Can independent candidates change the way we vote?

Can electoral reform reboot the system?
Illustrations: Peter James Field /www.agencyrush.com

At their height in the 1950s and 1960s, the membership of political parties in Britain could be counted in the millions, but by 2005 only 1.3 per cent of the electorate was a card-carrying member of one of the main three parties.

At the same time, voter turnout in general elections has dropped steadily, from 84 per cent in 1950, to 72 per cent in 1970, before plunging to 59 per cent in 2001.

Clearly something is not right in politics, and British citizens have voted with their feet and stayed away in droves. The rise of single-issue politics in the 1970s – environmentalism, women’s rights, nuclear disarmament – surely contributed to this dissatisfaction as the main parties were slow to respond to formerly fringe views that had become widely supported. But thirty years later, little has changed – as can be seen from the march of millions of people from across society against the Iraq war in 2003, making precisely no difference to government policy. Single issues like Europe, civil liberties and taxation continue to divide the country.

After parliament’s spectacular fall from grace last year following the expenses scandal – three MPs and a Lord facing criminal charges for fraud; dozens forced to pay back thousands of pounds in claims; more than 150 MPs standing down from re-election – faith and trust in politicians and the political process has never been so low.

With increasing voter apathy and outright hostility towards political institutions, what can be done to reinvigorate the democratic progress in this country, before it’s too late?

Dissatisfaction with political parties has led to the rise of the independent MP. While there was not a single truly independent MP elected between 1951 and 1997 (only former members of the main parties who had temporarily broken ranks), in the 2005 election there were two – Dr Richard Taylor (standing on the Kidderminster Health Concern platform), and Dai Davies (the agent of former Independent Labour candidate Peter Law, whom Davies replaced in a by-election after Law’s death in 2006). However, there are nearly 2,000 independents elected as city or district councillors, the Welsh Assembly, Scottish and European Parliaments.

The list of minor parties and independent candidates standing has increased in each general election since 1997, perhaps revealing that dissatisfaction with mainstream parties has inspired voters to carry out their politics on their own terms. More than 100 independent candidates are standing for election in May, with dozens of minor parties stumping up the £500-per-seat deposit required to field a candidate. The Independent Network, a not-for-profit organisation that exists to support independent candidates, has several dozen candidates on its roll. Realistically, few if any will be elected. Voters in this country tend to vote instinctively along party lines with little regard to policy details (PROOF?) But it seems many citizens now wish to play politics themselves.

John Chapman, standing as an independent in his north London home constituency, said he was “exasperated” by the mainstream parties. “The sheer tepidness of the three political parties – there’s nothing radical about any of them. I am trying to put forward a radical alternative because their little bites and nibbles don’t address the real problems,” he said. “Ours has become a very unequal society, one of the most unequal societies in the world, and the societal costs – like welfare, prisons, police, health, days lost to business – are rising because of it.”

And he may have a point – according to a Populous poll in the Times, more voters want a hung parliament (32 per cent) than want either a Conservative (28 per cent) or Labour (22 per cent) government, because a hung parliament may be the best way of ensuring a broader agreement on policy between the parties rather than just the majority party ramming legislation through the Commons. To some, this is the only way to ensure constitutional and parliamentary reform – for example, reform of the first-past-the-post voting system in favour of a form proportional representation in order to win voters back around to the idea that they have a say in the way their country is run.

Ken Ritchie, chief exec of the Electoral Reform Society, said: “We are reasonably optimistic there will be a hung parliament, and that within the discussions between the parties there will be an opportunity for reform. We need changes in response to last year’s scandals to make politicians more accountable, and to change the nature of our politics toward ordinary people.”

Ritchie’s words will be echoed by many voters and campaigning organisations whose views have been shut out of the mainstream, leaving them feeling outside ‘politics’ and unable to make a difference. But to secure change, voters need to get involved in politics, even if only to tear up the rule book from then on.

While reform of the system is one possible answer, others see the system itself as the problem – grass roots campaigners and particularly anarchists see that the only truly democratic government is consensus of the people in directly participative, accountable methods such as local meetings. And though the majority of citizens still would rather leave the day-to-day running of the country to someone else, if our politicians continue as they have that might change.

John Bird, founder of The Big Issue, said: “We need to change the political complexion of politics. And to the people who say that politics is an open sewer, we should answer: yes it is. But would you leave an open sewer outside your house to poison you and your family?”

 

 

Esther Rantzen, 69 – former journalist and campaigner standing for Luton South

Esther Rantzen. Illustration: Peter James Field/agencyrush.com

What made you want to stand as an MP?

