One of the consequences of Britain’s protracted and disorganised attempt to leave the European Union has been the decision of a group of MPs, seven Labour and three Conservative, to leave their parties and establish a new Independent Group in Parliament. The Independent Group is not a political party although it is assumed that at some point they will seek to become one. This post identifies some of the challenges facing The Independent Group in seeking to establish themselves at Westminster and to attract electoral support. It argues that the two-party system is the product of the electoral system, underpinned by the media and embedded in the practices and procedures of the House of Commons. It suggests, however, that the answer to this may not lie in The Independent Group seeking to establish themselves as a new political party but rather in embracing their independence.
The electoral system
There is a widely-held assumption that the British electoral system will strangle at birth the aspirations of any newly formed political party which hopes to have a national impact. The first-past-the-post electoral system rewards winners but offers nothing for those coming second. Widespread national support will not deliver seats in Parliament, unless it is combined with concentrated local support. The most striking example of this was provided by the 1983 general election when the SDP-Liberal Alliance won 25.4% of the vote, but only 23 seats. More recently, in the 2015 general election the UK Independence Party attracted almost four million votes, 12.6% of the vote, but only managed to win one seat.
According to this view if it is to have any prospect of success the newly formed Independent Group of MPs must quickly form itself into a political party and embrace electoral reform as the only means of real electoral impact. This was the approach adopted by those MPs who broke-away from the Labour Party in 1981 and quickly formed the SDP. As a third party attempting to usurp the two-party domination of British politics, electoral reform has remained a core plank of Liberal Party policy to the present day.
The two-party system is also locked in by the UK media. Britain has a highly partisan press but while the support of the print media fluctuates between the Conservative and Labour parties, smaller parties have struggled to gain support or coverage. For most of the post-war period more than 90% of UK press share, in terms of circulation, has fallen to the two main parties. The winning party at each general election since 1979 has enjoyed a larger press share than share of the vote. In contrast the electoral fortunes of some of the smaller parties has exceeded their press share. The combined circulation of those newspapers supporting parties other than the main two accounts for less than 10% of the total press circulation in the UK. Only one national daily newspaper supported the Liberal Democrats in 2010 (The Guardian) and 2015 (The Independent) and none in 2017. The Daily Express supported UKIP in 2015 but switched back to the Conservatives in 2017.
Broadcasters in the UK have a duty to be impartial but are not required to give equal weight or airtime to all parties. Ofcom expects that broadcasters will provide ‘appropriate’ coverage of smaller parties, but if the electoral system ensures that a large majority of seats will continue to be held by the two main parties, this will be reflected in the broadcast coverage. This may vary in the different parts of the UK, but a party wishing to appeal to voters across the UK may struggle to justify an appeal for more airtime.
Independent MPs and those from smaller parties may also struggle to have an impact in Parliament. As Louise Thompson has shown the two-party system is embedded in the practices and procedures at Westminster. Parliament is dominated by the Executive and the Official Opposition (Labour) enjoys privileges which are not extended to other parties. Independent Group MPs may struggle to contribute to debates, they are likely to be called to speak later, if they are called at all, when time is short. They are also likely to be further down the pecking order when tabling amendments and will struggle to get seats on bill committees which scrutinise legislation.
Several of the Independent Group MPs currently hold prominent seats on select committees but these may come under threat. Labour has moved motions to remove its former MPs, Mike Gapes and Ian Austin from the Foreign Affairs Committee and Chris Leslie from the International Trade Committee. The Conservative Party has not yet indicated that it will seek to remove its former MPs from select committees, but Independent Group MP, Sarah Wollaston who chairs the Health and Social Care and the powerful Liaison Committee, may find her position threatened.
The Independent Group may also struggle for resources. They are no longer able to draw on the not inconsiderable resources available to a national political party. So-called Short Money, parliamentary funding which is available to parties with seats in the House of Commons to provide administrative and research support, will not be available to The Independent Group unless and until they become a political party. Limited resources will impact on their day to day operation as a group in Parliament but also on their ability to contest elections.
Should The Independent Group become a political party?
