Wednesday, 17 June 2009

The state of independents: alternative politics

Here are the main questions and challenges the nay-sayers to the growth and utility of independent politics raise, and some reflections on their in/adequacy:

1. Independents are often mavericks and inexperienced do-gooders.

Some would respond that many people involved in local political parties are also mavericks and inexperienced do-gooders! There will always be some like this but the facts make it clear that there are also some excellent independents. The idea of “primaries” introduced by the Jury Team [31], also means that communities can select which independent it thinks should stand. Therefore those whom a community or neighbourhood considers to be unreliable would be less likely to stand in elections. Individuals can and should, remain free to test themselves at the bar of voter opinion. Political parties, however, are more concerned about loyalty to their own interests and often define as ‘mavericks’ purposeful, angular, skilful people who might ‘rock the boat’. The ‘group think’ [32] mentality and a culture of tribalism is designed to smooth the edges off any politics which might disturb the consensus (or, beneath the surface conformity, the lack of it) and it is therefore in danger of producing what has been called ‘institutional truth’ [33].

2. Independents are not properly accountable.

Independents may turn out to be, in some respects, more publicly accountable than party politicians. Election after election has seen a few hundred people (and sometimes fewer) in a local political party select the candidates to stand in the General Election. These candidates are often in safe seats where there is little accountability. Independents, however, depend upon their local reputations and cannot rely mainly on party votes or national swings. This creates a different and countervailing set of pressures and possibilities. The idea of ‘community forums’, developed from civic associations, begins a move towards practical mechanisms for giving rise to, and holding non-party candidates accountable to, a wider good. [34]

3. Independents are ineffective within parliamentary and council settings because they have no power base.

Party MPs rarely rebel against their parties' programmes, which many would say makes them compliant and ineffective. Those without a party are much freer to represent their constituents’ concerns – or like Richard Taylor MP, to take up wide public concerns about something like the health service. They may also be better placed to form or participate in cross-party coalitions, which can be the key to getting things done in Parliament and at the local council level.

4. Independents tend to be single-issue focused.

Some may be elected due in large part to a local issue on which they have campaigned. But often this will have been a concern of local constituents which party politicians have neglected. Once in Parliament, however, independents will deal with a range of issues just like any other MP. They may also be appointed to Select Committees which relate to the issue on which they have expertise and so their focus may bring something extremely valuable (and additional) to Parliament. This is in marked contrast to some Select Committee appointments of party political MPs who may find themselves on committees due to party loyalty rather than any specialist knowledge. [35]

5. Independents are ‘all over the shop’ politically

The narrow party agendas into which candidates are squeezed can be artificial and have little bearing on a politics that has, in certain respects, left the ideological struggles of the 1970s and 1980s behind. Why should every member of a political party have exactly the same position on drugs, transport, climate change, Europe and immigration? Independents are far freer to be honest and make realistic decisions, rather than be pushed in many votes by a party whip. [36]

6. Voting for independents or moving to PR may upset the main parties and let in extreme groups like the BNP

The British National Party, which trades on racism and xenophobia, feeds upon the corruption and inadequacy of the current political system. It is also is fed by the hostile environment towards ‘foreigners’ engendered by the so-called mainstream parties’ perpetuation (for instance) of an agenda on migration constructed around tabloid-style fear and prejudice. [37] Voting to support such a system and its principal defenders is not a good way of combating such extremism in the long run. Viable alternatives are needed. The BNP get in, or get a sizeable (but fortunately still small) share of the vote because people vote for them. Voting tactically to keep racists out may be an important short-term measure, combined with re-orienting politics to deal with the exclusions and disaffections upon which they try to capitalise. But allowing the far right or other extreme groups to deny genuine political choice is to allow them to win in a different way. Under a proportional voting system, only dissuading people from voting BNP will work. All this emphasises that racist and extreme parties can only be countered by political persuasion and healthy politics. Simply maintaining an unfair status quo because you think any ‘cracks’ might let them in is a counter-productive approach. [38] It is also worth noting that the success of the BNP in the 2009 Euro-poll North-West England could have been thwarted by just 5,000 more votes for the Green Party.

7. The last thing we need is more attention grabbing celebrities in politics.

Independents are, in the main, not celebrities. On the contrary, there are those like the former anti-apartheid activist from South Africa who is standing for election in Dublin in order to challenge the ‘mainstream’ parties to take action against growing waves of racism, following the sectarianism that has marked divisions over the North. Or people from public life like Terry Waite ( who wish to argue a serious case for change in the face of political decay. This is a way of getting people to take seriously what ‘politics as usual’ wishes to push under the carpet. [39]

8. The thirst for independents is a protest with little substance or future.

It may be a protest, or start out as one, but at the same time be a sign of hope that people care about their political system and want to be engaged. Protest has been the crucible for most of the important political and social changes of the last century and a half, going back to the landmark Representation of the People Act 1832. [40] Independent and alternative politics is about much more than engaging in the kind of ‘direct democracy’ used and abused in the USA as ‘propositions’ attached to ballot papers.

