BLOG: How Independent are the Independents?

The upcoming demise of party politics is on the horizon, or so our local ‘Independents’ would have us believe. Shifting political allegiances, class structures, the dominance of the floating voter and a disenchantment with the status quo will, in their view, make it happen. But I’m not so sure. I believe our less than perfect democracy depends on the party system, and it would be unrealistic and unworkable to change it.

In the West Country the ‘Independent’ cause is undeniably mobilizing. Supporters believe they are now more than a protest vote and that they can score in substantial numbers at the ballot box. Their target is to “harness all this independent goodwill and spirit to convert sentiment into candidates and candidates up to office at county elections in 2017 and for Parliament in 2020.”

To be fair to them they have had some successes but they still have along way to go. So why is that?

The crucial thing here is to examine what we mean by “independent”.  An independent can be genuinely independent of all political parties. They do not commit themselves to a specific set of principles or policy programme that has been determined and adopted collectively by an organisation on a permanent basis.  In effect they pledge themselves to no other ‘god’ other than themselves. However, they often have a ‘pick and mix’ approach to other party’s’ policies or lobbying groups in the forming of a political identity. This can often prove to be confusing for the voter when trying to establish what that identity is.

So what happens after they are elected to a given body or institution? As a sole operator they will not take a party whip once elected, they will be guided, I guess, by their own set of principles. Some will think this an advantage. However, on a Council or in a Parliament it also has some distinct disadvantages. It means the independent cannot form a government or a majority group to run the Council. The independent cannot guarantee to introduce anything they offered in their manifesto, as they may not even have a seconder for their proposals, let alone a majority. They may become inadvertent or unintentional liars or promise breakers as a result. In office they discover they have to change their minds or broker deals with others to try to get anything done. Coalitions of any size can be messy, just look at the last one we did with the Liberal Democrats, one party is often more powerful than the other, and when push comes to shove, its usually a shove as far away from the other as possible. Politics has never been a nice and friendly business. Another reason is that you are often combining two completely different manifestos thereby compromising on core beliefs; this rarely gets the respect of the voters who might have come to one party because they are vehemently opposed to the other. I believe this is why the Liberal Democrats were wiped out in the last election. Last, but not least, it gives a minority party or player a disproportionate chunk of power, which is rarely earned from the electorate. So in practical terms, the main role left to an Independent in a council or Parliament is often to make a lot of noise, criticise the status quo and pray for a better world.

But another question also arises. How independent are the Independents? In the first round of police and crime commissioner elections there were 12 independents, but of those 12, eight were former police officers. The idea of the role was to be the voice of the people and hold the police to account. If they are insiders how can that happen? Are the police unions pushing forward their candidates as independents so they can keep control? It’s a question that needs asking. Sometimes, like all labelling, one needs to look closer at what is written on the jar. A clear benefit, of course, of being an Independent is you can hide your true allegiances. Why would you want to potentially alienate a whole group of people who could vote for you; much better they don’t know what you really stand for unlike a party candidate.

This time around the Conservatives and Labour won almost all of the elections for police and crime commissioners in England and Wales, dealing a blow to independents. Of those who were elected to 12 PCC posts in 2012, there are just three Independents left. Tories won in Kent, Lincolnshire, Warwickshire, Hampshire, Norfolk and West Mercia, which had all gone to independents last time.

Why did this happen?

I suspect one of the reasons, which is true of all independents, is down to the fact that most people are not political obsessives; they lead extremely busy lives and do not have the resources or the energy to make long investigations into the virtues or otherwise of potential Independent candidates. When they choose one from a mainstream party they think they know what that person’s basic principles are.

And Police Commissioners are not like MPs.  They are single people who can build their own kingdoms and run the job as they see fit. The Labour and Conservative Police Commissioners are usually pretty independent themselves. After all there is no whip to suggest what they should say and do.  I cite the former ‘Conservative’ PCC Tony Hogg as an example of this.

They can also make their own agendas. If they became persistently hostile to their own party in Parliament and went out of their way to disagree with its fundamental beliefs, then they could lose the right to fight again to retain their job as a member of their stated party. If they fail to live up to reasonable standards of conduct they could be thrown out of their party in a public gesture of annoyance by the party leadership.

 There is no similar hygiene mechanism for an independent. If they misbehave no one will take their party membership away. It is only if their misbehaviour becomes gross that the police and courts become involved. They too, of course, would need to curb bad habits if they want to be re-elected.

Again, another example of how independent are the independents, this time more locally. The East Devon Alliance is a local group of supposed ‘Independents’ yet they have banded together to form an ‘alliance’. They now sit on East Devon District Council as a grouping. There is nothing wrong with that, after all, the SNP, once the underdog in Scotland, is now a significant force at Westminster, it is the natural evolution of how a party gains ground. But it is disingenuous for the East Devon Alliance to suggest they are all stand-alone councillors when they have core values and policies; policies albeit that have been tied irrevocably to a single geographical area.  They are also collectively anti-tory, again nothing wrong in that, but it means they are not exactly independent thinking. Besides, The EDA is also registered, as a political party, with the Electoral Commission, so in effect they are contradicting themselves. A hunger to spread their revolution beyond their boundaries will mean they would become another nascent party vying for power in what is quite a crowded field.

