Over the last week there has been quite a shift in our political settings at both national and local levels. There was a brief link between the two settings which arose last Wednesday at Prime Ministers Questions when Maria Caulfield, MP for Lewes asked: “Will the Prime Minister join me welcoming Councillor Anne Meadows, who has today left the Labour party in Brighton and Hove City Council, crossing the floor to join the Conservatives, who are now the largest group on the council?” The response from Theresa May was “Anne Meadows, a long-serving Labour councillor on Brighton and Hove City Council, has today chosen to leave Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party and join the Conservatives…. We welcome Councillor Meadows into the Conservative party with open arms, and I am sure that she will be an excellent Conservative councillor.” The rest of Maria’s question and Theresa’s answer claimed the cause of this was anti-semitism which has also been seen as one of the reasons that a number of Labour MPs have left the party. However there is no suggestion that this is the reason that the Tory MPs have left the Conservative Party and so it seems important to avoid treating this as the only issue behind what is clearly a shift in our two major political parties. Given how these two parties have both failed to come up with a credible way forward in terms of Brexit or of finding a different way of responding to the referendum, in one sense it is a surprise that so many of them are still sitting in the same places. By the same token the failure in both parties to deal in a meaningful way with antisemitism and other forms of discrimination is also a huge concern for many of us who have no affiliation with any of the parties.
I have no idea how effective any of the MPs who are now part of the ‘Independent’ group or those who remain outside of it are, or indeed Councillor Meadows is in her ward. When it comes to elections, I now personally vote for people who I have confidence in as my representatives, rather than supporting a party based candidate, just because they wear the right colour rosette, although party membership is a clear indication of some of their views and so does have an impact. This means that party membership or lack of it is much less important to me than competence as a representative. Having stood as an Independent myself and having also voted for Independent Councillors in the past, I would have no problem voting for a credible person who stood as an Independent MP in my constituency if they appeared to be the most competent candidate in the election. In one sense Sarah Wollaston comes close to that position as a result of how she was chosen for the Conservative Party in preparation for the 2010 election. However if an MP or Councillor leaves their party and then claims to be Independent this demands an explanation for their constituents. I would certainly argue that simply falling out with a party does not make someone Independent, as proven by the MPs who have the whip removed and are classified as independent but still vote as they always have done. Another issue is the way in which Councils used to operate several decades ago when Councillors were not party based and so the concept of the person rather than the party is not that out of touch with the past and perhaps may be more in touch with the future!
That said to leave one party that you have been part of for a long time and join another overnight seems to a bit more complex, both for the two parties concerned and for the individual. Coming this close to an election it raises even more issues. If Anne intends to stand as a Conservative Councillor in May, given that some people will support her irrespective of whatever party she is a member of and others who have historically voted Conservative cannot with confidence vote for a person who has been a Labour Councillor for 16 years the results will prove interesting. In addition there may be other people wishing to stand in that ward for the Conservative Party. A final question relates to why the Lewes MP is so much better informed regarding what is happening in the Tory party of Brighton and Hove than she is in the lives of some of her constituents? In many senses that demonstrates the structural failings of party politics across our nation!