9. Independent politics is really anti-politics. It is demoralising people.

Independent, civic and associational politics is about making politics accessible to ordinary people. It is about enhancing participation and representation. Ironically, it is the mainstream parties who have increasingly abandoned politics for business management. The idea that ‘real politics’ is what is done for or to us rather than by us is patronising and partial. It is also what alienates people from politics! Politics is not exclusively or primarily about parties, though no-one is arguing that they do not play a significant role. It is about how power is used and made accountable. People are politically de-motivated and demoralised by a system and parties which are resistant to their needs, concerns and input. The evidence (in terms of local action as well as polling) is that people are re-engaged when this changes. The advocates of the interests of the party machines are desperate to convince those who might defect from them that disillusion equals a dangerous rejection of politics. But it is not (and does not have to be) this way.

10. Many independents are really conservatives (with a small or large ‘c’) in disguise, as they were during their local government heyday.

This is clearly not the case with Margot MacDonald in Scotland or with Richard Taylor in England. It is possible and desirable for non-party candidates and activists from different political ‘spaces’ to participate. Another contrary example is Clare Short MP in Birmingham Ladywood. She was a Labour minister but is now an independent, having fallen out with the party and the government over the Iraq war. Greater political diversity is needed to reflect the true diversity of the populace. Also, people can and do change their minds. It may have been the case that at certain junctures in the past, independents came largely from the conservative wing of politics but there is no law that says this has to be the case. The left has tended to have a very strong attachment to the party form, partly as an outworking of some of its ideology but this again is not set in stone. And there are numerous examples of people from the left and the centre of politics who have rebelled in independent ways.

11. Only the relatively prosperous and educated can afford to run as independents – the whole thing is biased toward the middle class and the already enfranchised.

There seems little evidence for this. Are those who make these claims willing to invest in something different, or are they actually wanting to keep politics as a middle class preserve? The long history of working-class involvement in politics, both through the labour movement and through civic association as well as through parties, suggests that something different is possible. Rather than funding parties, what about a small fund for supporting independents in restricted circumstances? There is clear evidence that significant proportions of existing MPs are public school and Oxbridge educated, or otherwise privileged.

12. A whole parliament of independents would make Britain ungovernable

Independents cannot form a government. This is true. A similar charge has been levelled at the Liberal Democrats and minority parties but this does not mean either that they cannot be elected or that they cannot be good MPs who enrich the democratic process. There is a model in the cross-benchers in the House of Lords, where non-party members are allocated parliamentary time as a group. They have a convener rather than a whip, support one another where they agree and divide up parliamentary time between them. The idea behind this accusation seems to be either that supporting more independents means wanting to do away with parties (it does not; we do not have to indulge a zero-sum game), or that it is somehow likely that independents would quickly become a majority. This is unlikely at the moment but if the public started to elect different kinds of people, then the system would need to adapt. Democratic institutions are there to facilitate democratic participation and representation, not to keep those who currently hold the reins of power in position whatever people say or want.

13. We don’t need ‘do-gooders’ getting elected to parliament.

The idea that only those motivated by money, status or position can be really trusted (because “at least you know what they’re in it for”), whereas those who want to pursue a notion of public good, non-corruption or the needs of particular groups of people (such as those reliant on the health service, carers, older people, etc.) are virtually automatically “self-righteous” and “irritating” – as some critics have suggested – moves cynicism beyond a rightful suspicion of power interests (which is what it used to mean) to a generally corrosive disdain for anyone we fear may expose our own comparative failings. The issue of how to discern what is ‘good’ in persons and in public life has become more and more difficult with the breakdown of a broader consensus about beliefs and values. Those who want to reinstate a discussion about this by putting their principles on the line are surely to be welcomed, even if we then question what it is they offer and propose.

14. Parties and political ideologies have their faults but we cannot do without them.

Political blocs and political non-blocs offer diversity but not when a monopoly or duopoly goes unchallenged. Likewise, principles are important but ideology often hardens them into dogma. Besides, the party system has now largely abandoned the principles that once defined it and the ruling parties have almost become modified versions of a dominant neo-liberal economic ideology. Breaks in the dominant order are necessary for the re-introduction of genuine choice. It is true that alliances will always be made but the question is, what kind of alliances? It is unrealistic to have a system (which we have at the moment)in which hundreds of candidates contest an election on the same manifesto with which they all agree. The reality is that these candidates disagree with one another beneath the veneer. The present system is monolithic because it is biased towards maintaining what is in effect a two-party system in the UK parliament. Beyond Westminster, politics and parties are becoming more flexible and diverse. That ought to be strength, not a weakness.

15. Independents feed a cynicism about professional politicians which further widens the gaps between governors and governed.

Actually, they seem to provide many with a source of hope in the face of decay and despair, as Ekklesia’s ComRes opinion poll indicated. Disillusionment is fed by ‘business as usual’ or by a lack of genuine opportunities for involvement. Alternative politics can help to rectify these problems. A large number of people do not have a party affiliation or strong association and feel disconnected from 'party politics'. If they are to be re-engaged in public life, it may take people from outside 'the system' to do so.

From Ekklesia

1 comment:

  1. The most compelling reason to vote for an independent is this. No person can represent a community unless he/she can represent their own conscience. No party politician can do this. The notion that independents have no power base or may be loose cannons is rubbish. In a parliamentary democracy decisions are made by a majority. If the representatives are independent good is easy while bad is hard. There are many other benefits. For example- national elections need not be altogether. With independents stability is inherent. for more go to


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