Monday, 30 November 2009

Guest Blog by Guy Aitchison of Power 2010

Perhaps the most striking features of politics today, is the gaping chasm that exists between the loyalties, hopes and fears of the public on the one side and what our sclerotic political system permits on the other.

For a long time, people in the UK have been switching off from formal politics. Voter turnout at the last two general elections in 2001 and 2005 was at a historic low of around 60%. One of the self-serving myths of the political class is that this disengagement stems from apathy or satisfaction with the status quo. This couldn't be further from the truth. Take any issue of concern – climate change, war and peace, poverty, civil liberties - and you'll find lots of fired up people out there. But their anger and compassion leads them to support campaigning charities and NGOs rather than get involved in party politics.

This is equally true of the local level - people care deeply that their local hospital is closing or that there's no jobs in their area, but they don't feel confident that the systems in place will be responsive to their concerns.

At the Power Inquiry, the largest ever investigation into people’s attitudes to British democracy concluded, people are withdrawing from formal politics out of a sense of powerlessness and a feeling that parties and politicians are all the same. That's why public outrage over expenses was always about more than simply duck houses, moats, dry rot, and other abuses, however petty or extravagant; it was symptomatic of a much deeper disconnect between the public and politicians that has been building for years.

If there's to be any hope of breaking through this morass it'll take citizens organising outside the formal structures of political power and calling for reforms that will open up our democracy to new voices and new ways of thinking.

POWER2010 the spiritual successor to the Power Inquiry, is one such initiative. The Independent Network is another. Both aim to challenge an insular and semi-corrupt political class that has grown arrogant and complacent after years of power and the privileges that come with it. POWER2010 is a grassroots campaign to renew and strengthen UK democracy from the bottom up. The campaign is unique in giving everyone the chance to have a say in how our democracy works for us.

The public is being asked to send in ideas for how to change politics before Tuesday November 30th. Is it open primaries? Fairer voting? A cleaner system of funding politics? More power to local communities? You decide:

The ideas with most support will become the POWER2010 Pledge and the focus for a national campaign at the next general election. Over 3,000 reforms have been submitted so far and it won't surprise you to learn that a lot of them are aimed at trying to get smaller parties and independents into Parliament. As Jim Thornton, Exec member of the Independent Network, wrote on the POWER2010 blog it's remarkable that while 98.5% of the British population refuse to belong to a political party, there are only seven Independent MPs.

The next election provides an opportunity for those who want a new politics to work together to break open the system and reverse the stranglehold the two big parties have over our democracy.

Find out more about Power 2010 by checking out their website and Facebook and Twitter page.

Monday, 16 November 2009

The Bell Principles

The Bell Principles, new guidelines for candidates and elected representatives, have been adopted by the Independent Network (IN). All candidates endorsed and supported by the Independent Network – whether for parliamentary, council or union elections – will be required to abide by the Principles.

Martin Bell, the former Independent MP and supporter of the Independent Network tabled an initial draft of his principles as guidelines for Independent candidates at the IN’s strategy meeting on 25th September 2009. Supporters were so impressed by the guidelines they unanimously agreed to adopt his principles with the understanding that they would be edited into a subsequent draft, approved by the IN’s executive committee, and would be a ‘living document’ thus under continuous review to offer the best possible guidance to political candidates and representatives.

The Executive met in October and adjusted and finalised The Principles. They are thought to be the first set of conduct guidelines published by a political organisation for its affiliated candidates and representatives. An important character of The Principles is that they are not a set of rules about what representatives should not do, but urge positive action to improve and promote democracy and service to their community.

MPs are currently obliged to follow the Seven Principles of Public Life produced by Lord Nolan in 1995, which include ‘openness’ and ‘honesty’. The Bell Principles go beyond Nolan’s principles and set the standard for today’s elected representatives. The influence of Sir Christopher Kelly's reform recommendations on The Principles is yet to be seen, but undoubtedly will inform subsequent drafts.

