Insight: The independent candidates hoping to take on the Scottish Parliament's party hegemony
Laura Marshall is sheltering from the rain in her car just outside the Aberdeen city limits and reflecting somewhat poetically about why she, like 23 other hopefuls, has decided to stand as an independent candidate in the Scottish Parliament elections.
The 51-year-old has been touring the north east, where she is one of two standing on an independent ticket on the regional list and taking on a phalanx of party-backed prospective MSPs. And while the aim of becoming elected appears daunting, given the numbers and the experience of independents at the polls in the past, her positivity is undimmed.
She’s soaked through after a visit to Stonehaven harbour, her enthusiasm for the campaign trail steaming up the windows of her car as she talks. “I’m running because people asked me to, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this at all and certainly not in this weather – it’s also been hailing,” she laughs.
“It is hard because you don’t have the party machine behind you and the financial support, but when people tell you they are looking for an alternative and they believe you could do a good job in representing the area, then there’s a certain responsibility to take that on board.
"It all comes back to integrity and I think the political party system doesn’t work for so many people. They see so many promises made and vows pledged, and yet so little of any of them are carried out.
"I hate all the antagonism and fighting within parties and see myself as someone who can work with anybody and bring people together.
"I really believe that as an independent you are much freer. You don’t have to answer to a party whip.
"In some European countries and Scandi countries, there are many more independent politicians and I think that’s to the good.
"I look at what’s happened in Scotland with the Parliament and there have been too few. I look to Margo MacDonald though and what she achieved. She was a giant in the representation of people, a real hero of mine.”
There have been eight independent MSPs in Holyrood in the 22 years of devolution.
Back in 2003 three were elected – Dennis Canavan in Falkirk West, Dr Jean Turner for Strathkelvin and Bearsden, and Ms MacDonald in the Lothians – although by the end of that parliamentary term they had been joined by Campbell Martin, a list MSP for West of Scotland after he quit the SNP, and Brian Monteith, who similarly left the Conservatives.
However, at the next election in 2007 only Ms MacDonald was returned again as an independent and made it a hat-trick four years later.
The latest parliament has, of course, seen three MSPs become independent – albeit Michelle Ballantyne’s flirtation with the idea after quitting the Conservatives didn’t last long as she soon joined Reform UK.
Andy Wightman quit the Scottish Greens after internal rows around the party’s stance on women’s rights came to a head over the Forensic Medical Services Bill, while Mark McDonald, who represented Aberdeen Donside and is not standing again, had independence thrust upon him after he was suspended from the SNP after a scandal over sex texts, and then decided to resign.
Indeed it was the Donside seat where Ms Marshall, an English language teacher, had originally intended to stand, but a house move made her flit to the regional list instead.
She’s now on the peach ballot paper alongside 16 parties, which run the gamut of political stances from the Abolish the Scottish Parliament Party to Restore Scotland, the Scottish Family Party to the Scottish Libertarian Party and, of course, the five main parties currently occupying the blonde-wood seats in the Holyrood chamber.
Ms Marshall laughs again: “Of course I signed up for this before I knew I’d be running against Alex Salmond.
"That has meant the team I have is smaller than I had hoped, but they are tremendous. We have done a very small crowdfunder and I’ve promised the 45 people who donated, that if I’m elected, they will get their money back from my first MSP salary.”
Ms Marshall is a former SNP member who left the party after feeling a certain frustration with its direction.
She has met both Nicola Sturgeon and Mr Salmond, who tops the Alba Party list for the area. Unsurprisingly she supports Scottish independence, but she has a very different position on how it should be achieved. For her, there should be no ifs or buts about a legally binding referendum.
“Taking it to the people is the only way forward,” she says. “In fact, that’s what I believe an MSP should be doing about everything.
"They are supposed to be representatives of their areas and the only way to do that is to be in the community, speaking to the people and getting their opinions. They’re not there to impose their own views.
"I also feel very strongly, that every candidate standing to represent communities should be roughly from those areas. The parachuting in of candidates is something people are fed up with, because they feel their concerns are not properly represented.
“As a party candidate you are bound by party policy and the manifesto and three-line whips, and I feel independents can truly represent constituents – it’s a simple equation. You listen to what the people say and need and you’re there to represent them, nothing more or less. You’re there because other Scots have gifted you with the grace of representing them."
