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The local difficulties facing the new Independent party

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Commentary on a momentous week in British politics

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Precedent suggests it will be tough for the new Independent party to overcome the difficulties it faces to realign politics permanently. This is true both nationally and locally.

The new party has come about after the Labour and Conservative national leaderships moved to the extremes, leaving a chasm in the middle which the Liberal Democrats have hitherto been unable to exploit. It was only a matter of time before Labour and Tory moderates took a leap to occupy the centre ground.

Today was the day when the defection of three Conservative MPs to the Independent group made the headlines. However, from a local government perspective, it was the result of the contest to become Labour’s mayoral candidate for North of Tyne CA that shows just how tough life has become for moderate politicians.

Nick Forbes – whose position as Labour group leader at the Local Government Association makes him the party’s most senior councillor in England – was defeated by the Momentum-endorsed Jamie Driscoll.

Cllr Driscoll (one of Cllr Forbes’ councillors in Newcastle City Council, which the latter man leads) secured the Labour nomination by 2,514 votes to 1,930.

It is fair to say Cllr Driscoll is probably not what George Osborne had in mind when he looked at a Manchester skyline that was growing ever skywards and decided to support city region metro mayors as a means of boosting the economies of northern England.

Cllr Driscoll’s website sets out his stall succinctly. “Capitalism is a rigged system that is long past its sell-by date,” he says.

“The Tories designed these metro mayor deals with a swashbuckling businessman in mind, cutting through red tape and crushing local planning objections.

“When I read the devolution document, it occurred to me that its authors never thought a socialist like me would get hold of this position. So I’m standing on a radical socialist platform against Labour establishment candidates.”

Among his priorities are a co-operative “people’s bank”; “community housing cooperatives”, which are collectively owned by residents rather than publicly so they’re exempt from right-to-buy [an innovation LGC will run in Idea Exchange should it come off], a publicly-owned energy provider, and a community wealth-building strategy akin to that developed by Preston City Council.

Many of these ideas have appeal; some are already successfully pursued by other councils. However, the primary question facing the far-left is whether the expertise is actually there to successfully implement them.

The sense that Labour is moving ever leftwards was brought home this week by the readmission of Derek Hatton, possibly the most disastrous figure of modern local government history (does he beat Dame Shirley Porter?), into the party. And if Nick Forbes cannot win the North of Tyne candidacy, the future looks bleak for the moderates.

So what do they do? They could seize the zeitgeist by becoming a cheerleader for Jeremy Corbyn, like the one-time PFI-implementing Derby City Council leader Chris Williamson, who led the council in a coalition with the Conservatives, before becoming a parliamentary backbench Corbynista mouthpiece. Or they could keep calm and carry on. However, crossing the benches to join any new Independent grouping on their council is perilous (as an aside, the new Independent grouping is pretty perilous for Independents [as in genuine non-party people] in local government, who, not being a single force, have not registered the name ‘Independent’ as being exclusively theirs with the Electoral Commission).

LGC has probably heard less grumbling from local Conservative politicians about their party’s move rightwards, even if most Tory council leaders hold a far more moderate attitude in areas like housing, welfare and funding than their party’s government. Any austerity-starved or remainer Tory councillors contemplating a move know that their passage to the new party would be as fraught with danger as that for their Labour counterparts.

The trouble facing prospective councillor turncoats is that the new political force has no organisation in local government, whereas the existing parties are well established. Labour has some enthusiastic, often youthful, foot soldiers following a surge in membership, driven by love of Mr Corbyn (even if many of them haven’t exactly prioritised local government as being a force for change). While Conservative membership is not at previous heights, nevertheless the party has a local permanency and social scene, even if many of its stalwarts are now ageing.

The new Independent group has no footing in local government, no organisation and – other than opposition to Brexit and antisemitism – no policies. It is surely implausible that it could mobilise any major campaigning force in time for this year’s local elections.

Even beyond that, the north of England and London has become dramatically more Labour and non-urban areas have become increasingly Conservative. Challenging the dominant party’s hegemony in each of these areas is difficult, even before one considers the impact of first-past-the-post.

A precedent exists in the split of the Social Democratic Party from Labour in March 1981 and its joining with the Liberal Party in the Alliance three months later. Even with the Allliance benefitting from the existing Liberal infrastructure in many areas it was not a huge local electoral force.

The leading psephologists Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher hold data for all recent local elections. While their data does not distinguish between Liberal or SDP candidates it clearly shows that the Alliance’s votes did not translate into seats won.

The ‘third party’s vote’ in local elections of the 1980s

Year198119821983198419851986198719881989

% vote

16.7

25.6

20.2

19.3

26.8

23.7

25.6

14.5

19.2

% seats

9.1

9.2

8.5

11.3

18.1

15.9

14.3

10.2

13.3

 

Source: Colin Rallings & Michael Thrasher www.electionscentre.co.uk

 

In 1986, for instance, the Alliance took three London boroughs: Richmond upon Thames, Sutton and Tower Hamlets LBCs. The following year it did not win a single metropolitan council and just nine districts.

Professor Rallings tells me the Liberals alone won 11% of votes in the 1980 locals. The 26% for the Alliance in 1982 came after the third party contested 90% of seats, as opposed to 40% previously.

“It seems to me that the current Independent group is some way from being able to mount any kind of electoral challenge – probably even in their own constituencies – and many more people [defecting] from other parties and the acquisition of a ready-made party machine is crucial for any success,” he says.

So to even get up to the modest levels of the Alliance would take an existing party’s machinery. The Liberal Democrats do have local foot soldiers and councillors across the country. Like the MP defectors, they are rooted in the centre and anti-Brexit. Locally, they were probably the party that did best in last year’s polls. It is surely vital the new Independent party joins up, either as a new alliance or a merger, with the Lib-Dems if it is to succeed.

Party leader David Steel famously told delegates at the 1981 Liberal conference to: “Go back to your constituencies, and prepare for government!” It may be some time before Chuka Umunna can go proclaim to members: “Go back to your councils, and prepare for leadership!”

Nick Golding, editor

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