Naturally one of the most fundamental points of The Bell Principles is point 3, “Be free from the control of any political party, pressure group or whip”. A politician’s role is to represent their constituents and not to be a party puppet or faction fop. Independent candidates enrich the democratic system and are needed to erode the undue influence of political parties.

The Independent Network welcomes all comments and suggestions on the first published iteration of The Bell Principles published below.


We will

• abide wholeheartedly by the spirit and letter of the Seven Principles of Public Life set out by Lord Nolan in 1995: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership

• be guided by considered evidence, our real world experience and expertise, our constituencies and our consciences

• be free from the control of any political party, pressure group or whip

• be non-discriminatory, ethical and committed to pluralism.

• make decisions transparently and openly at every stage and level of the political process, enabling people to see how decisions are made and the evidence on which they are based

• listen, consulting our communities constantly and innovatively

• treat political opponents with courtesy and respect, challenging them when we believe they are wrong, and agreeing with them when we believe they are right

• resist abuses of power and patronage and promote democracy at every level

• work with other elected independents as a Group with a chosen spokesperson

• claim expenses, salaries and compensation openly so the public can judge the value for money of our activities.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Bottom of the ballot

The UK’s electoral system is not kind to independent candidates. Electoral Commission rules state that only registered political parties are allowed to use logos on the ballot paper. Since visual cues and representations are a key element in establishing a successful brand, this poses a problem to independent candidates.

What’s more, while candidates are listed in alphabetical order on the ballot – regardless of which party they’re from – independents are always listed at the very bottom.

This matters. Independents must – and do – work enormously hard to build their profile in their community, devoting significant amounts of their time and money along the way. They often do this entirely alone, or with the smallest of staffs and budgets. Compare this with the other candidates who can draw upon the bottomless pockets and numberless agitators and volunteers of the established parties.

Why then, having worked so hard, should independents be hamstrung at the polling station by being hidden away at the bottom of the ballot?

What independents must do to counter this double disability, is work together to forge a common identity for independent candidates. This common identity is not based around a party, or common policies – it is about showing a commitment to public service, probity and rigorous principles. It’s also about showing that independents, rather than careerist party politicians, can best represent and – crucially – listen to their constituents.

That’s where the Independent Network (IN) can help. By affiliating themselves to the Independent Network and signing up to the Bell Principles, candidates benefit from the shared expertise and experience of others; they can also use the Independent Network brand on their website and campaign materials. This will help individual candidates, as it shows they’ve signed up to the most rigorous code of conduct in British politics. It will also help independents across the country by forming a common identity for non-aligned candidates and politicians, and help promote the credibility of independents as a realistic alternative to traditional party politics.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Freedom to listen

One thing that sets independent candidates apart from other politicians is their ability to listen. Independents are free to take their own lead and listen objectively to debate without the pressure of party whips. But not all groups without a whip system can be said to be independent. Groups of politicians campaigning on a unified issue could be influenced by the ideology of the group, raising concerns over the individual candidate’s ability to represent the views and concerns of their constituents. Members could easily succumb to pressure from their peers within the group- even without a whip system in place there could be an implied whip, making the group’s ideology a priority.

That does not mean groups of independents are unable to come together and agree on issues. Equally independents should be free to have their own opinions and ideas while finding a common ground with others. But they should be careful not to blindly follow the ideas of any group without considering their conscience and the relevance to the people they represent.

The Independent Network is a loose association which is not only against the whip system but sees flaws in the whole party political system and its abuse as a route to power. It wants Parliament to return to a place of constructive debate, rather than continuing as a stage for politicians to act out a party political drama.

Statistics show the public is hungry for an alternative to the three established parties, but creating more organisations whose members must also conform to a fixed policy is not the answer. The Independent Network aims to promote independent candidates as a credible alternative to voters, free from the ideals of a group and unique in their ability to listen to the needs of their constituents. This will in turn allow the public to vote for individuals and the policies they individually believe in, rather than what a leader or faction imposes.

