Do we need independent candidates?

Do we need to re-examine what we mean by “independent”?

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Voting for Police Commissioners opens on Thursday
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Sir John Redwood MP
On 13 November 2012 10:34

Some claim that we need more independent candidates in elections, especially for Police Commissioners. Those who are disillusioned with party politics think that we could find judicious, wise independents who could do the job just as we want.

As a democrat I have no problem with “independent” people offering their services to the electors. Freedom to stand and to put a different point of view across is vital to life in a democracy. So is choice between serious candidates who can win.

There is nothing stopping an independent candidate becoming a serious rival for power, if their message is popular and the other competing parties are unimpressive. Occasionally this happens.  Often in Council or General elections people want to choose between the major parties, because they want to influence which party will end up running the body concerned.

However, I do think we need to examine what we mean by “independent”.  An independent can be genuinely independent of all political parties. That means that they will not take a party whip once elected to a given body. They can make up their own minds, unguided by colleagues in the same party.

Some will think this an advantage. However, on a Council or in a Parliament it also has some disadvantages. It means the independent cannot form a government or a majority group to run the Council. The independent cannot guarantee to introduce anything they offered in their manifesto, as they may not even have a seconder for their proposals, let alone a majority. They may become inadvertent or unintentional liars or promise breakers. In office they discover they have to change their minds or broker deals with others to try to get anything done.

Police Commissioners are different. They are single people who can build their own little office and run the job as they see fit. The Labour and Conservative Police Commissioners likely to be elected will be pretty independent themselves. There will be no whip to suggest what they should say and do.

They can make their own agendas. If they became persistently hostile to their own party in Parliament and went out of their way to disagree with its fundamental beliefs, then they could lose the right to fight again to retain their job as a member of their stated party. If they fail to live up to reasonable standards of conduct they could be thrown out of their party in a public gesture of annoyance by the party leadership.

There is no similar hygiene mechanism for an independent. If they misbehave no-one will take their party membership away. It is only if their misbehaviour becomes gross that the police and courts become involved. They too, of course, would need to curb bad habits if they want to be re-elected.

The question of independence from a party should not be confused with true independence of thought. An independent might be more ideological than a party candidate. They might have clear and strong prejudices, but not declare them before the election. You do not know how an independent will decide matters or what is likely to be their view of a common problem, unless they tell you in their manifesto. Often their manifesto is very thin on detail.  With a Labour or Conservative candidate you have more idea of what you are likely to get.

Nor should the idea of independence be confused with the important issue of the independence of the police. All serious candidates for Police Commissioner and all main party candidates agree that they will not try to mess with the independent right of the police to investigate and to charge people for offences without fear or favour and without political interference. The law establishing Police Commissioners was also very clear on this important matter.

Do we need independent candidates?

John Redwood is the Member of Parliament for Wokingham and Chairman of the Conservative Economic Affairs Committee. This post originally appeared on Johnredwoodsdiary.com and is used here with permission

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