Beyond party politics

logoMy article for Total Politics magazine (24 November 2008), discussing the growing popularity of independent politicians such as former Tatton MP Martin Bell and the first elected Mayor of Hartlepool, Stuart Drummond. This is based on findings of my book, Independent: The Rise of the Non-Aligned Politician.

On the national stage, independent politicians have been a rare breed in postwar Britain. Before Martin Bell became MP for Tatton in 1997, there had not been an independent member elected to the House of Commons in more than 50 years. Bell’s distant predecessor was A.P. Herbert, who was last elected as an independent for an Oxford University seat in 1945.

When the university seats – which tended to elect more independents than regular constituencies – were abolished shortly in 1948, it might have seemed like the end for non-party politics in Britain. However, Bell’s success against Neil (and Christine) Hamilton may have sparked something of a revival, albeit a small one so far. There have always been plenty of independents in the House of Lords, known as Crossbenchers, who have their own formal group just like the parties – the group has a central administration and provides information to its members, although it does not operate a whip.

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In the Commons there are now six independents, although only two were elected as such. Dr Richard Taylor was elected in Wyre Forest as part of a protest against the closure of the hospital where he worked as a consultant. In Blaenau Gwent, Dai Davies was elected in a 2006 by-election to replace his ally Peter Law, a former Labour Welsh Assembly member who stood as an independent for Parliament after the party imposed an all-women shortlist on the constituency.

The other independents in the Commons are all those who have resigned from or been sacked by the parties. Clare Short and Bob Wareing both resigned the Labour whip – Short because of her increasing antipathy to the party leadership, and Wareing because he was de-selected by his Constituency Labour Party in Liverpool West Derby. Meanwhile, the Conservatives sacked Derek Conway for abusing Parliamentary expenses and Andrew Pelling following claims he assaulted his wife, and both now sit as independents.

These numbers are not large, but it is significant that independents now have a presence in the Commons. Their absence for half a century became like a self-fulfilling prophecy – that it was clearly impossible to be elected outside of a party because no one ever did it. This was disproved by Martin Bell. Even though he did have the support of Labour and the Liberal Democrats in his campaign against Neil Hamilton, his example served to inspire many others.

There are certainly far more independent candidates now. At the 1992 general election there were 83 independents standing. By 2005, there were 244. Now the barriers are down, perhaps it will not be too long before electing these candidates seems quite normal for voters. It may not happen everywhere, but in areas where there are particularcircumstances (a big local policy issue, a dodgy incumbent, and so on) the voters may turn to an independent.

It is interesting to consider how independents behave in Parliament. Do the public get what they expect when they select an independent? Dai Davies, who represents Blaenau Gwent in Labour’s Valleys heartlands, remains ideologically close to the Labour movement, as we would expect most of his constituents are. In his first session he voted with the government three quarters of the time, but steered a course to the left – in fact, his voting record puts him close to Labour MPs, but would still make him the most ‘rebellious’ of that group.

Martin Bell and Richard Taylor, despite being politically close – Taylor consulted Bell before standing for Parliament, Bell campaigned on his behalf and then helped secure him a seat on the health select committee – have behaved differently. In his time as an MP, Bell voted with the government two thirds of the time, while Taylor – who aligned somewhat with the Lib Dems in his voting pattern – voted with the government only one third of the time. This may well be a fair reflection of public opinion as it progressed over time – in 1997-2001 Labour remained very popular throughout, but after 2001 it pursued many controversial policies, which met with fierce opposition.

The recent revival of independent MPs, however, pales in comparison to the successes of independents in mayoral elections since 2000. Including London, 13 English towns and cities have introduced directly elected mayors since 2000. To date, independent candidates have won almost half of all mayoral elections, and have an excellent reelection record. Frank Branston in Bedford, Ray Mallon in Middlesbrough, Tony Egginton in Mansfield and Stuart Drummond in Hartlepool have all been elected twice and remain in office.

Mike Wolfe in Stoke-on-Trent is the only independent to have failed to be re-elected, losing to Labour after one term. Ken Livingstone was elected as an independent in London initially, but rejoined Labour before winninghis second term and has since lost mayoralty to Boris Johnson.

Independents have always had a strong presence in local government. Overall, around one in ten local councillors are independent – in Wales the figure is one in four. The numbers are unevenly spread, however. Some councils have no independents but in others they are a major force – such as Stoke-on-Trent, Herefordshire, Stockton-on-Tees. The lesson seems to be that once independents make a significant breakthrough in an area, they tend to quickly reinforce that success, transforming the local political landscape.