The Independent Network is holding a meeting on September 25th to discuss how to support candidates in the upcoming general election. To find out more click here.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

A bigger chance for independents

The Guardian’s most recent ICM poll showed just 85% of votes cast at the end of last month were for the three main political parties. According to the newspaper, that figure has dropped considerably since 1996 when Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats accounted for 97% of votes. Even five years ago - it said - the three parties still gathered 91%.

So what’s happened? The drop could be explained by the growth in votes for marginal political parties but it is questionable whether voters are choosing them because they agree with their policies. Instead it is likely they are just looking for an alternative to the three main established parties. In the last 20 years party membership has fallen by 50% while a record number of votes were cast for independent candidates in the 2005 general election.

Independent political candidates represent an alternative to party politics, offering the public the chance to use their vote positively. With high profile names such as Terry Waite and Esther Rantzen announcing their plans to stand as independents, people now have the opportunity to vote for people they believe in rather than compromising their politics. They can choose an individual instead of a party. Unlike party politicians independents are in the unique position to be able to listen to debate and make an informed decision based on the feelings of their constituents and without the pressure of a party whip.

The Independent Network (IN) is a not-for-profit association which aims to support independent political candidates free from toeing the party line. It wants to give a collective voice to independent candidates, although it does not impose any political views on its members. It is hoped the public will then become more aware of the choices available to them, so they know they have more than three options when they come to vote at the next general election.

All independent candidates are invited to a strategy meeting later this month to discuss the ways Independent Network can support them. For more information go to

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Independent but still open to scrutiny

According to Conservative website Centre Right “Independents should be scrutinised like anyone else”. This statement followed independent MP Martin Bell’s announcement on Monday, of his plans to target discredited MPs.

But the idea of holding independent candidates to account has never been under question. In fact the Independent Network (IN) would encourage it, with all its members subject to the Nolan Committee’s standards in public life. True - IN does not impose any political views on its affiliates, but they must be non-discriminatory and act according to the principles and values the public expect.

Just because a candidate is independent does not mean they are not open to scrutiny. They are however free to represent their constituents without towing a party line. And it is the Independent Network’s aim to promote them as an alternative to the established parties.

But the Guardian’s Michael White said he believes “major parties remain the key”. In his opinion they attract good candidates with the experience to do the job. But many of these candidates are attracted to these political parties because they provide an easier route to power. If independent candidates were offered the same level of support, there is no reason why they could not gain the same level of experience.

It is also true to say, very few people can honestly agree with every policy of a political party. This means they could be forced to compromise some of their views to avoid rocking the boat, while independent candidates can express their ideas free from party whips.

They may not have the experience when they first launch their campaign but that is where IN comes in. It is hoped that by creating a national identity for independents, encouraging the electorate to identify themselves as independent and by raising their profile, they will attract funding, which can in turn be used to support candidates.

Prospective Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs have a well established support network and it is this inequality faced by independent candidates which IN seeks to address.

For information on a meeting being held for independent candidates go to

Monday, 17 August 2009

Independents need teamwork

This week independent MP Martin Bell and former Beirut hostage Terry Waite began a campaign to organise a network of “anti-sleaze” independent candidates to target discredited MPs.

But they are not alone. The Independent Network (IN) is a not-for-profit association aiming to offer support and advice to those independent candidates previously left out in the cold. It aims to promote independents as a credible alternative to established political parties and to raise funds to achieve this. Jury Team is another coalition which sees independents as a way of reviving the public’s faith in politics.

But one of the biggest problems facing independents today is the lack of a single identity, familiar to the big three parties. The Independent Network is unique in its aim to create a national identity for independents standing for election. It wants floating voters with either similar or conflicting views to see themselves as independents, giving them a sense of cohesion.
But they are more likely to gain a strong identity and the recognition they deserve if these groups worked together to support and promote independent candidates. If they combined their efforts their message has a bigger chance to stand out and be heard by the growing number of voters disenfranchised with party politics.

The Independent Network is holding a meeting for all independent candidates on Friday September 25, to create a forum to exchange advice and resources. At the meeting a new executive committee will be formed and members will also discuss how candidates can access and share resources to aid their campaign. For more information go to