Community is at the heart of Ms Marshall’s campaign and it’s seen her clock up the mileage.
She’s filmed campaign videos on renewable energy in Balmedie, canvassed in Aberdeen’s Union Street and in Dyce as businesses reopened after Covid, spoken to creeler crews in Stonehaven, spoken about tourism at Dunnottar Castle, been spotted in Banchory and Inverurie on her motorbike – all accompanied by her campaign dog, a golden Labrador called Bruce.
A small bar, St Machar’s, in Aberdeen’s city centre, has even invented a Vote Laura cocktail, which prompts another laugh.
“It’s not beer garden weather really, but that’s Scotland,” she says.
"But they are extremely hard-working people who opened for business during lockdown last year and stayed afloat, so though I know my chance of being elected as an independent is small I really want to help these communities and I promised to bring their issues, concerns to the fore at every moment.
“I know my chances of getting elected are slim because the system is geared towards parties, but I feel I have succeeded anyway in getting people who were apathetic, disillusioned onto the electoral roll and interested in this Scottish election and I really hope for a much bigger turn out than 56 per cent this year. I just want to give people a choice.”
At 2,600 electric miles at the last count, Mr Wightman is another who decided after being encouraged by voters to stand as an independent.
Stopping to talk as he makes his way to Skye to visit his mother after months of not being able to see her because of the pandemic, he says campaigning by himself is “like flying blind – you get a good reaction from people, but you’re not in the opinion polls, so you’ve no real idea”.
Mr Wightman, who was a list MSP for Lothian, had decided to move to Lochaber some time ago, “so while I may have had a better chance as an independent in Lothian, I don’t think you should represent an area if you don’t live there”.
"The Highlands and Islands is used to voting for independent candidates in council elections and I think they value people with an independence of mind,” he says.
"I’m certainly being told a lot that people are fed up with the parties.”
Asked if he had taken a risk, he says no – “all I’m really risking is the £500 deposit”.
Mr Wightman adds: “I took the decision to stand because people were asking me to and wanted me to be in Holyrood. Even people who were writing to me at the time of the harassment committee telling me I was awful, then got in touch to say they’d vote for me as an independent because they appreciated I was making up my own mind.
“We need more free thinkers and creativity in Holyrood rather than partisanship. Some of the most enjoyable moments for me over the last five years were when I was working with people cross-party. Holyrood really needs to be more pluralist in general – look at Sweden and Denmark where there are many parties rather than just five."
The 57-year-old admits the system is not geared to independents – there are no TV slots, broadcasters are not forced to ensure independent voices are heard, and then there’s the money.
“It’s an uneven playing field, yes,” he says.
"I’ve been lucky to raise £17,000 through a crowdfunder. Electoral law allows you one free post thorough the Royal Mail, but of course you have to design and print the leaflets – that cost £9,800.
"I have two main goals, to make people aware I am on the ballot paper in the first place and then to give them enough information to make up their minds to vote for me, and that costs money.”
Mr Wightman adds: “We also have a problem with the electoral system we have.
"People understand how first-past-the-post works, but the Additional Member vote is not well understood and people don’t know how to achieve the result they might want.
"But I think my message of not having to take a party line is resonating. People ask what difference could you make, but what difference can any of the 129 MSPs make? It depends on how hard you’re prepared to work.”
Mr Wightman is not the only independent candidate in the Highlands and Islands.
Also on the ballot is Hazel Mansfield, who decided to throw her hat in the ring after attending workshops by the Parliamentary Project, which aims to get more women involved in electoral politics (there are five women running as independents in the election).
She is vice-chair of the Stornoway Community Council, but like Ms Marshall and Mr Wightman has a great belief the regions beyond the Central Belt do not get the recognition they deserve in Holyrood.
Further, she says, the lack of action in tackling the issue of men’s violence against women finally forced her hand.
"Someone needs to do it,” she says. “Women are half the human species, why should we constantly feel unsafe?
"The only thing to do was get involved. Women not standing for election is part of the problem – the more women in Holyrood, the better. Of course now that there are two independents, that’s a choice for voters between a woman and a man.”
Ms Mansfield has been conducting her campaign mostly by social media, but says she’s managed to get out to speak to people locally.
