What’s so good about being independent anyway?

by Stephen Tall on April 27, 2006

There was a silly article by Alice Miles in yesterday’s Times, but I got a bit distracted by Labour’s implosions. The title gives the gist of her argument: National parties are a waste of time. Let’s hear it for the independents.

In fact, that’s about all she has to say, but she strings it out over the requisite thousand words by having a general moan about her local council, and a new roundabout. (Which was rather reminiscent of Julie Burchill’s tediously repetitive rants about Brighton City Council in thegrauniad’s Weekend magazine.)

For the rest, it is a typically lazy piece of emetic journalism, involving such tedious clichés as

  • Political parties “do not really develop policy”;
  • “Anyway, they broadly agree on everything”;
  • MPs only listen to focus groups, not their constituents; and
  • Only independents are capable of listening to, and fighting for, their residents.

It is fashionable and easy to knock political parties, and to laud independents for their free spirits. Now I’m sure there are many honourable examples of non-aligned politicians who are paragons of virtue.

But most of the ‘independents’ I’ve met are not in political parties because they are incapable of getting along with other people; or because their views are so madcap that there’s no political party which would have them; or because they’ve become obsessive conspiracy theorists, convinced the council/MP/universe is plotting against them.

Just because a candidate calls themself independent does not make it so. They will have views, perhaps even prejudices, just as many of us do. The difference is that an independent, by declining to stand under any label, conceals from the public what their political philosophy is.

It’s the ultimate spin: “no-one can be against independence of mind, therefore I shall be an Independent!” Yet it leaves the public none the wiser what that individual’s views might be on a range of issues, now or in the future: what are they for or against?

More importantly, even I – as a liberal committed to devolution of power to the most local viable level – recognise some issues have to be decided at a national level; that there will have to be trade-offs, compromises, negotiations. A national party enables these tough choices to be democratically made among friends who share core values. You debate, you argue, you learn.

If political parties did not exist, they would soon be invented.