Nick Small: The party is not over

By David Bartlett on Nov 26, 12 08:50 AM in Guest Blog

nicksmall.jpgMuch has been written about the success of independent candidates in elections, which saw independents poll over 1.2m votes in the Police & Crime Commissioner elections, 12 independents becoming Police Commissioners and an independent beating Labour to become Bristol's first elected Mayor.

Some of the success of independents is no doubt down to the fact that these were elections being held on a cold, dark Thursday in November, the role of Police Commissioner was one few really understood or a post that people wanted to keep somehow above politics.

But if the results do mark a new departure in citizen-based politics, is this actually good for democracy?

I've been a member of a political party since I was a teenager and have been a Labour councillor in Liverpool for over eight years. What I've seen first-hand as a party activist and elected representative is that political parties do increase accountability, transparency and democracy in a way that so-called independents, however well-intentioned, don't.

Political parties give voters information about a candidate's values and vision. Granted it might be crude information, but independent candidates can't do this in the same way or, worse, conceal this from voters .

Take Winston Roodick. He stood and was elected Police Commissioner in North Wales as an independent, despite still being a card-carrying Lib Dem. Bristol's Mayor George Ferguson was a Liberal councillor in the 1970s, twice a Liberal parliamentary candidate in the 1980s and only resigned from the Lib Dems in May this year. Stephen Bett, Norfolk's independent Police Commissioner, was a Conservative councillor and Chair of Norfolk Police Authority until July when he lost the Conservative Party's nomination for the Police Commissioner candidacy. These bogus independents, I suspect, didn't have Damascene conversions last week; for them independent was a flag of convenience.

A party label is a signpost that gives voters important clues about how a candidate would respond to unknown situations in the future. In uncertain worlds voters want and expect this from candidates. Edmund Burke's 18th century view of representative democracy that a representative betrays you if he sacrifices his judgement to your opinion seems reactionary and anti-democratic in the 21st. Marx wasn't far off the mark when he described Burke as "an out-and-out vulgar bourgeois". But placing judgement over opinion is exactly what the latest crop of Burkean independents ask of voters.

In Liverpool - as with many other cities - we're facing unprecedented cuts to the City Council's budget. Before Labour took control of the City Council in May 2010 nobody - political parties, council officers or voters - knew the scale and pace of the challenge. Liverpool political parties rooted in values have been able to offer voters an indication of how they'd respond in unknown scenarios, ultimately giving the voters of Liverpool real choice. Of course, political parties don't always respond to the unknown in ways their voters approve of. The Lib Dems' present difficulties stem from precisely this, as, to be fair, did the disengagement of many supporters of the last Labour government over Iraq. Voters don't get the luxury of that comeback with independent candidates.

Political parties have a comprehensive world-view, which independent candidates usually lack. Take Martin Bell. I'd have voted for him had I lived in Tatton in 1997 as the anti-sleaze candidate, but I profoundly disagreed with his subsequent voting record against lowering the age of consent for gay men and in support of fox hunting - judgements unhinted at before the election which certainly didn't reflect the opinions of those who elected him.

Political parties, despite shortcoming in how they are financed, are better than the alternatives. It's difficult for ordinary people as individuals to resource independent campaigns effectively. In Bristol the media reports that George Ferguson ploughed between £25,000 and £40,000 of his own money into his Mayoral campaign. The true picture for this and other independent campaigns will no doubt emerge over the next few weeks when election returns are published. But what is clear is that effective, self-financed independent campaigns don't come cheap and are likely to be the preserve of the very rich. This has profound implications for making our politicians more representative of those they represent.

Yes, there's more political parties can do to become more effective. Parties should open up outside their narrow memberships, select more candidates through open primaries, recruit candidates from outside the talent pool of activists and move outside the Beltway. But independents are not the answer.

Councillor Nick Small is a Liverpool Labour Councillor and tweets @cllrnicksmall.

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David Bartlett

David Bartlett

City editor of the Post and Echo covering politics, regeneration, and urban affairs.
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