Tuesday, 12 August 2008

If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck...

At the county council elections a few months ago, we expressed a number of concerns about the way in which many so-called 'independent' candidates behaved. The Electoral Commission have produced a report in which they have highlighted some similar concerns.

The problem is not with 'independent' candidates per se; it is knowing which candidates are genuinely independent and which are part of an 'independent group'. In Carmarthenshire (in coalition with Labour) and in Pembrokeshire (as a majority group), the 'independent' groups control the council; and in the case of Pembrokeshire, the group has delegated all appointments to the Leader, who now wields an astonishing amount of power personally, a point highlighted often by Old Grumpy.

The result is that candidates who claim that they are 'independent' are, in fact, beholden to vote as they are told by their leader - which is not quite the impression that they give to voters before the election. There is nothing at all to stop groups of people coming together and registering as a party of course – at least then, the voters would know that they were likely to vote as a group if elected. But political parties are regulated in all sorts of ways that don't apply to 'independent' candidates; and I entirely agree with the Commission's warning that "it is important that independent candidates are not perceived to be standing as a group to campaign in an election, without registering as a political party, in order to avoid the regulatory regime in the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000 that applies to political parties".

We also had in Carmarthenshire the curious incident of a large newspaper advertisement exhorting people to 'Vote Independent'. The advert claimed that it had been 'paid for by independent candidates standing for election in the forthcoming Carmarthenshire County Council ballot on May 1st'. As the Commission states, "This begs the question for voters as to whether the advertisement was placed on behalf of all independent candidates standing for election in the county or a group of them". Quite. There were a number of independent candidates who were not sponsored by and did not support the 'independent' group – how are voters to know the difference?

Interestingly enough, complaints were not expressed by political parties alone - some genuinely independent candidates also expressed concern "that if there is an ‘independent group’ it is very difficult for others to distinguish themselves from that group".

I have no objections at all to the idea of people standing as independent candidates in elections if they wish. There have been some notable independents over the years who have made a real contribution and fought for the communities that they have represented. But it is surely right to call time on the idea that there can be any such thing as an 'independent group' which jointly campaigns to win control of an elected body. These groups are political parties in all but name, and should be obliged to register as such.

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