One obvious first step towards long-term sustainability would be for The Independent Group to register as a political party. This would allow them greater access to parliamentary resources and perhaps parliamentary positions and time. With eleven MPs they would have as many seats in the House of Commons as the Liberal Democrats. Registering as a political party would also give them an identity and allow the inclusion of a party name and other identity marks such as a logo to appear on ballot papers. Establishing an identity might be particularly helpful given that The Independent Group comprises MPs who previously sat on both sides of the House of Commons. Registering as a political party would also bring certain responsibilities in relation to transparency about their funding. This may also be beneficial given that the group has already been subject to some unpleasant sniping about the sources of their funding.
However, The Independent Group are not obliged to register as a political party and are not required to do so in order to stand in elections in the UK. Moreover, while there is a widespread assumption that political parties are the only vehicle for electoral success in the UK, this is not the case and there are several reasons why they may choose to retain their current status, at least for the time being.
Perhaps the most significant asset of The Independent Group is their independence. The fact that they are not a political party, and moreover, that they comprise MPs from across the political spectrum may appeal to voters who are tired of the established parties and in particular their inability to set aside narrow party concerns in order to manage Britain’s exit from the European Union. Retaining this independent status may also help them to gloss over the obvious policy differences which exist within the group. The rigid application of party discipline may be necessary for parties which hope to form a government, but it is not clear that party whipping is understood or appreciated by the public, who may be more inclined to vote for candidates who can justifiably claim to put their views first.
The Independent Group may also be able to take advantage of a long-term fracturing of the British public’s affiliation with the two-party system. While the electoral system continues to favour two-party politics, the electorate are in large numbers voting for parties other than the main two. Gone are the days when Labour and the Conservatives between them accounted for more than 90% of the vote in UK general elections and 90% of seats in Parliament. At the 2015 general election, the combined share of the vote of the Conservative and Labour parties was 67%. One in five voted for parties other than the main four (Conservative, Labour, SNP and Liberal Democrat) and eleven parties won seats at Westminster. The 2017 general election was seen by some as a return to two-party politics, with Labour and the Conservatives accounting for 83% of the vote, but almost one in ten still voted for parties other than the main four and eight different parties won seats.
Polling organisations are not quite sure how to test support for The Independent Group, they’re not a party and don’t have enough members to stand across the UK. Nevertheless, some early polling does indicate support for The Independent Group ranging from 6% to 14%, on a par or better than smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats and UKIP.
There are also precedents for successful independent members at Westminster. Independent MPs were the norm prior to the emergence of political parties in the nineteenth century. There have, nevertheless, been some prominent examples in recent years, notably the journalist Martin Bell who stood on an anti-sleaze platform against Neil Hamilton in Tatton in 1997 and Dr Richard Taylor who stood against plans to close Kidderminster Hospital in 2001 and retained his seat in 2005. Sylvia Hermon has sat as an independent MP for North Down since she left the Ulster Unionists in 2010. There are currently 21 independent MPs sitting in the House of Commons, although several of these have had the Whip withdrawn for a range of alleged misdeeds within and beyond Parliament and are unlikely to be invited to join The Independent Group. Crucially, aside from Sylvia Hermon none have tested their independent status at the ballot box.
It is also worth bearing in mind that there are 151 independent members sitting in the House of Lords. Crossbench peers comprise the third largest group in the Lords. Although none owe their seat to success at the ballot box, they are nevertheless valued for offering a non-partisan perspective to debate in the upper chamber.
Perhaps more significant than the decidedly mixed fortunes of independent members at Westminster, is the public’s willingness to vote for independent candidates in other elections in the UK. Independent candidates are a common feature of local elections in the UK and attract considerable support. There are around 1800 independent councillors in the UK, around 9% of all local councillors. In Lincolnshire, where I write this, the County Council includes six independent councillors, the same as the number of Labour councillors. Of the twenty-three directly elected mayors in England and Wales, two are currently independent (Copeland and Mansfield), while independents have previously been elected as Mayors in Hartlepool, Middlesbrough and London.
The challenges for The Independent Group to establish themselves as a significant force in British politics are not inconsiderable. The best response to this may not, however, be to form themselves into a political party and seek to challenge the established parties on their own terms. At least some voters may be ready for an independent voice at Westminster and a different way of doing things. The fortunes of independent MPs have been somewhat mixed, but the experience of local government in the UK indicates that the public is willing to vote for independent candidates, even when standing against members of the established political parties. Why not at Westminster?