Residents and independents struggle to make their mark

VOTE 2014 logoIn Thursday’s local elections, there will be five candidates around the borough who are standing as “independents”, including the NF candidate who can’t say he’s an NF candidate. Up against the “party machines”, none of them have even the slightest chance of being elected. So why do they bother? WALTER CRONXITE flicks through his Bluffers’ Guide To Psephology

Many voters aspire, rather wistfully, for a Croydon Council run on an entirely non-partisan non-party basis, for councillors who represent their residents, rather than their political parties. This is not surprising when you bear in mind how brutishly ugly council meetings in the Town Hall chamber can be these days. The uncouth behaviour is even meted out to members of the public who dare to ask questions at the meetings.

Aspirations for non-partisanship in municipal elections date back a long way. They existed when the old London County Council was set up. Although outright party political nomenclature was avoided, the reality was that on the LCC at County Hall the “Progressives” were close to the Liberals and the “Municipal Reform Party” was allied to the Conservatives.

Until 1986, Croydon appeared to have some influential independents with seats at the Town Hall, in the form of the Ratepayer Residents Association councillors. The “Association”, as they were known, dominated inter-war Croydon politics as a bourgeois party, when there were no formal Conservative councillors.

The first London Borough of Croydon election in 1964 saw 18 ratepayers and 21 Conservative councillors on the council but by now the fiction of the Ratepayers’ independence was apparent. The Ratepayers, down to three councillors from 1971 onwards, were unopposed by the Conservatives where they ran in Croydon council elections and they sat and voted with the Conservative group.

Ken Livingstone: a rare success as an independent candidate

Ken Livingstone: a rare success as an independent candidate

Of course an exception to the rule of independent failure in municipal elections was Ken Livingstone, elected as an independent London Mayor in a high-profile election where the candidate’s personality and the crass ineptitude of the Bliarite Labour party delivered an independent victory.

There are independent successes elsewhere in London borough elections. The three Merton Park independents hold the balance of power on Merton council. Havering Residents hold 16 seats on that council. But going into this Thursday’s London-wide borough elections, that only makes for just 19 of the 1,861 seats being in independent hands.

Of the independents standing in wards across Croydon this week, a couple are less “independent” than they might appear. The National Front candidate in Croham ward is listed as an independent because he says he is not allowed to call himself a NF candidate. In Norbury, Winston Kennedy – possibly the most perfect combination of forename and surname for a politician? – is not even listed as an independent, largely because UKIP was unable to process his party membership in time.

The others, though, are pretty much “lone wolves”, truly independent with strong convictions about “representing” their communities. These are people like Dwain Coward, standing in Thornton Heath, who says he is disillusioned with the politics of the major parties, or Mark Samuel, in Croham, standing under the “Putting Croydon First!” banner, and with a proud record of attending more council meetings than some elected councillors.

It is the distrust of political parties, even the anti-Establishment UKIP or the eco-warriors of the Greens, that has persuaded these individuals to go their own way. But the odds are stacked against them.

Without the organisation and manpower to deliver thousands of leaflets, and to pay for those leaflets to be printed, none of the independents seem to have much of a chance of garnering more than a few hundred votes. Samuel has stood at every council election since 1990, so he really ought to know better. But then again, his election record over the past quarter century is barely any worse than the LibDems in Croydon.

Four years ago, Andrew Pelling stood in the concurrent parliamentary election in Croydon Central as an independent after falling out with the Conservative Party, for whom he had been an MP, London Assembly Member and Croydon councillor. After publicly announcing an intention to run in parallel with 45 independent local council candidates, Pelling eventually thought better of it, to keep other former Conservatives onside in a general election campaign where he secured 6.5 per cent of the vote.”

That said, one of Pelling’s allies, Marzia Nicodemi, stood as an independent in Shirley and won more than 800 votes – or a quarter of what the incumbent Tories in a strongly Conservative ward attracted. Both Pelling and Nicodemi are standing for the council in 2014, in Waddon and again in Shirley, though this time with the support of the Labour “party machine” (a term used ironically by those “in the know”).

