Monday, 27 October 2014

The independent paradox - Updated with response from Electoral Commission


The update (31st October) can be read below

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Here's a copy of an email I have just sent to the Electoral Commission and copied to the Cabinet Office and the Welsh Government. It is self-explanatory and calls for a review of the status of independent councillors and candidates with particular regard to the formation of, and allegiance to 'independent' groups.

I also suggest that independent candidates, at any election, should be required to declare their membership to a political party and not conceal their true allegiances behind the mask of independence.

This is an issue I've felt needs addressing for some time so I've said my tuppence worth.... I'll let you know if I ever get a reply;


To; The Electoral Commission

Dear Sir/Madam,

There has always been a trend, particularly in Wales, for a significant number of independent councillors to sit on our 22 local authorities. There is also a tradition that the majority of these independents form political groups with Leaders and party whips and an internal hierarchy.

Not least of all in Carmarthenshire, where the ruling administration is a coalition between the Independents, of which there are 22 in the group, and Labour. There are only two members of the council who are truly independent and not affiliated to the group, one has formed a registered party but both have to be referred to as 'unaffiliated' so as to avoid confusion.

This also leads to a situation where communications and strategic meetings between management and party leaders, such as the Business Management Group in Carmarthenshire, exclude unaffiliated councillors yet include the 'leader' of the independents.

The group is for all intent and purpose a political party; it meets as a group,claiming expenses and invariably votes as a party yet, as in other councils, they are not required to produce a manifesto, nor are subject to the same regulations and public scrutiny as registered political parties. For example, if a party whip is used at a Scrutiny Committee meetings, this must be publicly declared, but this requirement is not binding on members of the independent group.

The electoral rules prevent anyone who is not standing as a member of a party putting anything other than 'independent' on their ballot paper.

Surely this system is unfair on the voter. When a vote is cast for an independent candidate, it is a vote for that individual, not a vote for a political party. It is surely a ridiculous situation, and self-contradictory, that there are independent parties at all.

I realise that in any democratic arena political groupings and alignments will always occur, using the 'strength in numbers' argument; but this in itself implies a collective aim or strategy and in the context of an independent group such as we have actually holding power in Carmarthenshire, it is neither right, nor democratic that these aims remain unpublished.

My own experience as standing as a truly independent candidate was a case in point. Whilst canvassing, and unable to put anything other than independent, I was repeatedly asked if I would be part of the independent 'gang' if elected. In addition, whilst at the count, I was courted by the current leader of the independents to join her 'group' if elected.

It is also deceiving the voter if the candidate, as a fully paid up member of  political party, stands as an independent and doesn't disclose such membership at election time. Even if the candidate wishes to retain independence from the party the electors have a right to know if a link exists.

This is equally as important at general elections where an 'independent' candidate could be put forward by a political party merely as an election tactic. The electors would then be voting under entirely false pretences.

I believe there needs to be a review which should encompass the following;

1. If an independent group on a council has a constituted leader and official structure then it should be required to identify itself and register as a political party.

2. Unaffiliated councillors should have the same rights of access to information as party or group leaders.

3. If, as it should, an independent group registers as a party then, at election time, this should be easily identifiable and apparent on the ballot paper. The term 'independent' would then be reserved for those individuals who are actually independent.

4. All candidates should declare membership of registered political parties even if they are standing as an independent.

The review should cover all democratic elections in the UK

I look forward to receiving your reply and your comments on each of the issues I have raised.

Please contact me if you require further information. I have also copied this email to the Cabinet Office and the Welsh Minister for Public Services, Leighton Andrews AM.

Yours sincerely

Jacqui Thompson

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Update 31st October; Response from the Electoral Commission

I have copied the full response from the Commission below which states that independent 'groupings' are beyond their control. They suggest the Welsh Government could address the issue or local councils...

The possibility of independent candidates using a six word description on a ballot paper is part of a recent consultation...I suppose at least you could say 'Independent - not part of Meryl/Pam's lot'.
I see that a couple of independent groups in Wales are registered, perhaps the veteran Carmarthenshire lot could do the same...Pam's People? Just a suggestion.

The last point, the declaration of membership of political parties, is a matter for the UK government.

For additional information I have added the links which were included in the email.

The response;

Dear Ms Thompson,

Thank you for your email, please find our responses to each of the points you raise below.

1.    Once a group has been formed following a local election, the Electoral Commission has no power to compel such a group to register as a political party, or to regulate its conduct. Any change to the current rules regarding the conduct of council groups would be a matter for the Welsh Government and individual local authorities to consider.

2.    The administration of local authorities and relations between authority members and employees are matters that are outside the Commission’s statutory remit. As above, any change to the current rules in this area would be a matter for the Welsh Government and individual local authorities to consider.

3.    Currently, registered political parties are able to register up to 12 descriptions with the Commission for use on the ballot paper, or they can choose to use the party’s registered name in order to distinguish their candidates from independent candidates. Independent candidates are able to use ‘Independent’ and/or ‘Annibynnol’ as a description, or choose not to use any description at all.

