Proportional Representation (PR) is generally reckoned to aid smaller parties independent of the mainstream. Hence the extraordinary success of the Brexit and Green parties in last week’s European poll conducted, in the UK, on the D’Hondt PR system. However this is not a universal law, as the relatively poor showing of UKIP and Change UK demonstrated.  But what
PR doesn’t usually do is help genuinely independent candidates.  Following the May local elections in Britain, however, it doesn’t look as if they urgently need much help. Of the 8,425 councils seats contested, independents won an extraordinary 1177 – that’s 14%. Three district councils are now wholly controlled by independents. 

Sunset for the Tories in Bexhill
PICTURE: Susan McFie

Ok, we know voters were fed up with the two main parties over Brexit – either because they’d failed to take us out of Europe, or failed to keep us in – but still for one in seven of us to vote for a candidate outside a mainstream political party is quite extraordinary.

The reasons were, or course varied. In our neighbouring Rother District Council the Conservatives lost control having gained only 14 seats as Independents took 13. This was almost entirely due to the parochial issue of a town council for Bexhill (See HIP issue 117). But it was a blindingly clear demonstration that the main parties can – and will – lose seats if they are unresponsive to voters’ wishes.

The same thing unseated the leader of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, David Jukes. He was a longstanding Conservative member, but had been pushing  a controversial £90 million plan to build new council offices and a prestigious theatre in the centre of the town. Enough people opposed the plan to form an alliance of Independent candidates.  They took six seats helping to reduce the Conservative majority from 34 to just 8.

It was a similar story elsewhere in Kent. The Tories were defending a 17 seat majority on Swale Borough Council in the Sittingbourne area but independents gained 10 seats to take their tally to 12 – one more than Labour. The Conservatives lost a total of 16 seats, leaving them eight short of overall control.

In Mid Sussex the Liberal Democrats were the main beneficiaries of Conservative disillusion. The Tories previously held all 54 seats but lost 20 of them this time around. While the Lib Dems picked up 13, four went to independents and three to the Greens.

And the phenomenon was not just in the South East. In Nottinghamshire independents won 30 out of 35 seats on Ashfield District Council, while on Nottingham City council the independents are now the second largest grouping.

In the South West independent councillors, as well as the East Devon Alliance, made sweeping gains across the whole of the district, ending Conservative control of East Devon District council.

The question plaguing the main parties is ‘could this phenomenon be replicated in a general election?’  With the Conservatives and Labour still suffering the fall-out of Brexit, a few more independent MPs could really alter the Westminster arithmetic.  Add to that the recent de-toxifying of the Liberal Democrat brand, and the possibility that there could be two new fringe parties standing – the Brexit Party and Change UK, and you could have a completely new parliamentary landscape.  History shows that these new parties would be unlikely to win many seats outright, but just by standing they can deprive mainstream candidates of a majority.  Take Hastings.  Amber Rudd’s wafer thin lead of 346 could easily be destroyed by a few disenchanted ‘leave’ Tories switching to the Brexit Party, and a few remain-minded ones voting for the Independent Group.

The progress of Change UK will be interesting to monitor.  They could well lose a number of their 11 MPs in a general election and might, just, gain a couple more.  But to what extent would they act as a unified party?  Part of their appeal is that they are independent. Always assuming that even centrist Labour and Conservative politicians could get together to agree on a common manifesto,  wouldn’t that very agreement itself nullify their USP – being independent? 

The history of independents in the House of Commons is a fairly brief one. Since 1950 there have been fewer than 20 – and most of them had left mainstream parties.  Martin Bell’s victory at Tatton in 1997 and Richard Taylor’s at Wyre Forest in 2001 and 2005 were among the very few exceptions. Martin Bell left the BBC to stand as an independent in one of the safest Conservative seats in the country.  But the sitting MP, Neil Hamilton, was embroiled in sleaze allegations and Lib Dems and Labour withdrew their candidates in Bell’s favour. Richard Taylor stood as a single-issue candidate under the ‘Kidderminster Hospital and Health Concern’ banner beating a Labour junior minister and gaining a majority of 18,000. 

So popular local issues can find a resonance among voters – as the Tories in Rother District found to their cost. But whether small tremors like that will
result in sustained shifting of political tectonic plates remains to be seen.

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