1. Cllr Marianne Overton, Chair of the LGA and Hendon Group, welcomed everybody to the Conference. She reminded us that there were over two thousand Independent Councillors in England and Wales, and although this included some UKIP, Green and Plaid Cymru Councillors, 80% were pure Independents. By “Pure Independents” she meant Councillors that do not take a Party Whip. She noted that even the Greens in Brighton operate without a Party Whip, and this ability to operate without a Whip is a defining characteristic of Independents.
2. Those attending were invited to introduce themselves and explain their interest in Independent politics.
3. Cllr Overton then presented an overview of Local Government politics and how Independents fit into the big picture. The LGA, which is funded by the Government, supports approximately 20,000 elected Councillors in England and Wales. Almost all Councils are involved with the LGA. Cllr Overton reminded us that about one third of the House of Lords are Cross Bench Peers who are Independent, and do not take a Whip.
4. There are four groups at the LGA: Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Independents. Cllr Overton chairs the Independent Group, and noted that in recent years there has been an increase in the LGA sending an Independent Councillor to make the case for the LGA to Central Government. Generally Independent Councillors are of a high calibre, they are in touch, they understand the electorate, and they are experienced and articulate.
5. Also in recent years there has been concern among all the Party Groups about the increasing demands and decreasing incomes for Local Councils. There is a need to “re-wire Local Government”, and although Cllr Overton was arguing this case several years ago, there is now agreement among the four Party Groups that local government has to be free of central control. There has to be more “independence” for Local Councillors, which means weakening the links with the National Parties in order to champion the concerns of local people.
6. Cllr Overton noted that in Denmark even the utilities come under the Local Council, and there is now a determination throughout the LGA that the Councillors have to take power and run Local Government in accordance with the desires of the electorate. When campaigning on the doorstep, it is what has been done locally that is what sells the candidate to the voter.
7. It is therefore very important that we raise the profile of Independents. Cllr Overton suggested we need to clarify our identity, and our USP should be “We Just Want To Get The Job Done”. There needs to be increasing engagement: Independents are generally well connected with the community, and they need to continue to work on this. Get involved in U3A, Mother and Toddler Groups, local businesses, but what the voter wants to know is what you have done for me?
8. The LGA has produced a booklet about “Talent Spotting”. If we are looking for potential Independent candidates, where do we start? Cllr Overton suggested we look in the village newsletters or parish magazines and see who is mentioned? We need then to find these people and talk to them about the possibility of them standing as Independents.
9. Cllr Overton believes that if we are skilled and well informed, and we have a clear strategy, then we will achieve electoral success. However, Independent candidates need a network of support. Once elected, the LGA Independent Group provides a range of support and services to Independent Councillors.
10. Cllr Overton identified a number of issues where Independents need to speak out, and indeed are able to speak out because they do not have a Whip. She highlighted in particular the huge growth in housing that is planned, but this is being planned without thought for infra-structure. Roads, health, education - there is no Central Government money to come with the proposed growth in housing development.
11. Although there have been high profile Independents like Siobhan Benita who was a respected Independent Candidate in the London Mayor election, and the hugely successful Police Commissioner’s elections where 53% voted for Independents, which was more than any other Party, yet the BBC still has not grasped the significance of Independents. At recent discussions between the BBC and the LGA the BBC had no idea that seven or eight Councils are actually run by Independents. In 2013 elections, there are now 13 Councils in no overall control which is up by a third. So there is plenty for Independents to shout about in the media.
12. What are the characteristics of an Independent Councillor? As she surveys the Independents that have been elected, Cllr Overton sees a very diverse group. She finds they are in touch with the voters, they listen, and they are responsive.
13. How should Independents want to be seen? Cllr Overton thought they should be well researched, thoughtful, have a good common sense approach with good ideas, in touch with local people, and effective in areas where their help is requested.
14. However, Independents are very often flying alone. Would we all not be much more effective if we were able to work together as a team?
15. Professor Colin Copus then made a presentation about the current state of local politics. He asked the question: Do we need to have a registered political party for Independents? Who do the media go to if they want to find out about Independents? Who would they ask? Would this be Cllr Overton at the LGA? Would it be Dr Richard Taylor? This is an issue that we have to try and address today.
16. It is in Local Government that Independents have had their greatest success. Professor Copus invited everybody to use Twitter as a means of keeping in touch with what is going on. Even though he himself found this slightly challenging, he did recognise the power of the medium.
17. Professor Copus outlined the structure in Local Government and reminded us that there are 9,000 Parish Councils as well as the County, Unitary, Metropolitan Boroughs and District Councils. It is estimated that there are 90,000 Town and Parish Councillors.
