I am standing as the Independent candidate in elections to choose the first Police and Crime Commissioner for Sussex – check out my website for more information. The elections will take place on 15th November and all people who are usually eligible to vote in elections anywhere in Sussex, will be able to vote to elect me or one of the other (as yet unidentified) candidates. None of the political parties have declared a candidate but Paul Richards is the only known hopeful for the Labour party. Paul has written in the Labourlist blog on the Rise of the Independents, which I find very flattering as I was presumably one of his inspirations.
He has three main arguments against the role of Independents, the first of which is specific to the elections on 15th November and the others which are more general in nature. He admits that this puts him at odds with 85% of the public nationally (and 86% locally) who believe that Independent candidates are best for this role.
1) The range of candidates who the Government hoped would come forward after their strong invitation to Independents.
Rather oddly Paul asks where are the business leaders (check out Richard Hibbs in North Wales), charity workers (well that would be me Paul!), former Police Officers (try Mick Thwaites in Esssex) and people from other areas of public life (what about Simon Weston in South Wales). Of course these are merely 4 out of 41 areas, but as yet none of the major political parties have formally declared in any of the 41 areas so we four Independents are ahead of the game!
2) The value of political parties for ‘aggregating disparate views’ of the individuals involved.
This is a strange argument in the case of the Police and Crime Commissioners. They will be working alone irrespective of any party allegiance or not. The difference here between an Independent and a Party Politician is that the Independent will be looking only to the wider constituency for their electoral mandate, whereas the party politician will be looking first to the party which won it for them, and then to the electorate. In the case of Councilors in a Local Authority or MPs in the Commons, the role of the political parties offers much more relevance, as it is inevitable that people will gather with others of a similar point of view. It is much less likely that a caucus of Police Commissioners would ever be relevant or necessary, apart from opposing the direction of travel from Whitehall, and here party allegiances will cloud, not clear the judgment.
3) A lack of professionalism.
It is surprising that Paul has settled on the word amateur in his blog and used it in a pejorative sense in the year when the Olympics are being celebrated in the UK. Our ‘amateur’ sportspeople do not lack in professionalism. Paul suggests that few amateurs would be able to be leaders of a Council. Now I have the greatest of respect for the Council Leaders in Sussex and most of the 74 from the South East that I met during my 6 years in SEERA. However they pride themselves on the fact that they are in the sense of being connected to the people, amateurs rather than the professionals who grace our Parliament or who are the civil servants they employ. This is the same situation as magistrates in our Courts. The expectation is that our MPs are full-time salaried people and that our Councilors are still usually seen as part-time representatives who have other roles and who receive an allowance for their time. In any event as the Police and Crime Commissioners will be filling new roles it is hard to imagine how anyone could be professionally trained for the post in the way that surgeons, car mechanics or chefs are (these are the examples Paul uses in his blog).
4) Any other Business
Paul then finishes with a few comments, two of which bear a response:
‘Surely the act of seeking office, constructing a manifesto, canvassing for support, and going after votes in an election make anyone doing it a politician. The only difference is that we don’t know much about their values and views, whereas you can usually guess from a party candidate.’ This is at the root of why our party politics is so depressing. No one is suggesting Independents are not political, simply that we don’t follow a party line in exclusion to our best judgment and the words in our manifesto. The parties end up settling on decisions based on a national appeal or at best a regional appeal to their core vote. That means that local needs can be overlooked as the party tries to retain credibility on wider issues. A Labour or Conservative selected Police Commissioner would inevitably respond differently to the needs of the Metropolitan Police if Boris was Mayor compared to if Ken was the Mayor. The same would be the case in the context of national policing if the Home Secretary is Theresa May or Yvette Cooper. Rather than making assumptions about our values and views as Paul thinks is the case with political parties, the voters get the unexpurgated truth based on our personal credibility. I for one would prefer no one made assumptions about me!
‘Independents elected to councils as ‘rate payers’ or ‘residents’ association’ usually line up with one party or another. So we shouldn’t be too surprised, or too disappointed, if politicians are attracted to a political position.’ Political positions are of course arrived at by a matter of discourse and reflection. There is nothing uniquely Labour about valuing the welfare state, any more than anything uniquely Conservative about respecting the needs and rights of an individual. It is inevitable that Independents in a collective decision-making context will strike up common cause with party groupings from time to time. The alternative is that they would forever be arguing for a position that no one else supports and therefore never change anything. It is true that in some settings failed or rejected party members have seen ‘Independence’ as a way forward (and shame on these individuals!). Just as no party ‘owns’ the welfare state or individual responsibility, so too no candidate owns the word Independent. However The Independent Network is attempting to change that and perhaps in time those charlatans who are party political in everything other than name will be exposed!