Martin Bell: such was the Tatton electorate's disgust with Tory Neil Hamilton, they elected the former BBC journalists after a 27-day campaign in 1997

Martin Bell: such was the Tatton electorate’s disgust with Tory Neil Hamilton, they elected the former BBC journalist after just a 27-day campaign in 1997

The attraction of a grassroots movement, often standing on a single issue, can still sometimes deliver an election success for an independent. Remember “the man in the white suit”, Martin Bell, the former BBC television foreign correspondent, standing on principle against Neil Hamilton in Tatton in 1997? Or Dr Richard Taylor, who stood and won in Kidderminster in 2001 as the “Independent Kidderminster Hospital and Health Concern” candidate, was elected and re-elected and managed to deliver on his goal of saving the local A&E department?

But independents have had no real success in 50 years of Croydon Council, and there are a number of reasons for this failure.

Although Croydon has the highest number of councillors in London – too high a number, 70 in all – the seats are very large with some having more than 12,000 electors.

Independents tend to find it easier to make an impact in smaller wards in district or parish councils, where direct personal contact is possible.

In the duopoly that is Croydon Conservatives versus Labour, the large wards are hard for independents to tackle. That many electors require at least 12 months of campaigning with the financing to match that length of campaign, while both Labour and the Tories have full-time, funded political agents co-ordinating much of the work.

Croydon’s large wards also can offer up separate, different communities with differing identities that rob local independent candidates of the chance to campaign on a single issue. For example, what importance does the controversy over the lack of a second exit from the proposed Cane Hill housing development have to a resident living opposite Tesco’s in Purley who rarely travels south but instead commutes by train to London? Yet both places are in the same extended electoral ward that runs all the way from the border with Hooley to the very centre of Purley.

Coulsdon West ward runs all the way from the county boundary to the centre of Purley

Coulsdon West ward runs all the way from the county boundary to the centre of Purley

Independents are by definition independently minded and so struggle to co-ordinate in one group – Coward has probably never met Samuel, never mind had a discussion over their relative policies. So they have little chance to create a single manifesto to offer to the electorate, or benefit from the economies of running off leaflets or mailshots.

And many voters in urban Greater London do not have the time in busy lives to be tuned into local issues that might garner support for independents. So instead they might tend to vote on a judgement of the political parties’ national performance, based on what they’ve seen on television over the previous week or so. This is an enormous help to maintain the status quo for the mainstream parties.

Some of this could be overcome by clever use of social media, through websites, Faustbook and Twatter. They are cost effective, the candidate has absolute control of the message, and they can reach out to hundreds or thousands or potential supporters very quickly, even including “silver surfers”. Yet neither of the Croydon independents we have highlighted during the campaigning period appears to have grasped this modern campaigning tool to their advantage.

In short, therefore, independents find it harder to explain what they stand for, whereas there is some ready-made concept about what Conservatives or Labour stand for.

Resident associations are a natural provider of independent candidates, but some parts of Croydon are bereft of such associations while others are far too busy just running the associations or do not want to risk offending the local political parties. Some of our local councillors have a very nasty, vindictive streak.

It was noticeable when the well-organised RAs in Coulsdon even mentioned the possibility of fielding candidates against the Tories in this year’s local elections over the Cane Hill issue, public meetings were hastily arranged by the Tories running the council and all sorts of blandishments were made to placate them. Once the RAs announced that they would not be fielding any candidates, and the previous offers seemed to evaporate… Odd that.

Coulsdon does, though, punish candidates who are not truly local and the selection of town centre resident Mario Creatura for the Conservatives, four years after he unsuccessfully sought election in Selhurst ward, will be exposed to this modest amount of risk. But he’s safe from being beaten by an independent. None are standing in Coulsdon West.

Inside Croydon’s recent coverage of the local elections:

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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