis in Iraq (Polity, 2005) and What is Genocide? (2nd edition, Polity, 2015). 


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