Since I began my journey towards potentially becoming a Councillor for Southend I have been struck by the amount of times people have been surprised; firstly, that I am running at all; and secondly, why I am representing Labour rather than going it alone as Independent.
To answer the first question, I was not brought up affluent. My household was poor, relied on benefits, and I have worked since I was 13 years old. I may be in a more fortunate position now, but I will never forget what it was like and feel so strongly about doing everything possible to help others who share similar circumstances. For me this is not about trade unions or the working class struggle – as much as that may be the fundamental purpose of the party – this is about being part of the decision making that can help, support and facilitate an environment where people in Southend can be inspired to be the best they can be for themselves and for the good of our town; as well as ensuring the best possible basic services such as health, education and protection.
I believe in the tacit values of the party: compassion, understanding, empathy, fairness and equal opportunities. As cliché as it sounds, we do share our lives together and the best way I believe to do so is to work together. It is in this spirit that I am part of Labour and run for them in the upcoming elections.
However, after a brief period of canvassing before the lockdown I discovered that not everyone feels the same! Whilst most people were polite, there were a few who had the door slammed shut on the second syllable of Labour. Thorpe Ward is not Labour – and never has been. Moreover, Thorpe has three Councillors who are all Independent, and the comments I had heaped praise on the mere concept of Independent Councillors. Many people said they were voting Independent even though they did not know who the candidate was! For this reason I felt it necessary to make the argument about what being an independent actually means as against what it means to be part of a Party, and particularly the Labour party.
It should be noted that currently in Southend there is a coalition made up of Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Independent Group. As a candidate representing Labour I fully support the arrangement and continue to look forward to what can be done to improve Southend. However, this blog is not about the coalition, it is a critique of being an Independent Councillor or candidate.
The Independent Candidate
All the main parties have assumptions made of them that derive a particular viewpoint. From slamming doors to warm handshakes, campaigning on behalf of a political party can be a fraught undertaking. An ‘indie’ can disassociate themselves from this and forge a reputation as they wish. They do not suffer national party problems. They can always look as though they are above what may seem to be petty party squabbles, sleaze, corruption, or poor leadership. There is certainly a notion that people are fed up and do not trust the main parties, and Independents are seen as a breath of fresh air. However, this does not mean they do not believe in the principles of any particular party. What happens is those beliefs can remain hidden, and what drives them in their decision making can always remain an unknown.
The argument for running as an Independent is that you can stand for whatever you want. It means you can make it up as you go along. No one can ever know what you actually stand for. What is the real agenda and motivation? There is never a manifesto. Most often it is a leaflet that states they are here to do the best for the town. The character of an indie is an unknown. Values can change as the wind blows. Personally, I believe it ought to be a requirement that all independent candidates write about their history and what they specifically intend to do, so voters can be made fully aware what they are voting for. Without it, voters are basically voting for...well it is hard to tell! This all may sound incredibly bias; however, this is the reality of the situation.
The Independent Group
Independent Councillors are actually part of an ‘Independent Group’. This group have meetings and seek agreement from each other. They may not be based on any fundamental grounding, but they often act as one in terms of voting intentions. Having said that, just to make it more complicated, there are also Councillors that are independent of the Independent Group! Though just to clarify, all three Councillors in Thorpe are part of the Independent Group.
One of the main issues is an Independent can never govern alone. If they want power they will need to form alliances with whichever party is in power. So while they are Independent in name, they are not independent in practical terms. Indies can walk across the floor with impunity. They can take up office with Conservative or Labour governments and have no reprimand for doing so, such as what would happen if a Labour Councillor crossed for the floor to the Tories for instance. But all Indies, like all people, have a set of beliefs and values that when they do cross the floor are no doubt breaking. When they say they are not involved in party politics, this is inherently disingenuous.
A standard line I have read from Independent candidates is “I only want what is best for the town”, implying that anyone running representing a party does not. This works very successfully on the doorstep as I have often been quoted this as the reason they will vote for them. And this despite the fact that most people did not know who the current Independent Councillor is! For the record, I am up against Cllr Mike Stafford in the next election. I tried to research him, but there is very little that can be found.
What do you get when you vote for a party?
Being part of a party is often interpreted as a loss of an independent voice for the individual within it. Toeing the party-line or being ‘whipped’. In the main the reason anyone is part of a party is because they believe in the fundamental values, vision and purpose. There may be particular issues that arise that require agreement, however, before that point is reached all voices are heard just as independently as anyone else’s. It is not that you cannot be independent, it is that you would not have joined that party in the first place if you did not believe in the core principles.
All Councillors are independent in the sense that they work within a democracy. Each person has a say and a vote in all matters. Yes there must be consensus within the party to agree a way forward, however, this is the same for independents. The only difference is that they do not get a say within the strongest two political parties.
When I cast my vote I want to know what I am getting. A vote for myself and Labour is: to create the best possible business environment to create jobs and pay for the public services we all need. My question to you is that when you tick an Independent candidate what is it that you will be getting?
Thanks for reading. I would welcome any comments or questions you may have. Given COVID, Black Lives Matter, the economy and so on, this would seem a rather odd subject to write about. I chose it not because I am anti-Independent – far from it; I have a lot of respect for anyone that puts themselves up for this job regardless of how they may go about it – but because this is the biggest challenge I face in getting elected. These preconceptions will certainly affect my chances, so it is the least I could do to address them somewhat.