Saturday, 16 November 2013

My speech at today's MK Conference

Thank you to everyone who attended today’s Mebyon Kernow Conference, held in Truro. For those of you that couldn’t make it, my keynote speech was as follows:

We started today’s gathering by remembering two stalwarts of the Cornish movement – Graham Symmons and Tony Piper. I would also like to add a few words.

I will always fondly remember Graham, popping around to my home for an evening – always armed with a gift of a bottle of port.

I will be forever thankful to him for the many years that he was our treasurer, and worked so hard in the background, carrying out the thankless task of keeping our books in something resembling good order.

And Tony Piper – we should celebrate his dedication to Cornwall through the wide range of organisations he was involved with, such as the Celtic Congress, Gorseth and Cornish Solidarity.

At the forefront of many a march – always with kilt and flag – Pipes was a true and faithful standard-bearer for Cornwall and its identity.

Conference, as we look forward today – keep Graham and Tony in your thoughts. And please consider how you can follow in their footsteps, and also champion Cornwall at every opportunity.

At this point, I would like to take a few moments to look back over the last twelve months and take stock – particularly, of how we fared in the May elections.

We achieved a creditable series of results and the average vote-share of our candidates was up significantly – 24% - much higher than the 17% achieved in 2009, and four MK councillors were elected to Cornwall Council.

I am particularly proud that all three of Mebyon Kernow’s sitting Cornwall Councillors – who stood for re-election – successfully defended their seats and increased their share of the vote.

Obviously, I was especially pleased to be re-elected to serve my home parish for a fifth term.

And it was wonderful to see Andrew Long and Loveday Jenkin get back to County Hall with resounding wins. Andrew achieved 61% of the vote in Callington, while Loveday got 55% in Crowan & Wendron.

But the highlight of the election campaign was the victory of my good friend Matt Luke in Penwithick & Boscoppa.

Matt is MK’s second unitary councillor in Clay Country – an area where – in May – Mebyon Kernow received more votes than any other political party.

But it is right that we should be disappointed that we did not get more councillors elected to the unitary authority, though we did come tantalisingly close to a significant breakthrough.

Five MK candidates missed out by a handful of votes. If just 140 voters in five divisions had voted for Mebyon Kernow, we would have won nine seats.

Today, I would like to complement three colleagues – three first-time candidates – who worked so hard and came so close.

Fiona Carlyon. Fiona stood in Fowey & Tywardreath, and fought a truly outstanding campaign – for example, opposing an inappropriate supermarket development and challenging the failure of Cornwall Council to maintain play equipment in her area. She won 477 votes and was only 13 votes away from success.

Rod Toms. Rod stood in Newlyn & Goonhavern. He built up a committed team, and fought a long and energetic campaign. He polled 529 votes and finished just 26 votes behind the winner.

And in Illogan, Stephen Richardson. Steve is one of our most active parish councillors and he knocked on almost every single door in his division. A fantastic achievement, Steve garnered 290 votes and missed out by only 41 votes.

The efforts of Fiona, Rod and Steve should be applauded by us here today. It shows how we can win significant numbers of votes through good old-fashioned hard work.

I would like to thank them, all the unitary candidates who stood, everyone who helped out with the leafleting and canvassing.

I would also like to congratulate the twenty-six MK members who were elected to town and parish councils as official party candidates.

I see many of you here today. You are the very bedrock of our Party and you are punching well above your weight.

We have Phil Rendle – this year – re-elected as the Mayor of Penzance for a second term.

Mike Champion – elected as the Mayor of Camborne. A first for Mebyon Kernow.

Derek Collins – chosen as the Deputy Mayor of St Austell. Another first for MK.

And Andrew Long – chosen as the Deputy Mayor / Deputy Portreeve of Callington. Not a first for MK – he has been there and done it all before.

Such progress should give us hope for the future of our Party.

In the May elections, the potential depth of MK support was shown by the number of votes achieved by our candidates in multi-member town council wards – where people had more than one vote.

Support was significantly higher than that achieved in the unitary contests for the same areas.

In Camborne Trelowarren, the Conservative candidate was elected to Cornwall Council with 243 votes – but in the town council election, Zoe Fox won over 300 votes for MK – equivalent to nearly 40% of voters.

In Penzance East, the Labour victor managed 378 votes. And yet in the town council election, Rob Simmons secured over 400 votes for MK – the support of around 35% of local voters.

People are increasingly voting MK. And our challenge – as we go forward – is to make MK the number one choice for voters in “first-past-the-post” unitary and parliamentary elections.

I would also like to mention those members who – this year – took decisions to stand down from local councils.

Helene and Stuart Cullimore in Camborne, Michael Hall in Redruth, Heather Jones and Chris Thomas in Callington, Rob Stott in St Columb and Tamsin Williams in Penzance.

It is right that we – collectively – thank them all for the manner in which they have served Cornwall with great distinction.

Friends – exactly 100 years ago – in 1913, the men and women of the China Clay Area came together to demand union recognition and fairer wages.

They refused to accept their poverty, they stood up to the owners of the clayworks, and they demanded better.

