Nadine Dorries, Esther Rantzen, and how to stop the independent vote from splitting

By Jonathan Bartley
March 18, 2010

The story on the front page of today’s Daily Telegraph, which suggests that Stephen Rhodes, a BBC local radio personality and friend of Tory MP Nadine Dorries, is to stand as an independent in an apparent bid to split Esther Ranzen’s independent vote in Luton South, highlights a perpetual problem for independents everywhere.

At the height of the MP’s expenses scandal, we commissioned some research through ComRes which showed a huge appetite for independent candidates amongst the electorate.

It found:

• 78 per cent believed independents should stand where MPs have behaved ‘unethically’

• 63 per cent believed British democracy would be strengthened if there were more independent MPs

• 53 per cent said they would ‘seriously consider’ voting for an independent candidate at the 2010 general election

The survey made the front page of the Independent newspaper, and we followed it up with a research paper exploring some of the resulting issues.

Around this time the Jury Team also emerged as a network of independent candidates. You can understand why they wanted to launch quickly, and respond to the public discontent. But they made a big political miscalculation in fighting the European Elections as their first big campaign. With its party list system which works against the whole idea of independents, and the issues involved in that kind of election which appeared one stage removed from Westminster, the public appetite just wasn’t there. They have subsequently put a lot of people off too, by appearing now to advocate a manifesto for their candidates.

But where they did get it right was in the fact that they spotted the need for open primaries for independents (although they advocated them by text message, therefore failing to fully capitalise on the potential local interest that it could generate).

Open independent primaries would go some way to addressing the situation that is developing in Luton. Under such a scheme, independents could seek the independent nomination, setting out their ideas, attending hustings, and then allowing local people to choose who they wanted as their independent candidate. It would give them a moral authority, as well as a public profile which would stand them in good stead against the party machines. (NB today's Telegraph points out how Dorries has attacked Rantzen, accusing her of being a self-publicist with a “scant” grasp of political issues). It would make it much harder for another independent rival to emerge at a later stage with a credible challenge. It would also be a helpful way of gathering the necessary support around an independent candidate for the election campaign.

I wrote about this last year suggesting that churches, amongst others, would be ideally placed to help facilitate such primaries, as they do with election hustings during general election campaigns. Many other civil society groups would be well placed to do so too.

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