Tuesday, 9 March 2010

New movement gives Independence real meaning

Nearly twelve years ago, shortly after having been elected to the London Borough of Hounslow for the first time as its first ever independent councillor, I attended a meeting of the Local Government Association Independent Group of councillors at the Connaught Hotel in Bournemouth.

To be truthful the reason for my attendance at the meeting was a combination of natural curiosity with an opportunity to take my family away to the seaside for a couple of days. Bournemouth in my view is one of the better resorts on the South Coast - conspicuously clean, much to do but not too populous as Brighton can be at its worst. We couldn't afford to stay at the Connaught but we found an adequate little guest house a few minutes' walk away and were happy enough with that.

At the meeting were a hundred or so independent councillors from around the country. One thing I noticed straight away was that they were mostly older (at 36 I figured I was probably the youngest person in the room), mostly male and almost exclusively white. As they began to speak I also picked up fairly quickly that a disproportionate number of them were from the West Country or thereabouts, representing farming communities.

They didn't have a great deal in common with me or the ICG, whether politically or socially. The majority, but not all, seemed conspicuously right of centre and probably did not know very much about community life in a place like Isleworth. Nevertheless I found them to be a likable bunch and, well, friendly. Some seemed possessed of a sense of humour which I had found lacking amongst many of my fellow councillors back home. I gave out a few of my LBH "business" cards and resolved to keep in occasional touch with this group, although overall I did not consider they could do a great deal to help shape the development of the ICG.

Fast forward nearly twelve years and we are facing a general election, at which the likelihood is that the era of New Labour will draw to a close and will be replaced either by a Conservative government with a clean majority, or a messy and unclear situation รก la February 1974.

I have long argued, to the obvious disappointment of some of my good friends in the local Conservative Group, that the scenario we have before us is not 1997 in reverse. Then an excited and excitable tide of New Labour fervour overwhelmed with embarrassing ease a Conservative establishment that had long been in decline to the point at which it could no longer do anything at all right. At that election half the parliamentary Conservative Party had been wiped out and a new age was well and truly upon us. Things, we were told, could only get better.

Whether things did in fact get better depends of course upon whom one speaks to. What is not in dispute, other than amongst the most absurdly blinkered few who remain loyal to the class of '97 (and they still appear on local community forums from time to time, emerging in fighting mode out of the blue like Japanese nonagenarians from the jungle thinking the war is still on), is that the New Labour project is in its death throes as we approach May 2010 and, for some, the political equivalent of an appointment with a firing squad.

But the situation is not the same as in 1997 because there is no real sense of excitement about the opposition, at least not anything remotely like on the same scale as had been the case when Blair first assumed power. Public disquiet and disgust over expenses has tainted all the major political parties, and the Conservatives nationally only find themselves ahead by virtue of the fact that Labour are behind them. There is a general disillusionment with party politics which could truly herald a new age in national government, as it has in local government in Hounslow.

A couple of months ago I wrote a light-hearted piece for this blog entitled Rise of the Indies, in which I pointed out how betting giants Ladbrokes were shy of offering too generous odds on some of the more high-profile independent candidates who will be standing at the general election for fear that they may cause an upset. Leading Irish bookie Paddy Power has since taken a similarly cautious approach. Although the concept of the independent MP is still in its infancy and will not be making any major breakthroughs this May, the tide is clearly going out on the old politics and looks poised to wash something new and exciting up on the shore when it eventually returns.

This new force is binding together in the form of an organisation called the Independent Network. Rather than being a political party, the Network offers support to independent parliamentary candidates provided they adhere to a few basic, common-sense principles which unite them all. They are then free to fight their different campaigns, on their different issues, from wherever on the so-called political spectrum they happen to reside.

One of the many independent candidates associated with the Network is Tony Clarke, former Labour MP for Northampton South and now an independent member on Northampton Borough Council. As well as being a truly welcome supporter of this blog (!), Tony is also a full-time Director of Northampton Football Club. He has consistently opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has his own distinct political programme with a distinctly "people first" flavour. He also publishes a superb blog of his own entitled The Northampton Independent, which I highly recommend. At the next general election Tony will be seeking to recapture his old seat, and according to the bookies he is not without a

Like I said I am not anticipating a flood of independent MPs being elected to office in May. But the Independent Network and its quality candidates such as Tony and Khizar Iqbal show us clearly that the writing is on the wall for old-style politics in this country.

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