They bravely went out on strike, they withstood great hardship for their rights, and the future prospects of their families and all those that were to come in the future.

MK has long celebrated the spirit of the clay strikers and today, we again honour the workers of Carne Stents, Kernick and Trethosa; of Virginia, Bugle and the whole Clay Area.

Without such working class heroes across the whole of Britain, pressure would never have been exerted on those in authority to improve the working and social conditions of ordinary people.

And it is due to such men and women that, over the last ten decades, significant progress was made – yes, in terms of working conditions and wages – but also improvements in suffrage, in welfare, better housing, council housing, new public services, and the National Health Service.

These are fundamental gains that we should be proud of, and these are gains that we should be seeking to protect.

But now, in 2013, the whole fabric of our society is under relentless attack from the Conservative / Liberal Democrat Coalition.

The Coalition is using the financial and economic crisis – caused by bankers, an over-heating housing market, irresponsible lending and the failure of the Westminster class to regulate the financial sector – as an excuse to wield an ideological axe to turn a crisis caused by the private sector into a crisis for the whole of the public sector.

The Coalition Government with its Cabinet of millionaires is pushing policy after policy that are impacting most negatively on the less-well-off, those in need of housing, and those struggling on below a living wage.

It has introduced the cruel “bedroom tax.”

You have seen the horror stories – such as the man who relies on a kidney dialysis machine, stored in a small box bedroom in his tiny flat and who, as a consequence of the bedroom tax, will lose £60 a month in benefits.

Four days ago, one of Cornwall’s MPs described the “bedroom tax” as “victimising the most marginalised” in society and “Dickensian in its social divisiveness.”

The other five of Cornwall’s six MPs voted to continue with this immoral tax. They should be thoroughly ashamed.

The Coalition Government has imposed the most savage welfare cuts, shredding the safety net so vital for a civilized society.

It localised council tax benefit – but not before it shaved off £5 million – leading to another massive financial shortfall for Cornwall Council … leaving people, previously considered too poor to pay council tax, having to find £300 - £400 a year.

The Coalition Government has given tax cuts to millionaires, while poverty around them has exploded and the pressure on food banks has grown and grown.

And it continues to undermine the public ethos of the NHS and it has privatised many of our vital public services – including the helicopter search and rescue service and  Royal Mail.

Margaret Thatcher declined to privatise the Royal Mail. I believe she rather famously stated that she was “not prepared” to sell off the Queen’s head.

This Coalition has had no such reservations and they have sold it off at a knock-down price. 

How many people realise that many shares in Royal Mail went to “sovereign wealth funds” in countries as diverse as KuwaitNorway and the United Arab Emirates.

One of the world's biggest hedge funds is reported to have purchased a £50 million stake in the company. Which, because of the under-valuation – after just one day – the holding was apparently worth about £68 million.

This firm just happens to employ George Osborne’s best man.

And this is a firm that, according to news reports, made a profit of “£100 million from the financial crash by betting that the price of Northern Rock would fall,” … while its former chief executive was “awarded a knighthood last year after donating half a million pounds to the Conservative Party.”

Friends. This Government is out of touch, and it is destructive. It is working in the best interests of a small wealthy clique of individuals – and it is actually working against the best interests of those ordinary people that we are proud to represent and to fight for.

And it needs to be said that I can see little difference between any of the three largest London-centred parties – I have little faith in the official opposition at Westminster.

The Labour Party has lost its soul.

This is the Party that – when Plaid Cymru and SNP forced a debate on Tory plans to cut the top rate of tax for the highest earners – it instructed its MPs to abstain in the vote.

It has said that, if it wins the next General Election, it will continue with the Coalition’s spending plans that are devastating communities.

And remember, it took Ed Miliband six months of focus groups before he could confirm that a Labour Government would repeal the bedroom tax.

That is why we need Mebyon Kernow – a party committed to fairness, social justice and environmental protection – to be strong and effective in building an alternative to the London-centred parties that are failing Cornwall.

Friends, as one of Mebyon Kernow’s Cornwall Councillors, I get to deal with the harsh reality of modern politics on a daily basis.

This year, Cornwall Council was working towards cuts of £19 million, but additional reductions in government funding raised that figure by a further £24 million.

Coalition cuts to local government are truly disproportionate – and they are undermining the ability of local councils to provide those public services that individuals, families and communities have a right to expect.

I am fed up of “crocodile tears” from Coalition councillors about the unpalatable position in which elected members find themselves, trying to bridge black-hole after black-hole in local budgets.

Cameron, Clegg and Pickles are slashing funding because Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors are remaining true to their parties – and carrying out the Coalition’s dirty work at a local level.

I have a message for all Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors in Cornwall – you should RESIGN!

I say to them – if they are serious about stopping these cuts, they should send a strong message to the Coalition by walking away from their respective parties.

That would be the sort of decisive political action that the likes of Cameron, Clegg and Pickles would understand.

If the local government base of their parties was reduced, or decimated, the Government would change direction. But while their local councillors remain loyal to the Coalition, they are complicit in the damage being imparted on to Cornwall.

My loyalty is to Cornwall, your loyalty is to Cornwall – and the loyalty of all councillors should also be to Cornwall, not some London-centred political party. 

