Cornwall Has Been Crippled by Austerity – Now Students Could Swing the Election

The Cornish constituency of Camborne and Redruth went Conservative in the last election with just 1,577 votes.

by Emily-Jane Heap
20 November 2019, 9:00am

Paul Farmer, Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate for Camborne and Redruth speaks at a recent constituency meeting. Photo courtesy Guy Powell.

“It’s the only chance we’ve got to stop what’s happening in the country,” says Val Kelynack. We’re standing in a dark car park in the Cornish town of Redruth, over 200 miles from the chaos of Parliament.

“It’s painfully obvious how things have worsened under a Tory government,” continues Kelynack, who is a Labour CLP secretary here in the Camborne and Redruth constituency. “It’s about looking at people’s needs and addressing them. People should lead the money, money shouldn’t lead people.”

Morale in Redruth is high. The area is one of just a few in the country that has the potential for a swing vote on the 12th of December. In the 2017 election, Conservative MP George Eustice won by a majority of just 1,577 votes. Labour activists are convinced that, this time, they can kick him out for good.

“There’s a nameless, frameless anger towards the Tory regime,” says Paul Farmer, Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate for the constituency. It’s this anger that local Labour supporters are channelling into their campaign, aiming to put an end to austerity measures that have had a devastating impact on the area.

An idyllic West Country town, Redruth seems far removed from Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn’s battle for Number Ten, but for the people who live here, their survival could be dependent on the results of the upcoming election. In a 2019 deprivation report from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Redruth was named alongside 16 other "neighbourhoods" in Cornwall as “in the top 10 percent most deprived areas in England.” The town is also home to Transformation CPR, one of the UK’s largest independent food banks. As MP for the area since 2010, Eustice has voted consistently against improvements to the welfare and benefits system.

“Cornwall has this awful perceived image of cream teas and sunshine, Doc Martin and Poldark,” says Guy Powell, press officer for the Camborne and Redruth Labour party.

Labour supporters at the constituency meeting in Redruth, Cornwall. Photo by the author.

Having been on family holidays to Cornwall since childhood, I admittedly had this perception too. But I’m not the only one ignorant to the deprivation here. “You’re steered towards certain places which have been bought up and taken over by people with money,” says Farmer, who will challenge the Conservatives at the polls next month. “The tourist industry exists here but is not really part of the real Cornwall.”

Extreme poverty has had a socially corrosive effect on the county. The number of people dying on the streets in the West Country has tripled in the past five years, according to the Office for National Statistics, while Cornwall specifically has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the UK. Child poverty rates are also high, with Cornwall’s annual children’s services budget slashed by £18 million between 2009 and 2015. Many residents are convinced that these issues have worsened under the Tory government. “This is not a Labour spin,” says Powell. “These are facts.”

Indeed when I meet Donovan Gardner, manager of the Transformation CPR food bank, he tells me that when he joined the charity ten years ago, they gave out just 84 meals in an entire year. Today, they’re giving out 16,000 per month. Like Cornwall’s children’s services budget cuts, these dates coincide with the instatement of the Conservative government.

Powell tells me that his involvement with the local Labour party came as a result of seeing this kind of desperation in Cornwall. “You can live a life and those things don’t touch you. Now having seen, I have no other option but to try,” he says. “All you can do is try. There are no magic wands.”

Redruth town centre. Photo by the author.

Cornwall’s remote location means that it is often overlooked by Westminster. “Our needs are quite different. We’re classed under the South West but we’re 200 miles from Bristol. All the worst effects of austerity are exacerbated here. We need bespoke solutions,” Farmer says. “Cornwall has a picture of itself that’s very important to it. It’s a different sort of place, which doesn’t accord with usual rules. This is historically its own country.”

Despite the extent of the problems facing the area, I’m struck by the sense of community in Redruth. As Labour canvassers start to gather in the dingy car park behind Wilko, un-phased by the torrential rain, they embrace each other like family. Spotting me lurking on the outskirts, Kelynack immediately rushes out of her car to greet me and introduces everyone in the group.

Labour's Camborne and Redruth campaign is particularly engaged with targeting young people. “This is the most important thing I can do to secure a future for my child,” women’s officer Rebecca Jackson tells the group, as her ten-year-old daughter looks on with excitement.

The nearby universities in Falmouth, Plymouth and Exeter mean that Devon and Cornwall are awash with students. Both Falmouth University and the University of Exeter’s Penryn campus halls fall within the Camborne and Redruth constituency, housing 1,800 students in total. Engaging with the student population is crucial if Labour are to overthrow the Tory majority in this area.

Labour campaigners meet for a canvassing session in Redruth. Photo by the author.

Powell says he “couldn’t overstate how important it is” for young people to vote in the upcoming election, but adds that “the lack of engagement with them is frightening.” This is an issue that he and other campaigners are currently trying to tackle. Alongside canvassing for the party, the volunteers have been encouraging people to register to vote. On a national level, Labour are also utilising new technology to target this younger demographic, and activists in Cornwall were some of the first to get involved. Jackson talks to the group about phone banking, which enables Labour members to call people in the constituency through an app, encouraging discussion about the upcoming election.

At a constituency meeting before the canvassing session, Redruth’s Labour supporters join a webcam call with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and Faiza Shaheen, the parliamentary candidate for Chingford and Woodford Green. Around 2,000 other Labour campaigners across the countries have also dialled in.

Shaheen is a keen advocate for phone banking. She speaks of how useful it is in targeting young people who might live in new builds or blocks of flats that can’t be accessed through conventional canvassing. But it’s not limited to a younger demographic – speaking on the phone also reaches people who are less physically able or house-bound. “There’s real hope, and people want to be persuaded,” Shaheen tells viewers. “Labour have people power which the Tories do not.”

Grace Chatto from the band Clean Bandit also joins the call to share how strongly she feels “about young people getting involved in politics at this particular time.” She talks of the band’s 2016 single ‘Rockabye,’ which is “about single mothers left behind by the Tory system, forced to take desperate measures to survive.” This earns a squeal from Jackson’s daughter, who exclaims that it’s her favourite song.

Later that evening, as I embark on the long train journey from Redruth back to Exeter, there’s one thing I’m sure of. No matter the results of the upcoming election, the people in this small corner of Cornwall won’t be giving up any time soon.

Ahead of the 2019 General Election, VICE UK has been travelling to key marginals with large student populations, to meet the people living there and find out what's most important to them. Read more from our Swing Party series here.

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