In 2012 the people of Bristol sent a clear message to the political parties. That message was, “You are not connecting with us”. On a turnout of 24%, the city voted to introduce a directly elected Mayor. Bristol was the only city to do so – and in analysing why, it may be significant to note that a high profile local candidate – George Ferguson, who went on to be elected the city’s Mayor – had already declared that he would run as an Independent candidate should the referendum deliver a “Yes”. As Catherine Durose has pointed out on this blog, the size of the “No” vote in other cities’ referenda probably points to a lack of enthusiasm among the electorate for electing ‘more of the same’ party politicians.
Recent research shows that only 1% of the UK population are now members of the main political parties. I am one of the 99% who are not. It may be that the offer of a new breed of independent politician – crucially, quality-assured to the exclusion of bigots, egomaniacs and the unprincipled – has a chance of restoring some faith and interest in local politics. That in itself is a worthy goal.
I am enormously interested in politics and I have great respect for (most) politicians I have worked with, in my role co-ordinating the campaign group Bristol Fawcett and in other local campaigns. But I have never wanted to join a political party – and this is largely because of the oppositional nature of party political posturing. Frankly I have been given enough grief in my life for being a card-carrying feminist – constantly being required to explain that feminism is for the liberation of mind and body, not against men, against fun, against sexuality, etc etc. As a social psychologist I have a heightened wariness of seeking to be a member of any group that is in danger of becoming an ‘in-group’; required to define itself against and plot against an ‘out-group’ of others. This seems the more ill-advised when to be a member of a group means agreeing to do what you are told by the leadership, even if the motivation of the leadership appears unprincipled.
I am disturbed and disheartened by the levels of vitriol and plotting and spinning directed by members of one or other party towards others. We seem to be living in a topsy-turvy world where nationally the deadliest policies can be adopted and executed without a mandate and without effective opposition. Meanwhile and locally, party representatives bait each other on Twitter, seem to put the good of the party above the good of local people (a caricature of Labour in Bristol) and claim to want to protect the most vulnerable in society while representing the parties whose centrally dictated policies seem to be playing out locally in the ruination of the lives of the most vulnerable (a caricature of the Conservatives and to a lesser extent the Liberal Democrats in Bristol). Many of our politicians appear to be fiddling whilst [insert name of your region here] burns. I believe that most people in local politics are principled and public-spirited, and I am sorry that the public have grown to distrust and disrespect party politicians. But the fact remains that they have.
I think that Martin Stott, writing for this blog in November, was right to suggest that we may be seeing the beginning of a ‘march of the independents’. The signs so far in Bristol are good in terms of the ability of “Independents for Bristol” to encourage a diverse range of candidates to stand – and to support those candidates with basic help and advice when it comes to campaigning, logistics and so on. Some of the challenges ahead for IfB will be to maintain the strong focus on principles, to resist the natural pull of ‘groupthink’ among its members, and to be creative about continuing to support a diverse range of candidates to stand. This last challenge is a very practical one but without the offer of campaign funding, socio-economic diversity among candidates is unlikely to blossom.
There are eight candidates standing in May under the “Independents for Bristol” umbrella – we will find out in a few short days whether this is indeed the beginning of a revolution.
Dr Helen Mott is the co-ordinator of Bristol Fawcett which campaigns for equality between women and men. Bristol Fawcett recently published the report The Right Man for Bristol? about gender and power in Bristol in the context of the 2012 Mayoral elections. Helen has worked closely with Bristol’s voluntary, community & statutory sectors and is a regular participant in local government committees and partnerships. Following the establishment of the new umbrella group “Independents for Bristol” Helen has been selected to stand as a candidate for her ward in May’s local government elections. Follow her on Twitter here.