Pacts over coalitions: why it might pay to be independent rather than an insurgent in England – Some perspectives on the 2015 General Election
by Simon Lemieux
The big questions and topics from the 2015 general election are already spawning out in both the printed and virtual media. These include the big questions such as: How did Cameron manage it? Why were the Lib Dems routed? Why were the polls so wrong in predicting the respective Labour and Conservative vote shares? How do we explain the SNP surge? I’ll leave those very pertinent questions to others, and instead dwell on a couple of ‘side shows’ in the election which can easily be overlooked, namely electoral pacts and the role of independent candidates.
So let’s look firstly at electoral pacts. Much was (rightly) made of the damage and defeat inflicted on Clegg’s cronies by the Lib Dem participation in the Coalition Government – they apparently took all of the blame for the unpopular bits and gained none of the glory. Like the Liberals post 1918, coalition government impacted very badly on the junior partner; Angela Merkel was right; whither now the Free Democrats in Germany or indeed our own Lib Dems! But look across the Irish Sea and co-operation between parties in a different sense, an electoral pact, worked very well. In essence, in the tribal and frankly rather depressing world of Northern Ireland politics, the two main Unionist parties (the DUP and UUP) learnt that putting candidates up against each other in seats where there was not an overwhelming unionist predominance, could let other parties in (both nationalist and non-sectarian). This time round they did a pre-election deal in such seats. Result, two net unionist gains from a total of 18 seats- one for the DUP and one for the UUP, in the constituencies of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and East Belfast. The link below explains it all rather well, and do watch Tom Elliott’s speech for a good bit of unionist rhetoric.
Moral – don’t split the vote and let the real bogeyman in. So, would it have been more effective and interesting to have seen in some constituencies a Green/Labour electoral pact, and a UKIP/Conservative electoral pact? A progressive alliance versus a reactionary one? I think there could have been considerable electoral logic in that at least for Labour this time round though in many constituencies they failed to win or lost, the UKIP candidate came second…….. Perhaps it would have worked better for the Tories/UKIP and enabled a centre-right government to have had an even more comfortable majority. Had the Tories stood aside in Great Grimsby for example, UKIP might well have taken it. Of course, I don’t think such pre-election deals are very likely over here on the mainland, and also they might affect voting behaviour in any case (would ex Labour UKIP voters, rally behind a Tory, probably not). In England, the insurgent parties are in (large) part the new receptacle for protest votes, which makes the scenario different from that in Ulster. Still, it is an interesting observation that pacts trump coalitions.
The other interesting feature largely unremarked by commentators is the very gradual emergence of genuine independents. By this I don’t mean the genuinely wacky, minor parties or those forced out of their own parties who are making the political equivalent of ‘revenge porn’ – can anyone think of possible example near to home? No, I mean well-regarded local candidates often serving councillors (Independents) or prominent campaigners. True, their numbers are few (no doubt a £500 deposit deters many) and current chances of success fairly slim (though remember Dr Richard Taylor, MP for Wyre forest who was elected twice on a health care issue programme) but some did fare remarkably well in 2015. The most impressive result I have come across in 2015 was in the safe Conservative seat of East Devon where the independent candidate, Claire Wright, managed an impressive 24% share of the poll easily outpolling the Labour, Lib Dem and UKIP candidates. See her campaign website here: www.claire-wright.org
Nearer to home, the ex-council leader on the Isle of Wight, Ian Stephens, also ran as an Independent and managed a respectable 4.5% of the poll. Okay, he didn’t beat any of the main parties but still the development is noteworthy. Both candidates (and I’m sure many other similar candidates) emphasise their ability to speak up for and listening to the concerns of ordinary people without the ties of party; ‘political nimbyism’ as it were perhaps. Personally, I have rather a soft spot for such candidates due not last I suspect, to my instinctive dislike and distrust of party machines. With the rise of social media, YouTube etc, my own hope is that we’ll see a rise in the number of such ‘anti party political’ candidates; perhaps they can engender the higher levels of political engagement and participation that we currently bemoan? It’s always good to back the Davids against the Goliaths, unless they are completely nuts or a cover for sinister extremism. Will my hopes be met, well let’s wait and see in 2020 which will of course witness both a US Presidential election and a UK general election. Just under five years to go and counting down….