Robert Spain reviews Richard Berry, Independent: The Rise of the Non Aligned Politician, (Societas, 2008, 154pp).
"Why don't they get people who people is heard of. Why don't they get, like, Frank Bruno standing... the good thing about celebrities is you know what they is like. Otherwise you get an MP and then you find out after a year that they is, like, you know, sleeping with horses." Ali G interviewing Tony Benn.
In a case of life imitating art, one of the corollaries of the recent MPs' expenses scandals is the possibility that Esther Rantzen might become my local MP. I am not sure that I know what she stands for nor am I convinced that an election campaign based around the need to combat sleaze would necessarily enlighten me. Yet in constituencies across the country something similar is a possibility. David Cameron attempted to harness this feeling and limit the threat it poses to the Tories, when he promised to "refresh" his party by allowing independents with no Tory experience to stand for selection as MPs.
Richard Berry's somewhat presciently timed book examines the phenomenon of independents, focusing upon successful independent candidates, at both national and local elections. The cases covered are all from during Tony Blair's premiership, a commonality not properly explored in the book: although Berry makes the point that independent candidates have been gaining support since 1997, he also notes in passing that some will claim that "this is a rather routine phenomenon for British politics". The sparse use Berry makes of statistics means that he does not conclusively prove his case but he does open up some interesting questions, showing that from 1997 to 2005 independent candidates received a rising percentage of votes in general elections and reminding us that almost 50% of mayoral elections have been won by an independent.
The book takes on the tone and structure of a travelogue rather than a study, moving from constituency to constituency and trend to trend. Looking at local and national elections, Berry divides the cases a number of ways, but particularly looks at those where independent candidates had defected from the Labour party (eg Dai Davies), campaigners (eg Richard Taylor, Martin Bell), those focused on their local communities (eg Stuart Drummond) and those where independence appears to have become established in local elections. This latter section is less convincing than the others, given that it includes not only independent councillors on the Isle of Portland but also the One London party in the London Assembly which was formed through a split in UKIP and the dissolution of Veritas. The party disappeared after running on a platform of representing London's interests against the established national parties.
One of the most intriguing threads throughout the book is the discussion of where independent candidates have set up political parties and how this fits in with "independence". It emerges that some are groupings set up to achieve representation on council committees (allocated according to the size of factions) and although this leads into recommendations for change, it is a much leaner section than it might have been. It is also interesting to discover which "independents" would impose a whip on their colleagues, something that does not seem to fit well with their purported independence. The two Assembly Members for One London, for example, have opposing views on this matter.
While interesting and well researched, the book suffers from its terrible editing: there are many errors that seem to have escaped the proof reading process. Examples of extra or missing words abound. On at least one case the meaning of the sentence seems to be changed, saying that Martin Bell believes the current system of elections to the European Parliament "disenfranchises... anyone not wanting to vote for a candidate from outside the national parties". And before anyone discovers errors I have inadvertently made, I would remind you that no one is being charged £9 for the privilege of reading this, and it has not been through a full publishing house process.
Nevertheless, the book is informative, thought provoking and of use to anyone with a keen interest in politics. That it contains more narrative than deep analysis means it is likely to be of less utility to academics and specialists.