18. One thing Professor Copus said we could predict is that at the next Local Government election there will be Conservative losses. Irrespective of how good a Local Councillor might be, many people still vote locally on national issues and perceptions. After the 2013 elections there were 8,561 Conservative Councillors, 6033 Labour, 2516 Lib Dem, 175 UKIP, 143 Green and 1067 Pure Independents. In other words, out of 17,110 Councillors 92% come from one of the three major Parties.
19. Professor Copus said this is unlikely to change very much. In Norway the major Parties take 96% of the vote, but there are six of them instead of three as in the UK. The 8% (1510 Councillors) who are not in one of three major Parties or the Minor Parties comprise 1067 Independents, 32 from six small Parties (excluding Greens, Plaid Cymru, SNP and UKIP) and 93 residents association and local Parties.
20. Professor Copus noted that looking at the mayoral and PCC elections, there does seem to be some connection between a direct election and Independent success. However this needs further research. He noted that of the PCCs elected, a quarter are Independents.
21. There are 334 registered parties and political associations. It is often pointed out that it is difficult to know where an Independent stands in terms of right or left, but Professor Copus pointed out that the same applies to Labour and Conservative: you can have a right wing Labour candidate and a left wing Conservative candidate.
22. Getting elected is hard graft, and you have to use your networks. Party labels make the Party and the voters lazy. Professor Copus warned that you know that the Parties will come to get to you if you are standing as an Independent, and you should not be surprised by this and you should expect it.
23. There was a question about UKIP, and whether they could be considered to be a threat, and what could be done? Cllr Overton said that there is no one rule that will work everywhere. In Lincolnshire they had had experience of the changing dynamics brought about by UKIP, and through her work at the LGA Cllr Overton knows that UKIP are making policies for Local Government, and in spite of what it says on their website, they are increasingly less likely to be Independents in practice.
24. Professor Copus was asked what we do about coalitions? He pointed out that UKIP had done the very inconvenient thing by winning, but he felt that this should be treated by all Councillors as a potential opportunity. Some questions from the floor expressed concern about the LGA being associated with UKIP, but there are only four possible options for a Councillor to join an LGA Group.
25. Professor Copus pointed out the situation in Bristol where the elected Mayor decided to put together a cabinet of all the talents. Although initially Labour did not take up the three seats they were offered, they subsequently did this and this is an interesting experiment.
26. Professor Copus noted that across Europe we have the largest units of Government. He also noted that Independents do far better across Europe, perhaps because of this. He felt that there had been some bad decisions in the past where we had deleted locality from Local Government. There had been amalgamations and re-naming which instead of building community had had the effect of weakening community.
27. Therefore Professor Copus felt that those in Local Government should be arguing the case for strong links with the community, where localism means local decision making which reflects the wishes of the community. There may well be single issues or important local issues and therefore the governing capacity of the Council is important and must be able relate to real and identifiable communities.
28. Professor Copus also noted that we have a highly centralised system, and we need to break the link with the centre in order to re-invigorate local politics.
29. Professor Copus argued that the electorate want to see a principled approach to politics. The freedom that is enjoyed by Independents does lead to more open public deliberation of issues. Party political groups that appear united have a better chance of winning a particular decision, but this is not something that appeals to Independents. Independents prefer that there are no preconceived ideas or decisions, and that there should be an open and transparent debate. However this does not mean that a little bit of coherence between Independents will not help the common good, and careful tactics and focus to work together can be an advantage in achieving the aspirations of the electorate.
30. There is a difficult question when more than one Independent stands in an election for a particular ward, division or constituency. There was no consensus on what we do in such a case, or indeed if anything should be done.
31. Cllr Darren Hayday introduced himself and his background. He is a marketing professional, and has specialised in tele-marketing. In the election in the summer he believed he was the only candidate who did actively use tele-campaigning.
32. As Mayor of High Wycombe it was his privilege to get weighed every year, and in the year he was Mayor he lost 2 stone. However he had become tired of Party politics.
33. He noted that in his experience UKIP are now being whipped, and therefore it is not right to consider them as Independents in any way.
34. Cllr Hayday ran through various options such as Facebook and Twitter, e-mail login and digital PR. He had bought an e-mail list of affluent people of a certain age in his ward and had found this was a useful tool. In his view there is no one method that is more effective than any others, but a successful campaign has to be a hybrid of a whole variety of options.
35. Cllr Hayday would like to see the Independent Network experimenting with crowd funding. Campaigns cost money, as does an infra-structure for a support office such as the Independent Network would like to set up.
36. It is imperative that you have a website in your name so that when people do a search for you they can quickly find you. Login has to be meaningful: people have to read it, and it has to be a two-way conversation.
