West Hill or Westminster? An Independent’s Quest by Philip Algar, £9.99 from the author at Devon House, West Hill, Ottery St. Mary EX11 1UY.
Independent candidates work in local elections: 15 Independents were elected to EDDC in 2015, becoming the main opposition to the Conservatives. But can they ever work for Parliament?
This was the question posed by Claire Wright’s 2015 campaign in Devon East, described in this fascinating new book by one of her campaign team. Claire, then an Independent district and county councillor for Ottery, succeeded in coming a respectable second, with 13,100 votes (24% of the poll compared to 46% for Tory minister Hugo Swire – once our MP too, before boundaries were changed).
Claire beat UKIP, Labour and the Lib Dems, and saw Swire’s share of the vote decline slightly, while most Tories (including our Neil Parish) got increased shares. She was the most successful Independent candidate in the UK not just in 2015, but since 2005 when Richard Taylor was reelected in Wyre Valley. But she did not win, or come close.
Successful Independents in the last quarter century have had both had single issues (Taylor’s hospital and Martin Bell’s anti-sleaze campaigns) and benefitted from major parties (in both cases the Lib Dems, and in Bell’s Labour too) standing down in their favour. Only the Greens did not stand against Wright. Bell also received massive national publicity, while the national media studiously ignored Wright. So the answer, Algar concludes, is not very favourable, although Wright and her hundreds of active supporters put up a magnificent fight.
Nevertheless Wright’s question will not go away. Across the South West in the General Election, the Tories won every single rural and semi-rural seat. In the region as a whole, they got over 90% of the seats for 45% of the vote, with Labour winning in only Bristol and Exeter.
How are the half of all voters who don’t support the Tories ever to get representation? The Lib Dems, who used to be the answer in some parts of Devon, Cornwall and Somerset, were efficiently wiped out by the Tories in 2015, and are a shadow of their former selves. Labour and the Greens don’t have credible chances of winning. Proportional representation is not on offer. Claire Wright’s valiant effort begins to look the beginning of an answer, after all. If you’re interested in this question, read Algar’s book.