A number of registered parties use their party names and descriptions in order to distinguish their candidates as being part of an ‘Independent’ grouping; you can search all current registered party names and descriptions by using our online register. Further information on the types of names and descriptions that the Commission can and cannot register is available in our guidance document, ‘Overview of party names, descriptions and emblems’.

It is important to note however that our role in this regard is restricted to what appears on the ballot paper only. Once registered, a political party must comply with other rules regulated by us including the requirement to certain financial information which we then publish, but the scope of our remit does not extend to the conduct of party groups on local councils. Further information on our roles and responsibilities is available on our website.

 4.    The rules relating to the nomination process for local elections do not currently require candidates to state that they are a member of a political party if they do not choose to use a registered party description or emblem on the ballot paper.

The use of a registered party description or emblem would require that party’s permission (or the permission of all of the relevant parties if a candidate is using a joint description). Any change to these rules would require a change in primary legislation and as such would be a matter for the UK Government in this instance.

Last year, we undertook a consultation on standing for election in the UK, which invited responses to a number of questions relating to independent candidates including whether there are ways that independent candidates could be allowed to use a six word description on the ballot paper and how this would work in practice. You can view the consultation paper here; we will soon be publishing our response to the consultation and I will notify you when the response is available.

You may also be interested in the Law Commisson’s upcoming consultation on electoral law, which is expected to cover some aspects of the law in relation to candidates and election campaigns. Further information on this consultation is available on the Law Commission’s website.

Although there are no current plans for the Electoral Commission to undertake any further reviews in addition the consultation mentioned above, I hope that the information provided above is helpful. Should you have any further queries, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Kind regards

Senior Political Parties Liaison Officer
Y Comisiwn Etholiadol / The Electoral Commission 

9 comments:

Tim Hart said...

I hadn't considered the issues raised in this letter until now. A very well constructed set of arguments for the need to change what is potentially a corrupting influence on democracy and which I hope the Electoral Commission give proper consideration to.

Anonymous said...

Cilycwm 2012 I believe a certain Mrs Thompson stood as an Independent !!!
Independent Thomas Theophilus* 307
Independent Jacqui Thomapson 264
Conservative Matthew Graham Paul 136

caebrwyn said...

Anon 19:22
Did you actually read the post? I'm not sure what point you are trying to make.

Cneifiwr said...

This is a very important point - a good many of the Independents are what is known in Ireland as 'gombeen men' (or women).

Wherever local government in Wales has scraped the barrel - Ynys Mon, Pembrokeshire or Carmarthenshire - you will find Independents with their hands on the wheel.

Whether it would be possible to force them to play by the same rules as the other parties is debatable, but any serious reform of local democracy designed to make councillors more professional and more representative would deal our gombeens a fatal blow.

In the case of Carmarthenshire, Old Father Time will also play a part. How many of Meryl's OAP brigade will stand for another 4 or 5 year stint in 2017 will be interesting.

Sian Caiach said...

Anonymous actually illustrates a good point. If you do not register as a political party you can only officially stand under one of 2 labels on the ballot paper, "independent" or "No description".
AS the post describes, the term "independent" is quite debased locally and Arthur Davies and myself set up People First so that true independents could actually register under an umbrella group which actually does not act like a party but demands the strict independence of Bell's Priciples. These of course include not joining or forming coalitions with political parties and taking each issue on its merits. We have only the 3 administrative members that the Electoral commission require and will allow any person espousing Bell's principles to use our label.
If political representation is just a competitive team game, whatever the teams are called, then the top down dictatorship of policy will continue and the actual quality of representation of the mass of the people will remain poor. Somewhere down the line in representative democracy the original idea of representing the voters got seriously mangled by political ambition, the ability to buy influence and selective deafness to the needs of the electorate. I hope to provide the best, not the least worst option but breaking the system is hard work!

Redhead said...

Unfortunately, the Electoral Commission is a toothless tiger.

Far better is the House of Commons Select Committee on Voter Engagement.

primarily concerned with the registration of those who have slipped off voter registers they also concern themselves with the reasons why people do not register, and this is one of them - they have no confidence in those that put themselves forward.

Its Chairman, MP Graham Allen and one of its more vociferous members, MP Chris Ruane would be very interested in seeing this letter so I would urge Jacquie to send it to them. It has given the Electoral Commission several difficult grillings on similar matters.

Anyone can send their views here:

http://www.parliament.uk/voter-engagement-in-the-uk

caebrwyn said...

Thanks for the comments.
Redhead, I'll take your advice.

caebrwyn said...

This latest post from Cllr Caiach explains why she formed 'People First';

How a disastrously bad council spawned a very good idea

Tessa said...

Yes I agree with Redhead re this body being (yet another) toothless tiger. When Carmarthenshire Ratepayers' Association complained about CCC giving £5,000 to each serving councillor to spend on their communities just a few months ahead of the election in 2008 they didn't want to know.
I think this is another regulatory organisation that in reality exists for its employees, and does just enough, or appears to do enough, to justify its existence.