General Election Independent candidates and MPs

A month or so ago, a new organisation called Campaign for a Free Parliament was launched in London by a group of rich businessmen whose ambition is to break the party system by sponsoring independent candidates, chosen through primary competitions. Candidates would each receive £10,000 to fund their campaigns. Their accountability would be directly to voters rather than party HQ. It seems the perfect solution for those tired of the old order, or is it? On closer scrutiny the tens of thousands of pounds to be doled out to potential candidates is from a single rich businessman with the backing of other rich businessmen. How independent is that? It sounds like something of a personal plaything to me.  And the campaign already has a position on the EU - how was this decision reached and by whom when no candidates have been selected?

Independents locally are excited by the prospect that the selection process will be “fair” and that their communities in a series of primaries will select candidates.  Sounds good in theory but primaries offer up a whole load of new problems such as increasing the cost of elections; you see candidates would end up fighting two elections not one, first the primary then the national, this would increase the importance of money in their campaigns. Some would find raising money easy, some not so easy. Will they then revert back to rich donors…. the old order again?  Additionally Primaries pay greater emphasis on the personality and appeal of the candidate at the expense of the policies she or he espouses. Again how open is a primary? Supporters of a single candidate can easily hijack the event making the outcome neither fair nor open. This will always happen with any selection process – including ours - when people become passionate about backing who they perceive to be the rightful winner and bus in the votes. This is, after all, human nature.

And really, is there any real public interest or demand? It’s difficult enough to get people to vote in the general election let alone a smaller primary. The popularity for primaries originated in America but I’m not sure they translate here. Why? Because over there, party caucuses were often dominated by narrow oligarchies, which were often in some way corrupt. This is not a problem we have here in the UK.

Remarkably some independents have made it to Parliament but they are rare indeed and how long do they get to stay there? At Westminster a lot of them have fallen out with existing parties, like Sylvia Hermon, who was in the Ulster Unionists, others arrive campaigning on single issues such as Dr Richard Taylor who tried to stop his local hospital being closed but subsequently lost his seat having made very little impact in Parliament.

There are true Independents but they are very rare: Martin Bell, being one, who defeated Neil Hamilton at Tatton on an anti-corruption platform in 1997 but he only stood for one term. Before Bell the last elected independent was in 1950, one AP Herbert.

 In short, it is a difficult business going alone, apart from the fact that the caravan moves on quickly in politics so does the issues they might have espoused to enter; they are also at a distinct disadvantage without the funds and organisation of big party machines. Even Ken Livingstone, who defeated Frank Dobson after the Labour Party refused to nominate him as its candidate for London Mayor – won a second term under party colours.

The disaffected get excited about cleansing Parliament. It’s lovely in theory but would prove calamitous in practice. Would we really be better off with MPs who are independent of party? As one respected political journalist, Andrew Rawnsley, commented: “ One Martin Bell is all well and good but an entire House of them would be a nightmare. It would descend into anarchy, freeze in paralysis or the independents would soon start whipping themselves into parties anyway in order to get anything agreed and done.” Which returns us back to my argument about coalitions.

The idea that Parliament is completely devoid of independents is also worth exploring. I believe that there are all kinds of independents out there already both on the socialist and conservative benches even though they are aligned to a party: Frank Field, Sarah Wollaston, Kate Hoey, David Davies, Douglas Carswell to name but a few. Many backbenchers already defy their whip, often when they are acting on their own consciences. Select committees have members who often defy party and Government stances and call ministers and even Prime Ministers to account. We discredit our parliamentarians when we suggest they are not independent thinking.

And the question of independence from a party should not be confused with true independence of thought. An independent might be more ideological than a party candidate. They might have clear and strong prejudices, but not declare them before the election. You do not know how an independent will decide matters or what is likely to be their view of a common problem, unless they tell you in their manifesto. Often their manifesto is very thin on detail.  With a Labour or Conservative candidate you have more idea of what you are likely to get.

The rise and fall of independents is a routine phenomenon in British politics and often occurs during an era of party dominance, which is what we have now. The fall in the popularity of independents will happen when Labour or any other party recovers sufficiently and provides a real alternative to the electorate.

Party Politics for me has never been a perfect science; it can often be messy with competing internal interpretations, an intransience, sometimes policies issued are vague, indistinct, even unfair but in the end there needs to be a degree of tribalism to get the job done.

Politics is also cyclical; eventually the wheel will turn again, and a party that is better organized, more disciplined, and one that offers better policies will have its time in the sun.  For those who are disillusioned now, remember nothing is forever in this game.

Until then, the old maxim is true: If you can’t beat them, join them.