Is Cornwall seeing a return to rotten boroughs?

The Grey Ministry chop down the rotten borough system, including Saltash, Bere Alston, Bossiney, Callington, and East Looe, by Charles Jameson Grant, 1832. CC British Museum

The local elections in Cornwall have seen the Conservatives take control of the council with the votes of fewer than 15% of registered voters.

In the 18th and early 19th century, Cornwall was notorious for having more so-called ‘rotten boroughs’ than anywhere else in England. The historian Lewis Namier described Cornish politics in the 1760s: “As an archaic ritual and a pursuit of pleasure and profit, Cornish borough elections have the charm inherent in human actions when sincere; and there was no humbug about the way in which Cornish boroughs chose their representatives.” There was indeed an undeniable frankness about the corruption on display at parliamentary elections.

Many Cornish boroughs had only a handful of voters and these typically cast their votes either as instructed by the local landowner or, if more entrepreneurial, sold them to the highest bidder. In Grampound, the tiny number of men included in the franchise boasted that their votes could be sold for 300 guineas, while in Penryn the right to vote was itself purchasable via the archaic system of ‘scot and lot’. Voters wealthy enough to pay the ‘scot’ were then in a position to sell their ‘lots’ (votes), and elections in Penryn thus became competitions between the patrons with the deepest pockets.

This was still going on into the 1820s, when the electors of Penryn were treated by candidates to what were described as “breakfasts” but were in fact large bribes. This flagrant corruption was held up as an example of the urgent need for electoral reform, and in 1832 this finally came in the shape of the first Great Reform Act.

I’ve also been campaigning in Penryn recently, for the Green Party candidate at the local elections, and am pleased to report that she won on her considerable merits and without any recourse to “breakfasts”. But while Cornwall Green Party had much to celebrate, it was impossible to look at the overall result of the elections, in Cornwall or elsewhere in England, and to feel that democracy had been well served by the electoral process.

In Cornwall, for instance, the Greens won over 9% of the vote but only 1 of the 87 seats on Cornwall Council. The Conservatives, with just over a third of the vote, won 47 seats. Voter turnout in Cornwall was just 39% (out of 437,940 registered voters). In other words, the Conservatives won their majority on the say of less than 15% of the Cornish electorate.

There are several reasons for this perverse result. One was the reorganisation of Cornish divisions, with a reduction in the number of these from 123 to 87. As BBC South West political correspondent Martyn Oates observed: “The reduction in seats on Cornwall Council seems to have recalibrated a lot of the political fault lines in favour of the Conservatives.”

Then there was Boris Johnson’s visit to Cornwall shortly before the elections, which he used to announce what appeared to be bountiful funding heading in the Duchy’s direction (actually it was a small fraction of what Cornwall has lost in EU funding as a result of Brexit, and much of it was money that had already been announced). This was shameless pork-barrel politics, and could perhaps be seen as the latter-day equivalent of those Penryn “breakfasts”.

But what really produces such profoundly distorted results, at both local and national elections, is the nature of the first-past-the-post electoral system. The majority of people in Cornwall voted for parties or independent candidates opposed to Conservative policies, but because these were mostly running against each other in the various divisions, the Conservatives cleaned up.

As many have pointed out, one solution to this would be for anti-Conservative candidates to agree not to run against each other. This happened in several places at the local elections, with successful results – if by ‘success’ one means the defeat of Conservatives. But most parties feel that they have more to offer than simply being anti-Conservative, which makes it very hard for such agreements to be made except in a few individual cases, and without the backing of national parties.

The truth is that the only lasting solution to the decay of the democratic process is root-and-branch reform, and the introduction of a more proportional system that enables the number of votes cast to be fairly reflected in results. And this can only happen if a national government committed to such reform is elected.

Were the Labour Party to commit to such reform, then a genuine progressive alliance at the next general election would become a real possibility. It would be a game-changer, and it’s hard to see any other way in which the electoral stranglehold now exerted by our corrupt ruling party will be broken.

It would be nice to think that the new Conservative administration on Cornwall Council will be wise enough to recognise that it does not enjoy a genuinely democratic mandate to impose their policies on the people of Cornwall, and will take the views of other parties on board. But nothing about Boris Johnson’s sleaze-ridden version of Conservative Party gives reason to hope that their representatives in Cornwall will exercise governance with much sense of a wider duty to the community.

I had many interesting conversations on the doorstep in Penryn, meeting many voters who were well-informed on local issues and had clearly thought hard about which candidate most deserved their support. But I also met many people who told me that they had no intention of voting because, wherever they put their cross in the box, “it’s not going to make any difference”.

In Penryn, many people have been commenting on how exciting it’s been to find that, for once, their vote for a party they believed in has made a genuine difference to the outcome. But many others in Cornwall will feel that the overall result of these elections has left them inadequately represented, and their cynicism about the political process will have been confirmed.

This cynicism, while understandable, is corrosive to democracy. We urgently need another Great Reform Act.

If the state of our democracy concerns you, please join us on 26 May at 20:00 for a Q&A session on what can be done to address the threats we face. The panel includes: Klina Jordan, co-founder and chief executive of Make Votes Matter; Mary Southcott, from Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform.; Tom Brake, director of Unlock Democracy and Molly Scott Cato, former MEP (Green Party), economist and activist. You can book here. The event is free to attend but we are asking for donations to help fund the additional Zoom costs.