When Ken Livingstone was first elected as mayor of London he was an independent. George Ferguson became mayor of Bristol in 2012 as an independent. And in the first police and crime commissioner (PCC) elections, also in 2012, more than one quarter of those elected were independent candidates.
These roles lend themselves to strong individuals who can project a personal brand. And because the voting system, the supplementary vote, means that second choices may be needed, too much blind party loyalty is a bad idea.
Yet in the May elections, with contests in PCC areas as well as four mayoral sites, independent candidates did rather badly.
Eight PCC positions which had been filled by an independent are now occupied by party candidates – Conservative, Labour and Plaid Cymru. And the mayor of Bristol is now Labour. These results might not mark the death of the independent candidate but they do suggest that it will become harder to succeed without a party badge.
The rebirth of party politics
Timing is crucial for PCC contests. In 2012 they took place in isolation. This time they shared a date with other elections. Voters will have been influenced by the other noise going on.
In every single PCC contest, turnout was up but that doesn’t mean citizens are suddenly more interested. It is much more likely to be the result of turnout being driven by the other contests.
Some people will have voted in the PCC election with a desire to support the party they had just supported in one of the other elections (be it Welsh Assembly, local councillor or elected mayor). This tendency works against independent candidates as unless he or she can achieve “cut through”, they are unlikely to be noticed.
Political parties also seem to be getting their act together in these contests. There was considerable reluctance in some quarters to campaign in 2012 and this, coupled with the massive areas PCCs cover, makes campaign organisation difficult.
One of the disadvantages of running as an independent is that the word “independent” is all you can put on the ballot paper. The law only permits descriptions of registered political parties or the word independent. This is why we no longer see descriptions such as Independent Labour, which used to be used to signal ideological stances.
If there is more than one independent in the contest, it can be difficult for the candidates to stand out. Some have even registered new political parties specifically to avoid the problem. These are not intended to fulfil a proper political function but to help the candidate stand out on the ballot paper. Bristol mayor George Ferguson, for example, founded the Bristol First party ahead of the city’s mayoral contest as part of his campaign to defend his position. Another was the Zero Tolerance Policing ex Chief party.
In some cases this year, the incumbent chose not to stand again. This does not mean there was no independent candidate, but that the name on the ballot paper was different. In Kent, the PCC elected in 2012 had become somewhat controversial and chose not to defend her record. Independents also chose not to defend their incumbency in Gwent, North Wales, Warwickshire and West Mercia – although in each of these, with the exception of Gwent, at least one other individual contested the seat as an independent.
Of the existing 18 elected mayors, just two of them are independents. These are in Copeland and Mansfield, both non-metropolitan district areas – not big cities, in other words.
Ferguson had been an independent mayor for Bristol but lost this election to Labour challenger Marvin Rees. The same day saw Labour triumph in the local elections in Bristol and it is easy to imagine the strength of the party machine in the city compared to that available to Ferguson.
While clearly independents are motivated by all sorts of factors, and are by definition all sorts of people, we can perhaps also learn from those who have never won. On Merseyside in 2012, an independent came third (in fact challenging for second) in the PCC election. This year there was no independent candidate. In Liverpool in 2012 an independent came second in the mayoral contest. This year the independent (not the same person) came fifth.
So are the independents on the way out? As far as 2016’s evidence goes, it will be much harder for an independent to break through in one of these big roles in future. Perhaps we need to look at those independents who defended well to see what their secret is.