Election '97: Stormy waters in Cornish marginal seat

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The Independent Online
The St Ives constituency, covering the tip of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, became a marginal seat in the 1992 general election when its Tory MP, David Harris, saw his majority slashed from 25,147 to 1,645. Mr Harris was nearly overtaken by the Liberal Democrat candidate, Andrew George, a local man from Hayle. And it seems nothing can stop Mr George finishing the job this time.

Mr Harris said that he was standing down at this election and was replaced as the Tory candidate by William Rogers, an insurance broker from Penzance. Mr Harris then changed his mind, but it was too late. He is now trying to get selected for any last-minute vacancies that may be created in Tory seats.

So the Tories will fight the election without the advantage of the "incumbency factor" which any sitting MP enjoys and which is usually thought to be worth 1,000 votes.

What is more, since 1992, the economic problems in the constituency have gone from bad to dire. West Cornwall remains one of the most economically deprived areas in the United Kingdom with little evidence of any upturn so far.

Above all, the fishing industry has been badly hit, fuelling anti-European sentiment which has split the Tories locally. The entire fishing industry seems to have defected to the Referendum Party, which demands a referendum on the terms of Britain's membership of the European Union.

Tomorrow, fishing boats plan to fly the flag to welcome the party's leader, Sir James Goldsmith, when he visits the fishing port of Newlyn.

Harry Storer, a former Tory councillor who now sits as an Independent, says he will be voting for the Referendum Party, whose candidate is a local boat-owner and fisherman. "I quit the Tories because of the way they have treated small businesses. By escalating business rates and encouraging out-of-town supermarkets they have absolutely crucified the very people who put them in power," he said.

The outgoing MP admits that his inability to persuade ministers to outlaw flags of convenience before Spain joined the EU was a serious failure. "If only we had acted then, we would not have had this dreadful business of quota hoppers," Mr Harris said last week.

And the Tory disarray on the issue has forced the new candidate to strike an anti-European note, saying he "has never made any secret of the fact that he is totally opposed to political union".

Finally, the Tories face the prospect of Labour supporters voting tactically. Labour won only 16 per cent of the vote in 1992 and the tactical voting campaign run by Bruce Kent, a former Labour candidate, is backing Mr George, who has effectively been fighting this election for the last five years. He has maintained a high profile and the Liberal Democrats already control County Hall.

By contrast, the profile of the Labour candidate, Christopher Fegan, a county and district councillor, has so far been so low as to be virtually invisible.

But don't wait up. The count will be late and the result is not expected until 11am on the day after the election.

Toni Carver

St Ives Times and Echo