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FEATURES - ONE-HIT WONDERS

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As the main parties gear up for the local elections, how do the growing number of single issue groups fare once the...
As the main parties gear up for the local elections, how do the growing number of single issue groups fare once they win seats, asks Varya Shaw

Fringe parties, single issue groups and independents. Irresponsible, populist opportunists who promise the world because there is no party whip to impose a reality check?

Or the most vibrant and responsive form of politics in existence, taking the ideal of the ward councillor - devoted to and in touch with their community - to new heights?

Politics is changing. Membership of the national parties is in freefall - Labour's role call has dropped from a million in the 1950s to under 200,000, while the Conservatives have around 290,000 card carriers, compared to over a million in the 1980s.

More people are becoming passive members of single-issue organisations, such as charities - picking causes off the shelf according with individual preference rather than behaving collectively.

The change is so profound Labour recently decided to shift efforts to building a base of supporters - sympathisers - rather than full party members.

More political parties are being registered - a rise of 13% between 2003 and 2004 according to the Electoral Commission, the largest rise since the commission started registering parties in 2001.

Anecdotally, there is a new dynamic in councils formerly dominated by party politics. Chris Jarvis, leader of the Hull Independents, says: 'In northern cities like Hull, which have depended entirely on the party political system, it is something quite new, the independent thing. In Leeds and quite a few northern cities the atmosphere is changing and independents are becoming far more accepted.'

But according to the political scientists, there is unlikely to be a measurable surge in May's local elections. LGC elections analyst Professor Michael Thrasher says: 'I wouldn't see this election as being ripe for a breakthrough for single-issue parties. If the main parties see local issues becoming more important, they're much more likely to alter their campaigning to take account of that.'

The test of the dynamism of independent and single-issue groups is longevity, he suggests: 'If they pop out of existence like a quantum particle, then the electorate have said 'we don't buy this'.'

Nonetheless, one of the great contributions independents and single-issue parties can make is to keep the main party groups focused on the local.

This is clear in Wyre Forest DC. In spite of his utter disdain for Independent Kidderminster Hospital Health Concern, which briefly ran Wyre Forest, council leader Stephen Clee (Con) concedes it provided the Tories with a 'shot across the bows'.

However irritating for big party groups, at local level fringe groups represent not atrophy or hollowing out of politics, but renewal.

Hull Independents

Kingston upon Hull City Council

The presence of independents in Hull does not indicate it is moving towards the gentleman politics of sleepy rural districts.

But it does indicate that a long Labour hegemony is opening up.

Hull's independents are rejects and refuseniks from the main parties. They fall into two groups - the Hull Independent Party, which had nine members at its peak and now has three, and unaffiliated independents, of which there are two.

The Hull Independents were instrumental in breaking Labour's uninterrupted grip on power since 1971 when they formed a coalition with the Lib Dems in 2002/03.

During this administration, Hull received one of the most damning corporate governance reports ever issued by the Audit Commission.

The administration broke up in acrimony. 'We were so utterly, totally, abhorrently opposed to their ideals and ways of working,' says a Lib Dem source who wishes to remain anonymous.

Chris Jarvis, leader of the Hull Independents, puts the problems down to the inexperience of the Lib Dems. He is backed up by council veteran Terry Gerraghty, one of the unaffiliated independents. Mr Gerraghty was Labour leader of Humberside CC for 10 years but was deselected in the 1990s for being too 'so-called old Labour'.

He says: 'The Lib Dems were 95% newcomers, quite a few were astonished when they got in but there was a bigger swing than they thought. They didn't understand politics. They and the independents, who were senior to them, didn't gel together.'

He has no great love of the Hull Independents and says they are 'finished'.

But he is even less fond of Labour: 'Residents are fed up with the Labour Party. If you went out 20, 30 years ago [and you weren't Labour] you'd never have stood a chance of winning in this city. Now it's open to anybody.'

Independent Kidderminster Hospital & Health Concern

Wyre Forest DC

The Independent Kidderminster Hospital & Health Concern Party is most famous for

returning Richard Taylor to parliament in the 2001 election. What is less well known is that they controlled Wyre Forest DC between 2002 and 2003.

The party's Brian Glass says: 'We were surprised in one way that we were able to take over the council, but we weren't surprised to win seats because people in Wyre Forest don't like being walked over.'

The party's objective was to prevent the health authority from downgrading services at Kidderminster General Hospital. The party has no members but about 200 supporters, around half of whom turn up to the meetings.

The Conservatives now run the council, and is not hard to persuade leader Stephen Clee to say what he really feels about Health Concern: 'They were a disaster. More services were taken away under their administration than prior to them being elected.'

He does, however, admit their success gave the Tories a jolt and spurred them to campaign more effectively.

Health Concern fared badly in the 2004 elections and now has just eight seats. 'The bubble has clearly burst,' remarks Mr Clee.

But Mr Glass blames this on a tactical error of putting up more than one candidate in each ward, splitting the vote.

He defends the way they ran the council, adding: 'We're businessmen like myself - doctors, solicitors - so we weren't just dragged off the street.'

The Audit Commission's 2004 CPA report judged Wyre Forest 'fair' and praised the new Conservative administration as 'focused'. It notes the unusual administration that preceded them but is silent on its legacy.

Canvey Island Independent Party

Castle Point BC

'I was in the Labour Party on the council for eight years, and got a little bit despondent with some of the policies not only locally but nationally. So six weeks before the 2004 local elections, I decided to leave and started up the Canvey Island Independent Party.

'We managed to take all five seats up for grabs - and got publicity seeing as we were only campaigning for a few weeks.'

This is the startling rise of the Canvey Island Independents, according to their leader, David Blackwell.

A key campaigning point was for Canvey to have its own council as it did in the 1970s.

The party also wants to halt development on the Essex island until it is accompanied by the infrastructure to support it. 'We're not promising zero council tax, [these are] realistic policies which any party listening to the community could achieve,' he adds.

Mr Blackwell owns a garden centre on Canvey Island where he talks to 'hundreds of people every week'. The image of Mr Blackwell discussing Canvey nationalism with the island's mainly elderly residents as they collect their petunias and roses from his garden centre is about as charming as politics gets.

The party operates like a pressure group - when the Tory administration was planning to remove public toilets, they got together a petition with 2,500 signatures which was read out in parliament by the MP. The council backed down, replacing and refurbishing public toilets across Castle Point.

However, Castle Point leader Pam Challis (Con) argues the independents knew perfectly well there was a plan in place to replace and refurbish the toilets anyway.

On a council for Canvey, she says the independents 'dropped it the minute they got in' leaving an elderly campaigner (who has since died) to take the cause forward.

She describes them as opportunists, 'ex-Labour who turned into independents' in reaction to the swing against their party in the traditionally Conservative area.

'They don't come up with their own policies or suggestions, it's really just reacting to whatever we're doing.'

The Canvey Island Independent Party appeared with exactly the swiftness of the quantum particle described by Prof Thrasher. Whether it will disappear with equal swiftness, and how far it will change the shape of the island's politics before it does so, remains to be seen.

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