We caught up with Michael Foster, Labour candidate for Camborne and Redruth, on the last day of our roadtrip down the UK. After being driven through Camborne by his election agent in a small (appropriately) red car with a picture of his face on, we spotted him the man himself in-between doorsteps. Appropriately then, the first topic was: what are the hot topics on the doorstep?
“Health, funding for Cornwall because we’re underfunded in health, we’re underfunded in social care, we’re underfunded in education, on every measure.” A sense of injustice permeates his assessment of the area’s problems. “The last 10 years have had a Tory and a Conservative party in charge that locally hasn’t shown leadership, so that we in Cornwall on the whole, in a place that should be buoyant, have been treated like second class citizens.”
One of the most frequently drawn divides in the UK is between North and South. Another familiar dynamic is London vs everywhere else. But Foster is keen to emphasise that Cornwall is often forgotten in these kind of conversations. “While the North gets HS2, our train falls into the sea at Dawlish.”
The issues that local residents are concerned with in the run up to the election are, according to his analysis, overwhelmingly local. “Most areas round here have had their bus services cut. And somebody said to me the four issues on the doorstep this morning were as minimalist as toilets — cornwall council have just shut all the toilets, there are no public toilets in one of the biggest tourist destinations in the country; libraries are closing; leisure centres are closing; and there are no police on the streets.”
The picture painted is pretty brutal; and blame is placed squarely by Foster on the government. “So the community in Cornwall, although very vibrant, and alive, government up in Westminster is simply sending a wrecking ball in to detach us from the services that most communities have.”
The economic fundamentals of the area are, though, not particularly rosy either. This isn’t a problem unique to this part of the country — the recovery generally has been geographically patchy — but the sense conveyed by Foster is, again, that Cornwall is in a bad position.
“The average [presumably median] income in the country is £22,500. Average income in this constituency, £14,500. People here know that we’ve got a huge entrepreneurial drive, they’re very positive about life, but I think people do find it difficult when they know that right next door to Tesco in Camborne is the biggest food bank in Cornwall, one of the biggest food banks in the country.”
He continues: “poverty and working poverty is terrible here. If you work 37.5 hrs for CORMAC, so that’s the local council outsourcing company that does most of the construction here, roads and things like that, you’re going to be earning £12,500 for a 37.5 hour week. You can’t survive down here because down here wages are 25% lower, and house prices 30% higher”
What does Foster think, then, is the explanation for such low wages? “The lack of jobs, the lack of high paying jobs, and the distance from the main market which is amplified by the fact that it’s not just physical difference, it’s time difference.”
Again, this is underlined by comparison with more northern areas. “The traveling time to Newcastle from London as opposed to the travelling time to Camborne from London is 100% more. It’s absolutely crazy. Five hours to here by train. Why?”
There is still the question, though, as to why housing costs are so high, if so many people are on low incomes. One side of the story is the significant number of second homes in Cornwall. Across the county, second homes account for between 5 and 6 percent of the housing stock. But in some parishes, it’s as many as 40%.
Many fishing villages whose long term residents are typically on lower incomes have seen eye-watering increases in house prices. Foster was born, raised and lived in London for 50 years, and as an ex-celebrity agent, it’s an interesting dynamic to negotiate. He deflects, though: while it might be a relevant issue in some areas, it’s not one for the larger towns in the constituency, where there are still real issues with housing costs.
“Houses have been driven up by second homers coming in. But second homers do not buy houses in Camborne. So the real reason is the sell off of social housing has meant that young people have nowhere to live. There’s a lot of fighting going on between those people who understand we need to create houses that are built that can be afforded by people on low wages, and those people that want to sell whatever small plots of land we have to developers out of town who can then build 5 bedroom houses at £400,000 each.”
His preference is for a state-led approach to housing development. “Really what should happen here is that Cornwall council and the government should get together, which a Labour government will do, and use the land to build social housing rather than private housing.”