Discovering that Margaret Moran [sitting Labour MP] had spent £22,500 eradicating dry rot in a house that wasn’t in her Luton constituency, wasn’t near Westminster, but was in fact somewhere else entirely near Southampton. I thought that was such a slap in the face to her voters, it was enough to make me want to stand against her.

What reception have you had while canvassing so far?

I’ve had a very warm reaction, not that I believe for a minute that translates into voting intention, but it makes me feel very welcome. Yesterday a woman in a shopping centre burst into tears telling me about the appalling situation she’s in, I made a phone call to do what I could. I find it very pleasing to be able to help. I’m not a celebrity, just someone whose work has been very public, and that means people can judge me on the strength of it.

Can independents really make a difference?

Absolutely, particularly in a hung parliament. I think it’s important to have some individuals that vote with their consciences and not along lines laid down by the whips. There’s a place for political parties and for a cohort of independents that bring life experience outside of politics.

What is behind the rise of independents and minor parties?

Because MPs are not rooted in the experience of the people who vote for them. Anne Widdecome said how you approach being an MP depends on whether you want to be a legislator or a social worker, but really one springs from the other – you have to know what your constituents feel in order to be able to draft policy accordingly.

 

 

John Chapman, 69 – former civil servant and financial journalist standing for Holborn and St Pancras

John Chapman. Illustration: Peter James Field/agencyrush.comWhat made you want to stand as an MP?

Exasperation, and the cleansing feeling of being able to put out my ideas. I’ve spent a lifetime in the civil service producing alternative viewpoints to the accepted view, and used to get into a lot of trouble for doing so. Now I can put forward my views of what the problems are and how they can be solved in a way that I couldn’t do as civil servant.

What can an independent achieve?

The outcome of this election is going to be a small majority or a hung parliament, in either case it’s going to be difficult for one party to govern, so I can see independents having a considerable influence. I think a lot of people would like to see a hung parliament, or even a national government to get the country back on its feet, instead of pathetic party squabbles.

Does the growing numbers of independents and minor parties show a dissatisfaction with politics?

I am strongly dissatisfied by politicians because of spin and the domination of the whips. Politicians lie through their teeth these days, when I was a young civil servant politicians were very different.

 

 

Martin Bell, 71 – former independent MP for Tatton who ousted Tory MP Neil Hamilton in 1997

Martin Bell. Illustration: Peter James Field/agencyrush.com

After being elected on an anti-sleaze ticket 13 years ago, does it not seem as if politics has come full circle?

Not only has it come full circle, but it’s much, much worse. Back then there were a few backbench Tories who were accused of using public office for private gain, and all resigned or were turfed out by the electorate. Now, practically all of parliament has been dragged in.

What is behind the rise of independents and minor parties?

The decline of the political parties, which in terms of membership are husks of what they used to be, dissatisfaction with the political class and anger over issues such as the war or expenses. If no one party comes out on top then this won’t be a bad thing. They will have to govern by consensus.

Can we do away with political parties entirely?

No, and nor should we. Last time we had no parties in their current form was in the 18th century when parliament was as corrupt as it has ever been. We must have public trust in public life.

What was your experience like as an MP? Did you find you could be effective?

It took me time to adjust, but I was listened to. I could play the interface between media and politics better than most, and found myself much sought after by other MPs. People were very kind to me, and I made friends on all sides.

How can the political system be improved to avoid the excesses we have seen?

Parliament has given away too much power to the executive, and it is up to them to retrieve those powers. We must remedy our hopelessly wayward electoral system that already marginalises independents and makes it harder for them, and produces skewed results.

 

 

Tamsin Omond, 25 – climate change activist standing for Hampstead and Kilburn.

Tamsin Ormond. Illustration: Peter James Field/rushagency.com
What made you want to stand as an MP?

My absolute dissatisfaction with the other options, and the fact I discovered that Hampstead, where I grew up, and Kilburn, where I live, were now the same constituency.

What can you offer as an independent?

In a hung parliament we could hold the balance of power, and independent MPs are not under a party whip. I have a long history of punching above my weight; constituents’ issues will be heard, whether through the formal routine of asking questions in the House or through protest methods outside the House.

What reception have you had while canvassing so far?

We have people translating what we’re learning from people on the street into policies. I’ve been standing on the high street with a sandwich board asking people to write their policies on. We want to reach people who aren’t usually engaged in politics by using whatever methods we can. What we need is community organisers, not Westminster MPs – someone who has contacts and knows how to bring people together. That’s all people want, some contact and feeling they trust you.

What can you achieve?

Government is too big and too infrequent to encourage participative democracy. With the internet we’re used to being more connected than that, and smaller parties and independents can promise better engagement and contact. We are an incredibly diverse society, fast moving and changeable, and the only thing that isn’t changing and is completely inflexible is our democratic system.

 

[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, April 2010]

 

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