My article for Our Kingdom on Open Democracy (8 May 2008) on the rise of highly localised political parties, such as the Community Action Party in Wigan, Independent Kidderminster Hospital and Health Concern and Blaenau Gwent People’s Voice. This was based on the findings of my book, Independent: The Rise of the Non-Aligned Politician.
Stuart Weir began this series with a piece lamenting the over-centralisation of the British state, and an anonymous poster responding to this made the argument that local government itself is acquiescent with this situation. I believe the analysis of why local authorities do not make more vociferous demands for autonomy has to take into account the party origins of most local politicians.
As has been the norm for decades, a large majority of local councillors represent national political parties. Most people join a party, quite rightly, because of the national vision they present, for their position on overriding debates around civil liberties or the distribution of wealth. This is surely a key reason why many councillors do not push more strongly for devolution; although they may be dedicated local public servants, the things that motivated their entry into politics have little to do with the business of local government.
But a new breed of politician has emerged in recent years: one that appears solely concerned with local issues. These are those members of ‘local parties,’ who have been making a big splash in many parts of the country. Perhaps the most famous example is the Independent Kidderminster Hospital and Health Concern party, which formed in protest at a planned hospital closure. This group even has a Member of Parliament, Dr Richard Taylor; more importantly, it also took control of Wyre Forest council. As have the Boston Bypass Independents, who took an amazing 27 out of 32 seats on the local council in a campaign for a better road network in Lincolnshire.
These parties both grew out of single issue campaigns, but others – such as the Community Action Party in Wigan or Blaenau Gwent People’s Voice – began with a broader remit and have also succeeded. One of the distinctive characteristics of these groups is that they do not impose a party whip on their councillors, unlike the national parties. The whip does have its use in political life, but is severely over-used in local government. At this level a more consensual, inclusive style of decision-making than we find nationally might be expected, but in fact the opposite is the case. For instance, national party groups on local authorities tend to operate a much tighter reign over council scrutiny committees than Gordon Brown or David Cameron do with their parliamentary equivalents, Select Committees. So local parties can give far greater autonomy to local councillors.
Another strength of local parties is that they help to stop local elections being seen simply as ‘second order’ national elections. The contests on May 1st were seen in the media as a battle between Gordon Brown and David Cameron, but this was not the case. When a local party is in contention, voters’ minds are more focused on local issues.
However, some local parties have been known to struggle after an initial spurt of growth, usually when internal disputes develop. Health Concern combined former Conservative and Labour members in its ranks, who began to have policy disagreements after the party won executive power. In Wigan, Community Action found that members had different ideas of the purpose of the group; some only wanted to focus on ward-level issues, while others thought they had a platform to criticise New Labour more generally. Both parties suffered electorally.
These parties are best when they allow flexibility for their members – but there does have to be a unity of purpose, even if it is only a minimal one, so the members and the voters alike know what it is meant to achieve. However, when local parties work well, they truly can be a new way of doing politics.
Image: Green Lane