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Richard Kemp: Councillors will determine if the centre realigns

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The advantage of having been around a long time – in my case, 52 years as a party member and 36 as a councillor – is that you can usually say: “I’ve seen it all before.”

But there are two things about the emergence of the Independent Group which are different to the creation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which enjoyed a huge surge of support.

First, there are no names amongst them with the presence and command of Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams. Most people outside the independents’ own constituencies probably couldn’t put a name to a face if shown the magnificent 11. Second, this time there are splits in both the main parties, not just one.

It’s tempting for journalists to see things only through the Westminster prism. It’s true numbers matter there in terms of votes and majorities. And big press conferences and breakaways are good news stories, but they are not necessarily real politics.

The numbers that matter are those on the ground, and in particular the number of councillors.

Political parties are very like armies. We have colonels and generals in Parliament, and the poor bloody infantry who knock on the doors and stuff the envelopes. The glue that holds them together and makes sure things happen are the non-commissioned officers, or in our parlance councillors.

Surges in membership for political parties are nothing new. We often get local surges as people support those locally who they think might win. Nationally, the SDP surge was outperformed by the recent huge increase in Labour members, and the Liberal Democrats have seen membership gains since 2015.

But the question is how many stick around to make the party, new or old, work. Many who will excitedly sign up when the Independent Group becomes a party will rapidly find politics is not very exciting. Much of it is necessary but boring work, interspersed with the stuff they have seen on the telly.

We are currently shaping up for the biggest round of local elections in England. But the Independent Group will not be fighting it. It’s simply too late for it to do all the necessary things.

This is, of course, good news for the Lib Dems. We will have our biggest number of candidates for many years and were already expecting to make good gains before the events of this week. Our grizzled veterans will campaign alongside some of the new faces that have joined us over the past three years.

It is those people and the other councillors that might choose to work with us in communities and council chambers across the country that will determine whether what’s happening in Westminster is a permanent realignment of the centre – or a flash in the pan.

Richard Kemp (Lib Dem), opposition leader, Liverpool City Council

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Readers' comments (1)

  • The new Parliamentary Independent Group may not be fielding councillors in May but there will be hundreds of well established Independent councillors standing for re-election in May, and people standing for the first time, who are choosing to do so as an Independent, free from a party whip.

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