British politics is in a state of flux. In the space of less than a year we’ve seen at least two new parties formed – The Brexit Party and the Independent Group for Change (formerly Change UK). We have seen MPs leave parties to join others. Chuka Umunna, for example, left first the Labour Party then Change UK to end up in the Liberal Democrats, while various other MPs are sitting as independents in the House of Commons. And the most recent national election, the European election in May, showed that voters are increasingly willing to forsake the traditional two main parties.
As the number of groupings increases, perhaps parties are losing their hold. So does this open up opportunities for those who want to go it alone?
Former Labour MP Frank Field recently announced that he is to stand as an independent candidate in the next election, after quitting the Labour Party in 2018. The Birkenhead on Merseyside MP had clashed repeatedly with the Labour leadership over its handling of antisemitism in the party before resigning the whip and complained of a “culture of intolerance, nastiness and intimidation” in local parties.
Field, who has represented his constituency since 1979, has applied to register the Birkenhead Social Justice Party with the Electoral Commission to make his bid possible. The party is more of a vehicle for getting noticed on the ballot paper, however, rather than an attempt to start a new movement. To all intents and purposes, Field is striking out alone. Of course he’ll have helpers and supporters, but he is independent of party.
Modern British politics, particularly at Westminster level, is not that kind to independent candidates. The main parties have huge machines and most voters pick the party rather than the person when entering the ballot box. Even when a politician has a personal vote, it’s hard to beat the machine.
There are some examples of independents succeeding, though. One of the best known independent candidates must be the former broadcaster Martin Bell, who triumphed in Tatton in 1997. Bell stood as an anti-corruption candidate against incumbent Conservative Neil Hamilton, who had been part of a “cash for questions” scandal. Bell’s path to victory was smoothed by Liberal Democrat and Labour candidates, who stood down to give him a better chance. Both parties also provided support to Bell. He did. however, pledge to only serve one term, so we’ll never know if he could have won the seat again.
When MPs go independent, it’s generally because they are unhappy with their party. In 2005, Peter Law, a member of the Welsh Assembly, caused quite a shock when he quit the Labour Party to stand as an independent candidate for the Westminster seat of Blaenau Gwent. The seat had become available when the Labour incumbent announced his retirement but the Labour Party angered some local activists when it decided that his replacement would be chosen from an all-woman shortlist. Law was among the dissenters and caused quite a shock when he won the seat – supposedly one of the safest for Labour in Wales.
Another famous case is Labour MP Dick Taverne, who fought a by-election in 1973 as an independent in Lincoln after falling out with his local party over Europe. Taverne defended his seat successfully in the first of the two 1974 elections, but lost in the second.
History tells us that independent candidates find it difficult to win election and even harder to retain a seat. One of the few who has successfully stayed in place is Wyre Forest’s Richard Taylor, a retired doctor who stood on a single-issue campaign to save his local hospital. He won in 2001 and defended in 2005. On each occasion, the Liberal Democrats stood aside. He lost to the Conservatives in 2010.
Lessons for Field
Historically, successful independent campaigns in the UK have all involved a big issue, like the health service or sleaze, and a party row which effectively provides plenty of manpower and motivation or tacit support from potential opponents. They have also included some element of personal vote, although it is important not to overstate this. Bell’s triumph, for example, also included a good dose of anti-politics.
Field does have an issue, but frankly “social justice” is too broad and too open to being claimed by others. He has rowed with the Labour Party over antisemitism and over Europe (he campaigned for Brexit) but, again, these are too broad to make the difference for him as an independent candidate.
Field has certainly had a row with his former party, but will this deliver the person-power needed to mount a campaign? It is hard to see the Liberal Democrats standing down to help Field. The party has councillors on the Wirral and disagrees with Field on lots of issues – particularly Brexit. The Greens have been making progress locally too. Labour has just selected a new candidate and says it will contest the seat vigorously. Labour, after all, has since 2017 had a massive majority there. It is also hard to see the Conservatives walking away from this one – although the Brexit Party might step aside to give Field a better chance.
Field has a personal vote but, based on previous examples of independent campaigns, this is not enough for a victory. But politics is in flux today and maybe that big issue will come along.
As the election gets nearer, it will be intriguing to see if any others decide to strike out on their own. The risks are great, but the current talk about de-selection in both the Labour and Conservative parties may make some think more seriously about it. With most positions in the political marketplace clearly occupied at the moment though, any potential independent will need to keep his or her fingers crossed for that elusive local issue.