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Independent Group Annual Conference

Last Monday (26th October 2009) members of the East Herts People team attended the Independent Group conference at the Local Government Association in London. Around 50 Councillors and representatives from Operation Black Vote and Local Government Leadership Centre attended the event.

The conference began with lectures on local government from:

  • Leader of the Independent Group - Keith Ross OBE
  • Assistance Chief Executive of the LGA - Corin Thompson
  • Chairman of the Homes and Community Agency - Robert Napier

These lectures were extremely interesting and showed the diverse range of issues and topics in local government. A common theme of the lectures was that Councillors can be influential in achieving change in their area.

The highlight of the day was a talk given by Professor Colin Copus of De Montford University, Leicester. He discussed the benefits of Independent Councillors and the problems generated by national parties in local government.

Professor Copus noted that parties in local government have a number of flaws:

  1. Political parties nationalise local issues - Party politics in local government tend to exacerbate local issues and twist them into party issues. For instance the local Council may debate building a new bus shelter; the Conservatives will make a stand that they oppose the shelter, whilst Labour Councillors will support it. The bus shelter has absolutely nothing to do with party politics and Councillors should be voting on the best outcome for their constituents.
  2. Parties govern rather than representing - Councillors have the dual role of governing and representing the electorate. Copus argued that parties were more concerned with the former; strong party politics in local government results in Councillors that don't listen to residents and are bad for democracy.
  3. Lack of debate and scrutiny - The vast majority of Council decision making occurs not in debates in the Council chamber, but behind closed doors in private gatherings. By the time Councillors reach meetings many have already decided how to vote and are conscious of the party stance.
  4. Three Line Whip - Councillors in local government are usually subject to a Three Line Whip. A Three Line Whip is where a Councillor is told by their party that they must vote in a certain way of risk being expelled. Three Line Whips results in Councillors sticking to the party line, no matter the views of their constituents. This is an extremely strict regime, which is harsher than parliament.

Professor Copus strongly believes that Independent Councillors have a lot to offer. He finished his talk emphasising the importance of Independent Councillors networking and forming groups for support. He also recommended that existing Independent Councillors should encourage members of the public to stand as an Independent in future elections.

One of the best parts of the day was the opportunity to discuss experiences of being an Independent Councillor. All Councillors I spoke to enjoyed serving their local community and found their role deeply rewarding. Many Councillors stated that not being aligned to a party was a great advantage and allowed them to get on with their work.

I also heard from Councillors who had formed effective oppositions and majorities in local councils, such as Lincolnshire Independents in Lincolnshire County Council and the Resident's Association of London in Havering Council. It was great to hear that Independent Councillors were influential, especially in the South West, North East and rural areas.

But the day also highlighted some of the difficulties that Independent Councillors face. One of the main problems regarding Independent Councillors is that they do not have the high profile of their party colleagues. There are 2180 councillors in England and Wales, this relates to 8% of Councillors. Many people are unaware that Independent Councillors are so abundant.

Debate - Independents' Day

The LGA hosted an evening debate on the future of Independent Councillors. The Director of Demos, Richard Reeves, chaired the discussion and other panel members included Lord Best (cross-bench Peer), Martin Bell (former Independent MP), Tony Travers (LSE) and Professor Colin Copus (De Montford University).

With a general election looming it is unsurprising the debate quickly turned to the issue of Independent MPs. The general view of the panel was that Independent MPs would not be able to run an effective parliament, but a few Independent MP would add a different voice and bring something new to the democratic system.

Lord Best was quite negative towards Independent MPs and appeared to think that they are not a credible option. He believes that a parliament full of Independents is unlikely to agree and make it extremely difficult to come to a decision. He cited the example of the Ukraine, where there are 30 political parties in parliament and legislation takes an excessive amount of time. But he also mentioned that a few Independent MPs would bring a new flavour to central government and would be good for diversity. He also added that employers are likely to have no issues with Independent candidates in elections.

Professor Colin Copus reinforced his views that Independent Councillors can be a force for good in local government. He also stated that the whip system in local government resulted in closed decision making and stifled debates.

Martin Bell was an excellent speaker and added to the debate that Independent politician are needed for honest politics.

Check out the Independent Group website at the Local Government Association for more information.

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