South Cornwall has been struck by an incredible political earthquake with Labour now looking poised to capture Truro & Falmouth at the next general election – possibly just months away given the crisis now engulfing Theresa May’s totally weakened Tory regime.
A 22% swing from the Conservatives to Labour – coupled with a disastrous slide in support for the Liberal Democrats – meant this constituency came unbelievably close on June 8 to registering one of the biggest seismic shocks ever recorded in British electoral history.
It’s hard to exaggerate the severity of the tremors felt in Truro & Falmouth after the Conservative incumbent Sarah Newton saw her once rock solid majority slashed to less than 4,000. She got almost 15,000 more than Labour in 2015.
Labour came a dismal third in this constituency just two years ago, garnering only 7,814 votes in 2015 when Stuart Roden stood for them. An almost tripling of their vote to over 21,000 must have come as a shock to the candidate who carried their banner this time.
The last time Jayne Kirkham stood for office – only a month earlier in the Arwenack ward of Falmouth Town council – she came fourth. She has also failed to get elected under the Labour banner to Cornwall Council.
Yet it is now highly possible, if not probable, that this 44-year-old teaching assistant and former lawyer – who joined the Labour Party as a student 23 years ago – could soon become the first ever Labour Member of Parliament for Truro & Falmouth.
The aftershock of June 8 could well be another snap election in which Labour capture south Cornwall. If the People’s Party can take Truro & Falmouth it would match on the political Richter scale their capture of Canterbury for the first time in a century.
A number of factors may lie behind this nationwide shocker but one of them was undoubtedly the ‘Youthquake’ which swept Labour to a total of 29 seat gains across England, Wales and Scotland. Turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds across Britain on June 8 is believed to have surged to 72% – compared to 43 per cent in 2010 and 45 per cent in 2015.
This was one reason former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg lost his seat in Sheffield Hallam. Asked by the BBC to comment on camera on that sensation, Rob Nolan, the Lib Dem candidate in Truro & Falmouth said: “It’s a great thing for democracy to see the huge number of young people engaging but I think they’ve done for Nick.”
The surge to Labour could have been even stronger here had the vote been held during term time.
They may have done for Nolan also. We don’t know the actual percentage of young people who came out to vote in south Cornwall on June 8 but overall turnout in Truro & Falmouth was 75% this time – up from 70% in 2010. That suggests considerably more young people registered to and cast their ballot papers.
With two universities and a large college in its midst, Truro & Falmouth has different demographics from other Cornwall seats. The surge to Labour could have been even stronger here had the vote been held during term time. Most students had done their exams and dispersed from here before June 8.
Even so, Corbynmania caused major waves in south Cornwall. Pro-Labour posters were plastered across even the more affluent parts of Truro and Falmouth as polling day loomed.
In the last days of what turned out to be a surprisingly volatile campaign, voters here were bombarded by leaflets telling them it had become a two-horse race between Labour and the Tories rather than Tories and Lib Dems. That may have triggered a radical shift in tactical voting.
Announcing her candidature for Labour, Kirkham chose to focus on the effects of austerity, stating: “Our NHS locally is struggling to cope and that is before the next round of cuts are imposed. Schools are reaching breaking point as budgets are cut. And zero hours contracts are the norm for many today.”
She toed her party’s timid line on Brexit even though Truro & Falmouth was the only Cornish seat to vote Remain in the EU referendum last year.
Backlash over Brexit could be one reason the Conservative candidate came close to being unseated. Like May, Newton was a Remainer during the referendum campaign but abandoned that cause in light of the Leave side’s victory.
Sarah Newton is still the MP for Truro & Falmouth. All six Cornish seats returned Conservatives to the House of Commons again on June 8. So, on the surface, the Duchy remains a deep sea of blue. But local Tories know they have entered terrible stormy waters. Very soon they could be facing an anti-Tory tsunami – not least in Truro & Falmouth.
Rob Brown is Head of Journalism at Falmouth University and Editor-in-Chief of TruthFal