37. Cllr Hayday is convinced that there is no alternative to knocking doors, getting to know people, and getting them to know you.
38. The importance of getting hold of marked registers was noted. This will enable you to set up a database of people within your ward so that you can see who votes and who does not, and you can focus your efforts accordingly.
39. Dr Richard Taylor suggested that knocking on doors was not the only way of getting known: outside school gates, a town centre market, and other places where people congregate are also very suitable. He had experimented with a “money for nothing” scheme where essentially people paid £5 a month and there is a draw each month for a cash prize. This raises a considerable amount for the Local Party.
40. There was considerable discussion about branding, about the use of digital marketing, social media and LinkedIn.
41. After lunch the Conference turned to the practical issues of how we move forward. The session started with Dr Richard Taylor arguing that IN should register as a Political Party. His experience was that this was the only way to raise awareness, and he himself had set up two Parties. The Independent Network would have the acronym TIN, and candidates can say that you get exactly what it says on the TIN.
42. Dr Taylor commended Paul Flynn’s Ten Commandments. (These are as follows:
a) Value the role of backbencher as a high calling
b) Serve constituents, the weak and the neglected
c) Seek novel remedies and challenge accepted wisdom
d) Attach opponents only when they are wrong
e) Never covet a second income, honours or retirement job
f) Value courage and innovation above popularity
g) Honour your party and extend its horizons
h) Use humour and colour to convey serious ideas
i) Fortify the independence of backbenchers against the executive
j) Neglect the rich, the obsessed, the tabloids and seek out the silent voices.
Obviously the one about honouring your Party is difficult for Independents, but Paul Flynn goes on to suggest some additional Commandments or recommendations in order to restore trust:
a) Understate promises and never exaggerate successes
b) Reply within 24 hours to all messages
c) Be transparent and puritanical with allowances and expenses
d) Avoid serving commercial or partial interest
e) Generously give time and enthusiasm to local causes
f) Never accept personal favours or advantages
g) Always pay for meals or souvenir gifts
h) Put all excess income above salary in a charity trust fund
i) Never lie, tell half-truths or mis-lead
j) Keep constituents informed on key issues
k) Deflect criticism with truth and honour
l) Admit failures
m) Decline complaints that are beyond responsibility or competence
n) Match behaviour to idealised self-image
o) Resist immediate gratification, seek permanent reforms
p) Strive to give unambiguous answers to questions
q) Choose simplicity and utility over luxury and extravagance.
43. Brian Ahearn gave a history of the Independent Network from prior to the 2005 General Election. He explained the endorsement process that had been followed in order to try and give a higher profile to good Independents by presenting a group to the media. There was discussion about the Bell Principles, and what it means to be a registered third party with the Electoral Commission. Brian agreed that the endorsement process had been flawed, and there is a constant wariness about extremists at either end of the political spectrum. However much had been learnt from the process at the last General Election. Each person wanting endorsement had been asked to produce a campaign plan and two references. However it was the Executive who made the final decision and it had been quite a time consuming process.
44. There is a question as to who talks on behalf of IN? There is a great danger that somebody by a slip of the tongue may imply a policy position, which of course is an impossibility for IN. Dr Taylor noted that unless there was a change in the law it would be impossible for IN to make a Party Political Broadcast. It was also noted that there is a wide variety of Local Independent Parties.
45. There was a discussion about what people expected of IN. Ideas suggested were that it should be a professional body or a trade union, a resource centre for Local Independent Parties, we are a “Party” of principles not policies, there should be maximum flexibility, there should be penalties for misbehaviour, and IN should be an umbrella organisation which pulls together a diverse range of Independents who do not take a Whip, but who need a national voice.
46.Professor Copus said that the discussion he was listening to was probably very similar to the discussion that took place at the meeting that set in train the formation of the Labour Party. It was the principles that held it all together then, and the same should be true for IN.
47. Professor Copus also pointed out that 1% of the population are members of political Parties, and 92% vote in elections for Parties. There is such a mis-match here that something has to change.
48. It was agreed that Cllr Thornton would draft an action paper and circulate it. People asked for e-mail addresses to be circulated. The paper would essentially set out that for the present we would use the resources of the Hertford office, we would set up regional contacts, a steering group, we would look for an event in February to support candidates in the London borough elections, and we would aim for an autumn Party Conference.
49. The Conference concluded at 3pm, and Cllr Thornton thanked everybody for making time to attend. There was a collection for expenses which yielded £95 towards the cost of the Conference.
Cllr JD Thornton
Revised 6 December 2013
Final Draft 1 January 2014