It’s not enough to not be Blair
Too many independents are carrying on complaining from their election platforms
British elections were once a two-horse race. In the 60 odd years between the rise of Labour and the dwindling of the Liberal Party in the early twentieth century, and the formation of the Social Democratic Party as a Labour offshoot in the 1980s, the choice was Labour or Tory. Election results were often close to 50-50. In the 1951 elections, for example, Labour polled 48.8 per cent to the Tories’ 48 per cent.
All that is history now. We are seeing the rise of a bewildering series of new-style parties and independent candidates. There are 14 candidates standing against prime minister Tony Blair in his Sedgefield constituency: five independents, including Reg Keys, whose son was killed in Iraq; and parties including former TV presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk’s Veritas, the Pensioners Party, the We Want Our Country Back Party and even the Blair Must Go Party.
According to the Electoral Commission, 61 new parties were registered in 2004, up 13 per cent on the previous year. Some 30 new parties were registered in the three months up to the end of March 2005. These include the Alliance for Diversity in Community, the Association of Bedfordshire Citizens, the Common Good, the Motorists, and the Publican Party. In total, 155 independent candidates have put themselves forward, up from 138 in 2001.
This flowering of independents feeds on the dunghill of mainstream party politics. Stewart Rickersey, who claims to have a real chance of taking the seat of Mansfield in Nottinghamshire, tells me that ‘people are genuinely fed up with the toing and froing that is rammed down their throats night after night. There is apathy about the adversarial nature of politics’. Robin Clarke of the Real Democracy Party agrees: ‘So many people are alienated from the system. It is a door waiting to be knocked on.’
It’s certainly true that the lifeblood has flowed from the two-party system. The Labour and Tory parties were once formidable institutions, bound by ideology and class interest. As Peter Lay from the Independent Network points out, ‘There used to be an ideological divide in party politics. Now there isn’t, you don’t actually have a reason for it.’ The battle between two camps appears as a staged, point-scoring contest, adjudicated by umpires Paxman and Humphrys on Newsnight and Radio 4’s Today programme. All the mechanisms of formal politics, from parliament to the party whip, appear as pointless routines that keep people away from power.
When politicians compete to be the best manager and to have the best personality, what use is there for Labour and Tory? Everybody knows that the party faithful are things of yesteryear, paraded at party conference once a year but otherwise forgotten. Both northern trades unionists and the blue-rinse brigade are vestiges of another era, not forces in today’s society. But the trouble is that the new independents are lowering the horizons of politics still further. Many are even more obsessed with personality, more managerial and more point-scoring than the parties they criticise.
Rather than stand on their own account, many independents are merely parasitic on the failures of those whom they face. The story of the Blair Must Go Party is indicative. When long-time Labour supporter Jonathan Cockburn decided that New Labour had swung too far right, his first response was to set up a party called the New Socialist Party, promoting ‘things like the renationalisation of the railways’. Yet this didn’t play well with the voters of Sedgefield, who ‘thought I was a communist’, so Cockburn decided that they ‘would find it easier to vote on an anti-Blair ticket’. His tent is open to all, Tories too: ‘people will come together from across the political spectrum to eject a tyrant.’ In order to make it as an independent, Cockburn put aside his own political views and went for the bottom line ‘we all hate Blair, don’t we?’.
Those who have a bone to pick are confronting government ministers across the land. Craig Murray, the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan who resigned after his criticism of the Uzbek government’s human rights record, is standing against Jack Straw in Blackburn. Patricia Tabram, who received a six-month suspended jail sentence for cooking cannabis cakes, will stand against the Leader of the House Peter Hain. As well as Reg Keys against Blair, there is a dyslexic mother of two standing against the education secretary Ruth Kelly, and former child abuse victim Demetrius Panton standing against children’s minister Margaret Hodge. Whatever next: Blair challenged by a former nanny annoyed at her pay deal, or John Prescott challenged by the man he punched at the last election?
There are now a string of anti-parties, or parties for the abolition of political parties. Robin Clarke from the Real Democracy Party tells me that, were he elected, he would stand aside for a randomly selected member of the public. The True Democracy Party, the Telepathic Partnership and Your Party all aim for direct democracy, whereby the public would raise their own proposals and vote on every bill, and politicians would merely put this into play. The view seems to be that politicians’ opinions block the popular will, and were politicians blank slates the people would be able to leave their mark. ‘I haven’t got any politics – none at all’, Stewart Rickersey tells me. On every issue of debate, he would go back to Mansfield, lay out the different arguments, and ask for people to vote by text, phone, or community meeting. Whatever the decision, he would argue for it in the House of Commons.
More public engagement in political debate would be all to the good. But this doesn’t depend upon politicians becoming empty-headed administrators. If a man or woman has ‘no politics – none at all’, why should we choose them over anybody else? The point about good political leaders is that they fight for their beliefs, and try to win people over.
Other independents are fighting on the basis of narrow, single-issue politics. In this vein is Dr Richard Taylor, who won Wyre Forest with his campaign to save a local hospital (with the encouragement of the Liberal Democrats, it must be noted, who stood aside for Dr Taylor in 2001 and will do so again in this election). New parties include Build Duddon and Morecambe Bridges, Voters Against Overdevelopment of Northampton, Save Bristol North Baths Party, Save St John’s Wood Adventure Playground, Stop! Durrington’s Overdevelopment – Save Titnores’ Trees, and LEAP (for improving secondary education in Lewisham).
The Electoral Commission gushes that these single-issue parties show that ‘people in the UK are feeling increasingly engaged about issues that most affect their lives’. On the contrary, it’s actually a sign of disengagement when people’s political horizons don’t stretch beyond their own neighbourhood. Such campaigns have a short shelf life. The Save the Arthur Simpson Library Party folded in April 2003 after Islington Council closed the Arthur Simpson Library – and the same would have happened had the library been saved.
Those new parties that do have a firm political programme fare little better. Here we get into the terrain of Speakers’ Corner Politics, with manifestos that read like cranks sounding off. One consequence of the mainstream political vacuum is that every man and his dog now has a plan for saving Britain. Parties like the Britannia Party and the Common Good Party claim to see the way ahead, which invariably involves giving prisoners and unmarried mothers a hard time and turning our backs on the European Union.
In the past, political parties were the result of popular associations and political interests. The Labour Party, for example, was formed by trades unions fighting to defend workers’ economic interests. Today, by contrast, individuals set up parties in their sitting rooms. Jonathan Cockburn is leader, nominating officer and treasurer of his party, while Robin Clarke admits that although his Real Democracy Party was set up in 2002, it has not yet contested an election. The accounts sent back to the Electoral Commission every year include an increasing number of blank sheets. At the beginning of 2005, the Britannia Party sent in an account saying that it had no members, had spent no money, had not yet campaigned, and ‘we are still finalising our policies’. In April 2004, the Vote for Yourself Party sent in a return saying that it had no members, and that the party’s treasurer had funded its £2988 expenses.
There is a lot to be said for throwing your own hat in the ring, rather than just complaining about the paucity of choice on offer. Unfortunately, too many independents are carrying on complaining from their election platforms. As a result, they reproduce the problems of formal party politics, so that rather than giving us an alternative, it is just more of the same.
The two-party system is indeed a dead duck, and we would do well to look elsewhere for inspiration. If anyone stood up and tried to put forward a new vision of politics, they could well be worth voting for. The aim, though, should be to raise our horizons and look to the future, not build parties around the limitations of the present.
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