In these comment pages you will often see the phrases such as Big Tobacco or Big Pharma, used to describe how a particular group of similar self-interested entities dominates their respective market to the detriment of new and smaller competitors – or the public in general. With the nominations for next month’s general election now closed, a perusal of the local council websites will show just how “Big Parties” dominate our democratic process to the general exclusion of independents or minor parties.
There really is no escaping Big Parties if you want to be elected to give public service. It is still possible in some areas of Scotland to be an independent councillor but their numbers have been marginalised over recent years and fell by 26 in this month’s local council elections, to only 172 out of 1227 councillors.
The prospects of being a winning independent at either Holyrood or Westminster is practically zero. Where independents have managed in the past it has often been because they had already made a name for themselves in political parties – such as Margo MacDonald and Dennis Canavan. The like of broadcaster Martin Bell winning Tatton in the 1997 general election is, sadly, a rare occurrence.
Independents like MacDonald and Canavan offered a credible and trustworthy off-the-shelf brand, and it is that pop-up perception that independents have to provide but few are able to offer at short notice.
It is difficult in any general election for independent candidates to make an impact, but on this particular occasion with the election being sprung by surprise it is especially challenging. The £500 for the deposit may not be too difficult to find but to make an impact in a campaign, even at only a local level, costs thousands of pounds for the printing of leaflets and posters, which will be too much for most candidates that cannot call on a party’s resources.
Having a spare £10,000 or more to fight an election that may be lost is asking a lot and provides a large enough disincentive for most independents. The Free Parliament Campaign supports independent candidates and crowdfunding is an option, but even the Big Parties are so strapped for cash that many of their candidates are already using this technique to raise money and attract personal commitment from supporters.
In Scotland there is the additional difficulty that the debate is currently polarised around the constitutional question, squeezing the life out of normal debate about policies and single issues that independents and single issue campaigners can thrive on. If the question that voters ask when they go into the polling booth is “which candidate will deliver or prevent a second independence referendum?” then the answer is going to be a candidate from one of the Big Parties.
It is not helped by the broadcasting media in particular seeking to present general elections as presidential races with the focus being on party leaders. The trend towards staged debates between party leaders only serves to reinforce the dominance of Big Parties to the exclusion of independents.
All of these pressures against independents encourage people to try and start their own parties as the means to gain attention for an issue. While their candidates may not have an earthly of winning they can bring an issue to the attention of the public and in some seats make an impact that changes the outcome.
The independent candidate likely to attract the most media coverage and therefore the greatest public interest in the 2017 election will undoubtedly be Michelle Dewberry who is standing for West Hull & Hessle. She is that rare thing, an independent candidate already well known both nationally and locally and has no party political baggage. Having won The Apprentice reality TV show in 2006, Michelle Dewberry has continued to make a name for herself as a media personality with forthright opinions and recently appeared on BBC’s Question Time. A Hull lass and Brexit supporter, she is in with a chance of causing an upset in the seat held by Alan Johnson, the Labour MP who ran the party’s Remain campaign. Hull West voted for Brexit and with support for Labour at an all-time low in many parts of England, voting for Dewberry could be far more attractive than voting for Conservative.
Candidates like Dewberry will want to capitalise on the general disenchantment that the public has shown for today’s politicians in the Brexit referendum. There is a not undeserved cynicism that Big Parties put their own interests before the public. Promises are too easily given and then not kept. There appears to be a never-ending source of money to promise free policies with the bill most often presented to future generation who didn’t have a say in the financial liability they have to clear. The abuse of power by Big Parties – most obvious in the awarding of peerages to backroom staff of questionable abilities - has brought the House of Lords into greater disrepute than ever before.
The discipline exercised by Big Parties on what MPs and MSPs are able to say can be suffocating. Can anyone name an SNP member who has been reprimanded for speaking out against the party or voting the wrong way?
The benefit to the electorate of independents is that they are their own whip and they answer to their own conscience. We should not expect politicians to know the answer to everything and it would be refreshing if they acknowledged that and treated issues on their merits. The pressure within the Big Party system is to stay on message and adopt the agreed line. When you see a politician struggle to give a straight answer it is often because that answer means putting the party at a disadvantage rather than putting the national interest first.
If Big Parties are the solution then there is problem with the question, but this general election has come too soon for independents to change it.
Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org