Voting day is almost upon us, and the date to remember for the local elections across England is 22nd May. In Southend-on-Sea, there is everything to play for. For the first time in many years, control of the council hangs in the balance. In 2014, your vote counts more than ever to shape the future direction of the town. The main parties pitching their platforms are the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, the Independents, UKIP, and of course Labour.
So what are the Independents offering the voters of Southend in 2014?
Oh, alright, I suppose I ought to do this properly, hadn’t I?
The idea of an “independent” councillor does seem appealing, I grant you. A councillor who isn’t bound to any particular party policy or ideology, free of politics, free to vote as they see fit, with no party whip to bind them.
That’s certainly the ideal that the Independent Party Group in Southend promote, fairly aggressively most of the time. And like, I say, I can see why it would appeal even before the present Nigel Farage-fuelled anti-politics mood. Except, when you actually look at how it works in practice, the utopian ideals start to fall apart.
Regular readers will have noticed the way that I refer to the Independent
Party Group. It has even been adopted by other local politics bloggers. And it isn’t without meaning. Because the “independents” sit as a group in the council chamber, they use harmonised election literature and their leader draws an opposition group leader’s extra allowance. All of this is party behaviour, and they claim to do it because in order to have any effect on local government you need to work together.
They are right. An independent councillor is an effective protest vote, but the problem is that you then have a councillor in isolation for four years. Or you have a party grouping who masquerade as independents. It is, sadly, that simple. We have a system based on consensus, and competing priorities need agreement to make it off the wishlist into reality. That would be as true under the “committee” system as it is with a “cabinet”.
And what do the Independents offer? God only knows. They would scrap the planned sea defences for Shoebury (though with what, if anything, in place of them I remain unclear). And change to the aforementioned “committee” system, meaning a costly change of council procedure for no real gain. Candidates individual promises are almost useless, and the proposed coalition between themselves and UKIP is thankfully mathematically laughable, as their lack of a whip means that they would be able to pass nothing or very little, and Southend local government would grind to a devastating halt.
If you want proof, look at how they voted on this year’s budget; in St Luke’s and Shoeburyness wards pairs of independent councillors voted in opposite ways, cancelling each other out. That might sound like the system working, but a) that denied residents of those wards two thirds of their democratic say, and b) it will result in paralysis if they are in charge of the town.
It actually gets even more confusing than that. Because aside from the “official” independents, you have “independent” independents standing for election — and the “official” independents actually describe themselves as such, further rubbishing their claim not to be a party. The “unofficial” independents’ offerings are no better; from the likes of Anthony Bryon Chytry in St Luke’s with his ballot paper gimmicks, misinformation, and contradictory pledges, to Lucy Courtenay in Chalkwell with a list of pledges not a one of which is measurable.
A vote for the independents is not the liberating, cleansing solution which they purport to be. What does a vote for the independents get you? A fat lot of nothing.