The rise of the independents

16th February, 2012 9:32 am

Ministers intended the police commissioner elections to throw up interesting independent figures, free from party affiliation or baggage. These people were supposed to emerge from the ranks of business leaders, charity workers, former police officers and other areas of public life. I imagine ministers are somewhat disappointed by the crop of applicants as they stand. They certainly thought they’d seen the last of John Prescott.

The idea that ‘independents’ are the answer to Britain’s political malaise has always struck me as odd. I am a party man, no doubt about that. I want the reds to win and the blues to lose. But the value of the political party as a device far outweighs any purely tribal loyalty. It serves as a platform for the individual, it seeks out future leaders. It aggregates disparate views under broad ideological banners. It makes sense of democratic assemblies and parliaments by allowing groups to form, with manifestoes and whips.

In Iolanthe, Private Willis, the sentry guarding parliament, provides the best argument for political parties. Once he has got over his astonishment that nature doth contrive that every boy and girl born alive is either a little Liberal, or else a little Conservative, he makes the case for the party system. The alternative to the party whips is the chaos of everyone voting how they like. Our Victorian guardsman has a point. A parliament of ‘independents’ would be impossible to organise. Grouplets would emerge around common interests, form common platforms, give themselves names, and within ten minutes would be back to parties. It’d be like one of those sea sponges which always reconstitutes itself, even if you put it through a blender.

‘Independents’ speak to the British yearning for the gifted amateur. It is the ideal of Harold Abrahams at the 1924 Olympics, or Captain Scott at the Antarctic. We like the idea that people can just pitch up with a bit of pluck and a dose of common sense, and make a decent show of things. The reality is that public administration and the art of politics is quite difficult. Most amateurs, no matter how gifted, would last about a week as a junior minister or leader of the council. If I had a heart bypass, or my car serviced, or ordered a lobster soufflé in a restaurant , I’d prefer to think the person doing it had more than a ‘can do’ attitude. I’d like to see some experience and qualifications. I don’t consider it unreasonable to expect the same from politicians seeking my vote.

Independents are emerging in the police elections. There’s a guy in Sussex, another in Essex. A recent poll suggested 85 per cent of the public wanted an independent rather than a politician. This reflects the very low standing of politicians. But surely the act of seeking office, constructing a manifesto, canvassing for support, and going after votes in an election make anyone doing it a politician. The only difference is that we don’t know much about their values and views, whereas you can usually guess from a party candidate. My Conservative rival in Sussex is banging on about gypsies in his literature, which tells you all you need to know about his social attitudes to most things. Cameroon he ain’t.

The Labour Party discussed whether to stand candidates or support ‘independents’. A heroic intervention at the Org Sub by Luke Akehurst and Dennis Skinner ensured that, despite our opposition to the Tories’ bill, we would stand Labour candidates. The Lib Dems have gone down the route of backing independents rather than standing candidates themselves. That’s a decision I am sure they will regret.

Independents seldom get very far. Martin Bell gave new meaning to the word pompous. Dr Richard Taylor failed to save the Kidderminster Hospital; now they’ve got a Conservative MP who votes to undermine the whole NHS. Independents elected to councils as ‘rate payers’ or ‘residents’ association’ usually line up with one party or another. So we shouldn’t be too surprised, or too disappointed, if politicians are attracted to a political position. I see from the Newcastle Journal that Vera Baird in Northumberland has put the feelers out, joining Prescott, Tony Lloyd, Alun Michael and other Labour figures who are seeking the nomination in their areas. Good, I say. These are big posts, and need big figures to fill them.

Paul Richards is currently seeking the Labour nomination for police commissioner in Sussex

  • Mark Griffin

    HI, interesting and thought provoking article from Paul regarding ‘Independents’ Remember that local council elections only allow those not aligned to a political party to stand under the ‘Independent’ banner or to be ‘blank’ on the ballot paper (surely a disadvantage?) and we (‘Independents’) can be a ragbag bunch at best: those losing the party whip due to legal allegations; those who have been party members and have fallen out with them and a few, like me, who’ve never been a member of a political party but seek to be active in community and political life, in my case Batley, West Yorkshire. Perhaps you are right, I am clueless unless I’ve done my time working for the ‘firm’ Best wishes for your election. Mark Griffin, Batley, West Yorkshire.

  • Owen Edwards

    Well, I’m unconvinced by the idea that it’s good that “politicians” seek political positions, but broadly I agree – parties are the most effective way of protecting the interests of voters, especially in the context of the Labour movement, coming as it does out of trade unionism.

    However, re plucky amateurs, I’d love to hear you explain away the relative success of Athenian democracy – Athens’ two significant defeats in war, vs Sparta and vs Macedon, were not down to their raffle system of selecting public officials, nor their direct democratic voting system.

  • Darren Clifford

    Very interesting article from Paul, and one that resonates quite a lot. where i live we have a very large number of so called independents who have managed over the years of making their lack of political conviction a virtue. Their mantra of “people before politics” plays well to the the disaffected and the cynical, which isn’t much of a trick to pull off in truth. They have been electoraly succesful enough to run our district council for 4 years and our town council ( a beefed up parish council with substantial budget) for the last three. What tends to happen in reality is that they coalesce either around single time limited issues or personalities or both. Many of them, quite frankly, are tories in disguise. Our experience has been that when given the power they fail, when they lose the power, they fall out.

  • Richard Hibbs

    I think it is regrettable that the political party that has sided most visibly with the anti-Police Commissioner lobby over the past 12 months on grounds of not wanting to politicise policing has now chosen to do just that – by fielding party-political candidates. 

    This has more potential to divide communities than to unite them and is exactly the wrong decision.  I would be more upset about it if the police weren’t already quite politicised enough thanks very much.  But I do regret the party-politicisation of police priorities that will inevitably follow in those police authority areas of England & Wales where either one party or another has a built-in majority, which is basically everywhere – there are no marginals.

    Political parties should at least make an effort to identify suitably qualified individuals by holding ‘open’ primaries to select their candidates.  Some measure of cross-party support might then be forthcoming.

    Richard HibbsIndependent candidate for Police & Crime Commissioner in North Wales

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  • Ian4PCC

    I am Paul’s Independent opponent in Sussex and have written a response to this blog I have two sadnesses in this regard. Firstly that the party machine has determined to put up candidates throughout the UK in this blanket manner irrespective of local situations and quality of candidates (both yours and the Independents) and secondly that the party cannot tolerate internal dissent on a matter which the public are so clearly concerned about.  I know who my Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative supporters are. However at present only Labour is pressing for a form of presentational discipline which is at the heart of the malaise of our party political system. I think the public would have a great deal more respect for the party if it conceded it had a bunch of first rate candidates and these are standing in the relevant areas, but that in other areas it would back Independent candidates that it had confidence in. Recognising that the party candidates cannot possibly be well known throughout any of these force areas that good  quality independents known to party members could be supported as an alternative. This would be particularly sensible in areas such as Sussex where with respect to Paul, a very strong Independent is capable of  defeating the dominant party in a way that Labour probably is not.  At best the loss of votes to the party would be no more than 20 or so, in a context where the total needed is 100,000 or so. Yet the possible goodwill gained would be substantial, particularly if the Independent does win.

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