Month: November 2019

Our First Past The Post electoral system forces East Devon voters to make an either-or choice, while it is completely failing non-Tory voters in Tiverton & Honiton

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Some people in Seaton and Colyton have asked me why I’m more interested in the General Election campaign in the East Devon constituency than in ours in Tiverton & Honiton.

The answer is very simple – East Devon voters have a real choice. Some might prefer to vote Labour, Lib Dem or Green, but if they want to stop the new parachute-Tory candidate being allowed to continue 150 complacent years of Conservative representation, they do have an answer: Vote for Claire Wright. And an excellent MP she will be.

In Tiv&Hon, realistically, we don’t have a choice at all. The Lib Dems have circulated a leaflet with a diagram based on a genuine independent projection, which shows them closing in on the Tories. If you look at the diagram, it looks close between Lib and Con. But the figures tell a different story: Tory 47.1, LDs 20.5, Lab 13.7, Green 4.7 – and 20% to 47% isn’t exactly a close race. 

The Lib Dem diagram would be a disgrace if it wasn’t laughable. But the joke is on us. The race would be close if LD, Lab and Green shares were combined. Then it would be 37% to 47% and we’d be in with a shout. But it’s a leap of faith too far to think that John Timperley’s leaflet is going to move every non-Tory into his column, and then enough Tories to swing it as well.

There hasn’t been a non-Tory MP in Tiv&Hon in the last century. For all that time, half (and often more than half) the voters have been casting their votes in vain, never electing an MP. It doesn’t mean that voting is a complete waste of time – the parties will count our votes in their national totals. This time we certainly need to show that a big majority of the country are opposed to Boris Johnson.

But how do we actually get ALL our votes to elect an MP? The only way is a system of Proportional Representation. The Labour manifesto in 1997, when Tony Blair won, said: ‘We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a PROPORTIONAL ALTERNATIVE to the first-past-the-post system.’ It never happened (if it had, then Brexit might not have). Another ‘Blairite’ broken promise? Yes – but Jeremy Corbyn never campaigned to make it happen, either. Labour as a whole more or less abandoned the idea of giving voters in constituencies like Tiv&Hon a meaningful vote.

So – if there isn’t a plausible tactical route in Tiv&Hon, vote for whichever non-Tory best fits your views. And do take into account PR, which both the Lib Dems and the Greens support, as they do Remain. This year’s Labour manifesto only says, rather vaguely, ‘The renewal of our Parliament will be subject to recommendations made by a UK-wide Constitutional Convention, led by a citizens’ assembly.’ Not very specific, and probably not a priority – although if by some chance Corbyn does make it to No. 10, we must put pressure on to make it one.

Will East Devon still have any community hospital beds – even any community hospitals – if the Tories are in power for a full 5 years? The full story of the Tories’ plans for our hospitals, two General Elections, and Claire Wright’s campaigns.

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First they came for Ottery St Mary (above), Cullompton and Axminster.  Just two months after the Tories won their last majority, in 2015, the local NHS – already starved of funds after 5 years of austerity – felt emboldened to close hospital beds in Ottery St. Mary, Cullompton and Axminster (inpatient beds for the Axe Valley will be concentrated in Seaton).

Then they targeted Sidmouth, Honiton and Okehampton.  In 2016, NEW Devon Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) consulted on proposals to close many more beds, preferably in Sidmouth, Honiton and Okehampton, and announced that it would be developing a ‘Local Estates Strategy’ (LES), widely believed to involve selling off some of the resulting half-empty hospital sites to help balance its budget, which had been crippled by Government underfunding.

At the same time, NHS Property Services took over.  That year, ownership of East Devon’s community hospitals had been handed over to NHS Property Services – a government-owned company set up by the Tories to sell off ‘surplus’ NHS assets. Independent County Councillor, Claire Wright, who had helped fight the Ottery closures, first raised concerns about NHSPS’ role and warned that bed closures were the first step to fully closing the hospitals which lost their beds.

Finally, Seaton became the sacrificial site, since Sidmouth was too important to the Tories. Hugo Swire, the MP for East Devon, was alarmed at the proposal to close beds in Sidmouth – in his constituency – because Claire had won a shock 13,000 votes and come second in the 2015 election, an almost unheard of feat for an Independent. In November 2016, Swire said in Parliament that if it came to a choice, Sidmouth’s should be saved (Seaton be damned, as it had been removed from his constituency in 2010). Surprise, surprise, although the CCG’s consultation showed more people supported keeping beds in Seaton than Sidmouth, on 2 March 2017 the CCG made the shock decision – unwarranted by any good evidence – to save Sidmouth’s and close Seaton’s.

