I can understand why people are drawn to vote for independent candidates.
That might seem surprising, coming from someone with a deep and long-standing loyalty to the Labour Party, but then I do always try to put myself in the shoes and minds of others. And as I say, I can see why the Independent candidate can seem attractive.
Superficially, at least.
Independent councillors, the argument runs, aren’t bound by party lines, and so can vote however they choose, however best serves the people they represent. It’s a perfect answer for all those disillusioned with political parties of any colour and creed, and in theory should provide more responsive government.
In practice, as the borough of Southend-on-Sea demonstrates, it doesn’t work quite so smoothly.
Southend boasts eleven independent councillors, out of fifty one in total. Of these, one (Cllr Rick Morgan) is a member of the Liberal Party. One is Cllr Marimuthu “Vel” Velmurugan, a “conservative-minded Independent”, who isn’t a member of the Independent Group.
Which leaves nine members of the official Independent Group, led by Cllr Martin Terry. It is oft insisted that the Independent Group isn’t a political party, but it has a leader, who takes a party leader’s salary, and members campaign together. So you do the maths.
But in any case, as my friend Cllr Ware-Lane has (correctly) pointed out that the Independents are fairly right-wing bunch, extending to a rumoured non-aggression pact with UKIP. It’s also important to recognise the number of times that they have propped up the Conservative administration in what is a hung council.
And herein, in my view, lies the advantage of the party system. Yes, the individual flexibility of councillors and candidates may be constrained, but if they are members of a political party then they must share certain common aims and beliefs. In my experience, most party policies are decided democratically. And in that shape, voters will know what it is that they are getting from a candidate.
My own biggest complaint about the Independents is that they try and have their cake and eat it. They are the opposition to the Conservatives when it suits them, but have no trouble lending them support when they think it will best serve themselves. They accuse others of playing politics, but the balance of power is in their hands.
It also amuses me that a number of these “independents” were formerly avowed and active members of political parties themselves. Both Cllr Anne Chalk and Dr Vel are former Labour Party members. Looking at the political landscape of the town, I find it difficult to discount an element of opportunism and flexible principles.
Opportunism doesn’t, in my view, make for responsible government. It hasn’t with the Lib Dems, it doesn’t with UKIP, and I don’t see how it can with independents.
I can see, easily, how the idea of an independent councillor can appeal to voters faced with the option on the ballot paper. But genuine independence goes beyond party allegiance, and is possible from those of any party or none. What voters think they are getting from the Southend Independent Group is unaffiliated councillors. What they are getting is a party in all but name.
Which, in this humble blogger’s opinion, is both cynical and dishonest.