With the scene set by Foster, it might come as a surprise to readers that Camborne and Redruth elected Conservative candidate George Eustice in 2010. Before that, it was held by the Liberal Democrats from 2005, after a Labour interlude in the Blair years. So in what way does he now see the seat’s marginality?
“It’s about the data. And as much as my friends the Liberals like to protest that they’re still in the race, they’re not. They’ve got 7%.”
The poll data from March also put Labour behind the Conservatives by 13 points. But Foster was undeterred. “So it’s a straight fight between Labour and Conservative, which I think we will win, because of two things. One, our groundwork is exemplary. We are out three times a day, we are knocking on 500-600 houses.”
His time on the doorsteps hasn’t been as lengthy a stretch as some of the candidates we’ve met, who have been campaigning for upwards of two years. But Foster seems very confident in his team’s strategy. “We’ve been out doing this since February. So everybody who I go to the door knows my face, knows my name, high recognition factor.”
The second reason for his confidence is more attitudinal than pragmatic. “But also we’re very positive. I’m a very positive person. I think that Cornwall is a place where you can really make things happen. And I think, I believe, Labour is the party of aspiration, and I aspire to do things that most people think are not possible.”
Indeed, for a Labour Londoner to take this quite remote seat is a big challenge. Does his city of origin present an obstacle in a constituency so oriented towards local issues?
“I’m sure that with a less amiable, less pushy, less ambitious person, it would. But I’m not a carpet-bagger. I live here. I’ve lived here since 2006. I want the best for the area, I do a lot in the community already. So yes, there are some people that would rather have a Cornish MP, but I think that’s down at number 8 or 9 on the list of why you would vote for somebody.”
Further to the top of that list, it seems likely, is party affiliation. Labour had only four MPs in the South West — and none in Cornwall — at the last election. If it were true, as Foster believes, that the demographic makeup and compatibility in ethos between Labour and areas of Cornwall makes it a potential stronghold for the party, there’s an obvious question to be asked. What have Labour been doing wrong here?
“Not paying attention to it. There’s no question, no one could say that Labour has paid enough attention to lots of English areas.” This view extends beyond the bounds of Cornwall. “There’s no reason why the whole of Norfolk and Suffolk aren’t Labour.”
Bringing it back to his locality, he in no uncertain terms claims that there’s huge potential here for the party. “There’s no reason why the whole of Cornwall isn’t Labour. This is a poor community. Labour should serve it well. And the Lib Dem and Tory hegemony here have just limped on, and people have made do, and Labour should come in and show that there’s an alternative to making do, you can really aspire to grow and be prosperous and have a good life and have a life where people get paid properly and live well.”
Our final question to Foster focused back onto the personal element of his candidacy. He built his career representing celebrities — some of whom he’s brought in on the campaign trail, Ross Kemp (above) being the most recent example. So why this shift to representing people in Camborne and Redruth for Labour?
“Well my parents were both pretty solid Marxists, so that’s the first thing.” Fair enough — he has that in common with Miliband in respect of his father, though it’s not what you’d expect a Labour candidate to lead with in 2015.
“I’m the black sheep of the family because I went into business. So I’ve spent a lot of time working on social enterprise. I run something called Creative Access with a couple of other people in London which is the most successful youth employment scheme this government actually runs. And so when I saw the lack of leadership here, which is what it’s about, I thought hold on, I can do something here.”
He finished, on a particularly audacious note, with a direct comparison between past career and future aspirations.
“To be frank, delivering to 67,000 constituents is no different from delivering to Chris Evans, or Sacha Baron Cohen, or Julie Christie. You still have to look at a situation, judge what difference you can make, work out how to deliver that difference, and then you have to go and execute.
“And I’m very good at executing. I’m very good at doing things that I say I’m going to do, and I never over-promise. So it’s not a difficult thing to learn, being polite, standing up, talking nicely to people — you know, it’s what I’ve done all my life.”