The next Parliament looks set to see a large intake of new MPs off the back of the expenses scandal, quite a few of them independents. But chances are you haven't heard of the Independent Network.
It's a voluntary association that provides assistance for candidates that aren't members of political parties or factions by pooling knowledge and campaigning ideas in the spirit of mutual support and cross-publicity.
Unlike Jury Team, the IN doesn't have the backing of a millionaire businessman. Nor does it have a recognisable policy programme, though its members are committed to a set of ethical principles for the conduct of politicians, known as the Bell Principles after their originator Martin Bell.
This week the Independent Network publishes the following letter from former hostage Terry Waite stressing the need for independents to work together for reform of a broken and discredited political system:
I hope you will not think it presumptuous of me to write a New Year message to you. I do so not because I am an individual of any great standing or influence. I am an ordinary voting member of the public and as such am gravely concerned about the political health of our country. It is in this capacity and with these thoughts in mind that I write.
First, you will undoubtedly remember the elation expressed by so many when Labour came to power and Tony Blair assumed office. It seemed as though a breath of fresh air was about to blow through Westminster. The Labour Party seemed to have been given a unique chance by the country to institute sensible reforms and work towards an equitable and fair society for all.
Alas, hopes were dashed. An unprecedented number of people from all walks of life took to the streets in protest against the Iraq war. Intuitively they suspected the motives of those who were leading the country in that direction. Subsequent events have proved them right. What was sad about this unhappy time was that those in leadership positions in our country appeared not to listen to the thousands who were protesting. They were not even prepared to let Hans Blix complete his work. Although a number of MPs expressed their disquiet, when it came to the crunch they had to vote as their parties dictated. Only the minor parties stood against the war.
The decision to go to war shook the confidence of the population in our political system and convinced many that individual MPs were little more than lobby fodder. There was also growing alarm that increasingly the Civil Service was being undermined and that “advisers” were being appointed mainly (or so it seemed) because of their ability to massage the media.
Parliamentary government – of the people by the people – was increasingly a fond illusion. Again, it seemed to many that we were being governed by an elite with a facility for smooth talking and clever manipulation.
To be fair, the Labour Party did institute many constructive changes but many were lost to public view because of the way in which Parliament was conducting its affairs.
The bombshell came when the Daily Telegraph exposed the expenses issue. In speaking about this I want to bend over backwards to be fair and I shall not point my finger at any one individual MP, even though some have crossed all acceptable boundaries. The fault in my opinion lies in the system. Members of Parliament ought to have recognised this years ago and put in place something more transparent.
Working as I do with some of the very poorest in our society, I do not believe that our elected representatives are underpaid. When, as some do, they compare themselves with other so-called “public servants”, their pay may seem to be inadequate. I take the position that thousands of our “servants” are overpaid. MPs receive very adequate allowances and I hold the very old-fashioned position that if one enters public service one does not do so to grow rich.
Without a doubt the expenses issue caused a major slump in public confidence in Parliament and in the party system of government.
Let me now come to the main point of this letter. I firmly believe that reform of Parliament is urgently required. It is not good for the nation to suffer an ailing political system. The country needs a strong and healthy Parliament composed of Members who can and will truly represent their constituents and at the same time have the vision and foresight to lead in constructive ways. At this juncture I have little confidence in the domination of the various parties over Parliament, which leads me to believe that reform is urgently required.
If there can be a new group of candidates who have had experience of the world and have had to make their way in the rough and tumble of everyday life, if such a group of candidates could come together around key issues of parliamentary reform and remain free to vote according to their consciences, then it may be that such a group would be able to speed the reform process so urgently needed. I am not advocating total abolition of the party system. I am urging reform and to this end I would hope that if you are considering standing as an Independent candidate you would take the opportunity to meet with others and hammer out the necessary reforms for which you would be willing to work.
In recent years I have been urged to offer myself as a candidate for Parliament. Each time I have given the suggestion serious consideration and have declined on the grounds that a parliamentary career would mean that I have to cease the work that I already do. However, I will do my best to support you in your candidature. This is a unique point in the history of our country. We face complex and demanding issues which require wise and mature leadership – leadership that is not subservient to party dogma, media approval or desire for status and position.
The call goes out to the country to find such people who are willing to serve for no other reason than that they desire to see the United Kingdom develop a just and fair society where tradition is respected and Parliament is truly a Parliament of the people.
Let us hope that such individuals will come forward in the coming months – and, if you are such, more power to your elbow!
Wishing you a very happy New Year,
Terry Waite, CBE