Public backs independent candidates to challenge failing system

By staff writers
May 23, 2009

A new opinion survey commissioned by the thinktank Ekklesia and conducted by ComRes, suggests that 78 per cent of the public believe that independent candidates should stand for election where MPs have behaved ‘unethically’.

63 per cent of all people also said that they thought democracy would be enriched if more independent MPs were elected to Parliament.

The findings suggest that people can be re-engaged politically by local alternatives to ‘machine politics’, following disillusionment over MPs expenses.

Previously those outside the main party blocs have struggled under the first-past-the-post system, particularly in safe seats, but in Ekklesia's poll, 53 per cent said they would now ‘seriously consider’ voting for an independent candidate. The turnout for all candidates at the last general election was 61 per cent.

The survey indicates that people would support independent candidates standing not just where MPs had been considered to have broken the rules, but where MPs had been judged to have behaved unethically.

Commenting on the results, Jonathan Bartley, co-director of the thinktank Ekklesia, which commissioned the survey said: “There has been a lot of focus on ‘celebrity independents’ which has distracted from a deeper and more important issue typified by the situation in Croydon South.

He continued: “Across the country there are MPs in safe seats who will neither be deselected by their parties, nor face any signficant challenge by candidates from other parties, despite behaviour that their constituents consider unacceptable. But our poll indicates that there is a willingness among voters to meet the ‘South Croydon Question’ head on and back local independent candidates if they come forward from their communities to stand.

Bartley added: “We see the growth in independents as part of a wider process to break open the political system, challenge the monopoly of the big parties, encourage grassroots paraticipation, and move towards PR and other major reforms in the system.”

Three Conservative backbenchers have said they will not contest the next election and several Labour MPs are expected to be barred from standing again. However, dozens of MPs accused of milking the expenses system will face the voters in the election which is likely to take place next spring - says the Independent newspaper, which has splashed on the issue today.

Independents won two of the 646 parliamentary seats at the last election – Richard Taylor in Wyre Forest stood on a ticket defending the health service, and Dai Davies in Blaenau Gwent opposing the Labour machine's attempt to impose an MP who would toe the Blairite line.

Dr Taylor, who has held his Worcestershire constituency since 2001, has said he is delighted at the upsurge of support for independents: "If you can get the right people standing in constituencies with unpopular MPs, you have a good chance of success."

Taylor is preparing an advice booklet for people considering standing for Parliament and said: "We need a government with a small majority. If you had an appreciable number of independents, it would keep ministers on their toes because no one knows which way we are going to vote."

Ekklesia's Simon Barrow added: "Independents are not a sinecure, they are a way of getting people re-engaged with the political process and re-shaping it from the ground up. We also need major reform of the way parliament operates, a new voting system, space for smaller parties, associational politics crossing the main blocs, and a recognition by professional politicians of the vitality of civil society."

Ekklesia says that good, local non-party candidates should not just be about celebrities or the rich cashing in on a political crisis, but people with real qualities and expertise to offer like Dr Taylor.

The think-tank also says that reinvigorating democracy from the grassroots - which involves redistributing power and making corporate interests properly accountable - is vital to combating xenophobia and the growth of racist parties like the BNP whose attempts to use a Christian cloak it has helped to expose.

"We can't go on with 'business as usual' after the expenses furore, or just blame individuals, because 'business as usual' is what has got us into a mess in the first place," added Barrow.

Ekklesia will publish more material on 'transforming politics' next week.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.