One achievement of the independent mayors is belying the assumption that independents prosper mainly in rural areas. Independents have been elected to run major industrial towns in the north-east and the Midlands, as well as Europe’s biggest metropolis, London.

Another achievement has been to prove that independence need not mean isolation. Several of the mayors have put cooperation at the heart of their po litical projects. In Middlesbrough and Hartlepool, Ray Mallon and Stuart Drummond have formed longlasting coalitions with Labour, the party traditionally dominant in both these towns (see box). In Bedford, which usually has a hung council with the three major parties being evenly matched, independent mayor Frank Branston invited all parties to join his executive – the Lib Dems said no, but the joint Labour-Conservative-Independent cabinet has so far functioned very effectively. One of the questions people ask about independent politicians is whether they simply represent ‘single issue’ politics. But there is very little evidence that this is the case. None of the independent mayors elected so far have stood on single-issue platforms. Rather, they usually speak in terms of offering a new style of local government, more inclusive and in closer communication with the communities being served.

The most likely candidate for being a ‘single- issue mayor’ is Ray Mallon. Mallon is a former police chief, nicknamed ‘Robocop’ by the press for his hardline approach to tackling crime, pioneering the ‘zero tolerance’ method in Britain after its implementation by Rudy Giuliani in New York. However, Mallon has proven himself to be engaged with the full range of issues. One example is his decision to put environmental concerns at the heart of his political project, aiming to make Middlesbrough one of the country’s greenest councils.

Clearly, there is one independent MP associated strongly with single-issue politics, Dr Richard Taylor. He stood for parliament only in protest at the proposed closure of Kidderminster Hospital – the label he used was the name of the campaign group, ‘Independent Kidderminster Hospital and Health Concern’. Do his constituents, therefore, suffer from being represented by an MP with a ‘narrow’ focus?

In parliament, there is little argument that Taylor has concentrated largely on health issues. But this is to be expected – he is a former consultant, so this is where his expertise lies. Taylor votes on every issue parliament deals with, but it is on health where his attention is best used – the health select committee clearly benefits from his many years’ working in the health service, for instance.

Very many MPs from across the political spectrum come to parliament with experience in a particular field, and are most effective when they are active on matters relating to their specialism. Martin Bell, for instance, was most active on foreign and defence issues – having spent decades a foreign correspondent he had as much experience in this field as anyone in government.

Indeed, if we were looking for single-issue politics in Britain today, we would look to some of the political parties. The British National Party, the Green Party, the United Kingdom Independence Party, even the nationalists in Wales and Scotland – the single-issue label sticks to these groups far more easily than the vast majority of independents. Yes, they would argue plausibly that they have policies on all issues, and that is true, but they were formed to represent opinion on one particular issue – most independents have no such baggage.

Perhaps that is the reason behind one little-recognised fact of British politics. For all the attention given to these minor parties, in England at least, independent candidates get far more votes and win many more elections at every level of politics than the minor parties do.

If independents continue to grow in prominence, British politics may have to face up to some quite significant change. Of course, in local government it is not just independents making their mark but also ‘local parties’, loose groups active in a single locality. These groups very rarely use a ‘whip’ or prescribe a certain set of beliefs, so it is fair to consider them part of the same trend. Richard Taylor and Dai Davies are both members of such groups (Health Concern and Blaenau Gwent People’s Voice) – they and their voters alike see no contradiction in them being independents and affiliated to a local party.

In formal terms, councils and parliament will have to review how it treats independents. Our system tends to presuppose that all politicians are from a party, so resources like committee places, office space and information are distributed through party groups. With more independents, the demands for them to have a fair share of these resources will grow louder.

More informally, the independent mayors have pointed the way towards an attitude change in politics, especially in local government. It is one thing for Labour and the Tories to argue with and oppose each other, given their well-defined party beliefs. Perhaps in the past the core constituencies of these parties have expected them to be quite firm in upholding these beliefs, even ahead of cooperation with their political rivals.

But independents are arguably elected because voters want politicians who are less rigid, and from the mayors this is usually what they have got. This makes it very hard for any party to refuse to cooperate with an independent mayor or a group of independents – and that means the power of the party as a controlling structure becomes weaker, even if the parties themselves remain.

View article on the Total Politics website.

Image: Yaffa Phillips

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