On 18th September next year, the people of Scotland will go to the polls to vote on whether their country becomes an independent state.

This follows the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, and opponents of independence are already promising more powers to the Scottish Parliament if people vote no.

Make no mistake – this seismic shift in Scotland only happened because of the success of the SNP.

In 1997, the people of Wales voted to create a Welsh Assembly. In 2011, they voted for law-making powers in a second referendum, and earlier this month won further financial powers.

A Commons bill has also been promised, which would give the Welsh Government permission to hold a referendum on the devolution of income tax.

Make no mistake – this great progress has only been made because of the success of our good friends in Plaid Cymru.

But while the devolved administrations have grown in stature and authority, Cornwall has fared less well.

In 2001, we presented 50,000 declarations demanding a Cornish Assembly to 10 Downing Street. It remains a disgrace that Tony Blair’s Labour Government dismissed the declarations and refused to consider demands for greater powers for Cornwall.

Instead, we had the centralisation of local government forced on us, with the creation of a single unitary authority, in the face of massive local opposition.

And since, we have even had the Conservative-led Coalition Government further undermining democracy and the very territoriality of Cornwall by attempting to push through a cross-Tamar parliamentary constituency.

Conference, I have two quotes for you.

Number 1: “I believe in devolution.”

Believe it or not – that was David Cameron.

Number 2: “The United Kingdom has been too London-centric for far too long.”

And believe it or not – that was also David Cameron.

Just like the previous Labour Governments of Blair and Brown, this Coalition crowd speaks a lot about devolution, democracy, localism, local decision-making, local this and local that.

But these are “hollow words” – they are a screen for the same-old, top-down, centralising policies that have undermined Cornwall for decades.

Far from delivering devolution, they have undermined democracy by creating more unelected bodies – which they always term “partnerships” – but actually take power away from democratically elected politicians.

And – just take housing numbers – the Government wants high housing growth in Cornwall and the message from Eric Pickles and his planning inspectors is pretty clear.

Roll over, do what you are told and agree high housing targets: or be over-ruled by the Government anyway.

That is the reality – that is the farce masquerading as democracy in 21st century Cornwall.

But at least Michael Heseltine was honest, on a recent visit to Cornwall

In terms of devolution, he said it was the view of government officials, bureaucrats – and presumably politicians – in London, that “we were not up to it.”

And he also said: “That is why, over decades, they have taken power away” from areas such as Cornwall

What Heseltine said confirms the disrespect with which the metropolitan elite view Cornwall.

They do not lose sleep because our economic performance is only two-thirds of the UK average.

They do not care about the despair of people on certain estates in West Cornwall where over 50% of children are living in poverty.

They are not listening to Cornwall – and all we get from Cameron and his ilk are offensive platitudes.

No doubt, their Cornwall is that same imaginary land they tend to write about in papers such as the Sunday Times.

Remember that most recent article about Cornwall … you know the “playground for the super-rich.”

I quote … “with the drive down from London taking just three hours in a Porsche, Cornwall is becoming something of a millionaire’s paradise.”

And, of course, the timeless … “walking down the beach can sometimes feel like Chelsea-on-Sea.”

We should always keep such nonsense to the forefront of our minds as we campaign.

It should harden our resolve and impress on us that our path is the right one.

And for Cornwall’s sake, we must be determined that the hypocrisy of the London-based political parties is challenged and not allowed to prevail.

And we must ensure that Cornwall can emulate the achievements of Scotland and Wales.

Over the next ten months, the arguments about Scottish independence will increasingly take centre stage in British politics.

We have a responsibility to make sure that this debate is broadened out into a respectful and wide-ranging consideration about the future of the whole of the UK, and how it – and its constituent parts – are governed.

We have to combat the short-sighted refusal of the Coalition to address the unequal constitutional relationship between the various nations and regions of the UK.

We have to combat their refusal to rein in the centralising influence of London and the South East of England.

And we have to make the case for a law-making Cornish Assembly and the meaningful devolution of political powers to Cornwall.

We have to do this – because no-one else will.

When it comes to democratic renewal – the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Labour – have all turned their backs on Cornwall and their credibility is in tatters.

Friends, it our task to continue to demand a new democratic settlement for Cornwall.

In a few moments, we will consider a new lobbying campaign to push for a Cornish Assembly:

– a campaign through which we can enthuse our members and supporters to take the fight for greater self-government, out into local communities, onto the streets, the length of this land.

- a campaign through which we can encourage local people to raise their eyes and be more ambitious for Cornwall and its future;

- a campaign through which we can rebuild the accord that existed in 2000-2001, when the declaration campaign was at its height;   

- a campaign through which we can challenge organisations and individuals, friends and opponents, to look beyond the status quo and help us deliver home rule for Cornwall.

In the words of MK founder-member, Party Chairman and Life President, Richard Jenkin:

We seek the “re-awakening of the whole Cornish Nation to its continuing identity and constitutional change to safeguard its future existence.”

Join us in this campaign. Join us as we seek to achieve parity with Wales and Scotland – through a legislative Assembly for Cornwall.

Thank you.