On cue, the Government incentivised selling off hospital sites. The LES was now expected later in 2017, and in March that year (just after the CCG’s decisions on beds) the Government-commissioned Naylor report proposed that CCGs should get twice the actual value of any sale, to incentivise them. The Government quickly adopted the idea.

… but in June 2017’s surprise General Election, Claire Wright jumped to 21,000 votes and put herself in a strong position to defeat Swire next time. This followed my own equally surprising win in Seaton and Colyton in the County Council elections in May 2017, as voters showed their disgust at the hospital decision. The Tories were undoubtedly shocked at the Independent surge, especially the threat to Swire which could be put down directly to Claire’s fantastic campaigning for the community hospitals.

The Tories doubled down on the beds closures. In July 2017, led by 5 East Devon Tory county councillors including the chair of the Health Scrutiny Committee, Sara Randall Johnson, the Tory majority defeated Claire’s proposal to refer the beds closures to the Secretary of State’s independent panel, the last chance to save the beds. Later, in 2018, East Devon Tories also turned down requests from the town councils to list Ottery and Seaton hospitals as ‘assets of community value’, which would have given them some protection.

However, the Local Estates Strategy did not arrive in 2017. Or 2018. Or even 2019. It became clear that Swire and the national Tories were so scared by Claire’s threat that he could not afford the political cost of its going ahead, and must have found a way to persuade the CCG to shelve the proposal. In 2018, indeed, Swire got new Health Secretary Matt Hancock down to Ottery Hospital to discuss the situation with local NHS chiefs, and Hancock subsequently proclaimed that the era of ‘blindly closing community hospitals’ was over. A junior minister finally assured Swire that ‘his (!) hospital in Ottery had a secure future‘ a year ago.

But what if Boris Johnson wins an absolute majority? Surely he’s made big promises for the NHS – our hospitals will be safe? Alas, no. Nationally, Johnson has only promised money to refurbish 6 existing (not build new) hospitals now, and to do 34 more (total 40) between 2025 and 2030 (a case of jam tomorrow if ever there was one). None of the trusts who may hypothetically benefit are in Devon. There is nothing even hypothetically for any community hospital, anywhere.

And meanwhile, it has been revealed that Devon CCG (as it’s now called) is facing a £66m deficit in 2019-20, up from a budgeted £27m. No prizes for guessing that, if the Tories win a majority and are secure for 5 years, a local estates strategy may finally emerge. Indeed the CCG told me last month, ‘There will be an estates section in the Devon STP response to the NHS Long Term Plan, due to be published in the Autumn.’ (It has not yet appeared, due to the election no doubt.)

The era of ‘blindly closing community hospitals’ may be over, but if the Tories win big on December 12th – and especially if their new parachute candidate manages to squeak in ahead of Claire Wright – expect new pressures for bed cuts and targeted estate disposals in the next couple of years. Are Sidmouth’s and Exmouth’s beds really safe? Will Ottery St. Mary, Seaton, Axminster and Honiton even be open in 5 years’ time? Is that pledge to Ottery worth the paper it’s written on, from a Government which changes its mind every 5 minutes? It will very much depend on how people vote in this election.

Devon for Europe publishes tactical voting recommendations – Lib Dem in Tiverton & Honiton, Independent Claire Wright in East Devon, Labour in Exeter

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The full list:

Central Devon: Alison Eden, Liberal Democrats

East Devon: Claire Wright, Independent

Exeter: Ben Bradshaw, Labour

Newton Abbot: Martin Wrigley, Liberal Democrats

North Devon: Alex White, Liberal Democrats

Plymouth Moor View: Charlotte Holloway, Labour

Plymouth Sutton and Devonport: Luke Pollard, Labour

South West Devon: Alex Beverley, Labour

Tiverton and Honiton: John Timperley, Liberal Democrats

Torbay: Lee Howgate, Liberal Democrats

Torridge and West Devon: David Chalmers, Liberal Democrats

Totnes: Sarah Wollaston, Liberal Democrats