"It’s all about community for me, building that feeling of community," she says.
"I came here 30 years ago because that's what I wanted to be a part of and that’s never left me. I’m also campaigning on rural health issues, so many people are unable to access the health checks they need, especially in regards to cancer.”
She adds: “You know, we’re a quiet people up here, but that doesn’t mean people don’t know what’s going on. I may not have the cash to campaign in the way the parties do, but word gets around.”
There’s no doubt that when it comes to electoral systems, the UK is an outrider among northern Europe countries in how it elects its politicians.
Independents have far more chance of being elected in Scandinavian countries, but also closer to home in Ireland.
Since the first Irish government was elected in 1922, independents have played a part because of the use of the Single Transferable Vote system – the same one now used in Scotland to elect councillors, where individuals are ranked.
Indeed at the Irish general election in 2016, independents won 23 of the 157 seats, and have regularly held the balance of power as kingmakers in hung parliaments, using their position to extract policy influence, says Liam Weeks, a lecturer in government and politics at University College Cork, and author of “Independents in Irish Party Democracy”.
“Independents are very significant in Ireland and they have a lot of influence,” he says.
"In the same way the DUP had influence with Theresa May’s government, they are able to advocate for their area and win spending.
"Forty per cent of our governments have been minorities and rather than have party coalitions, they go to the independents for support. The Healy-Rae’s are a famous family of independent politicians. The father was known as the ‘sugar daddy’ because he always brought home money for the region.”
Mr Weeks adds: "People are pi**ed off with politicians across the world at the moment and so you’ve seen a rise in populist parties from the right.
"We don't have that in Ireland. The populists are more left-wing, but we have many rural areas where the voters don’t trust the left on land issues, so they vote for independents, and our electoral system of STV allows for that to have an impact.
"That’s not the same in the UK where there’s only ever been Martin Bell, the former journalist, who won as an independent in 1997, but I’m not sure what he achieved beyond being known for his white suit.
“And, of course, he was up against Neil Hamilton and both Labour and the Lib Dems didn’t run against him. Obviously Scotland’s system is different again, but it’s still very much for the parties and not independents.”
According to the EU, independent candidacy is on the rise.
Over the past decade, the number of independents included on the ballot has increased in ten of the 13 countries that allow for independent candidacies.
However, vote share never rises much above 2 per cent – although the 2009 European Parliament elections in Estonia saw independents win more than 30 per cent of the vote.
Certainly it is generally accepted that when people vote for independent candidates, it reflects their alienation from the political mainstream parties, so there is an element of a protest vote, an expression of dis-satisfaction with the government.
The Twitter handle of one candidate sums that up precisely – @discontent_scot is the account of Bonnie Prince Bob, running not on the Lothians list, but in the constituency seat of Edinburgh Central, where he wants to defeat SNP candidate Angus Robertson.
The video artist, who has been using social media and his YouTube channel to promote his campaign, which pulls no punches, says he is standing “because the careerist political class have become the greatest obstacle to a healthy functioning democracy”.
He says he believes that former Moray MP Robertson “is the absolute epitome of a careerist carpetbagger, a guy who sat in Westminster for nearly two decades and got minted by representing an area hundreds of miles from the capital, who now shows up here and claims he should represent Edinburgh Central because he went to school here”. “Big deal – so did Tony Blair and Idi Amin,” he says.
He adds: “Edinburgh Central is the constituency where I live. It deserves to be represented by someone who cares about and understands the real problems endured, especially in the poorer areas and not just the tranquil realms of middle-class ignorance such as Stockbridge, Murrayfield and the New Town.
"Party politics relies on an apathetic electorate who have become inured to the tedious grifting of visionless politicians. My campaign video is more engaging and exciting than anything created by party political machinery, art and imagination are invaluable and the political class possess neither.”
Over the water in Mid-Scotland and Fife, Martin Keatings is also discontented, but the 36-year-old has already made a name for himself as the man behind the court challenge to determine whether Holyrood could unilaterally hold an independence referendum rather than wait for a Section 30 order from the UK Government.
It’s a case that he knows will end up in the Supreme Court on an appeal one way or another, but he says the framing of the argument against his case is that “me, a mere pleb cannot take on the role of a parliamentarian and ask for a decision on whether Holyrood can hold a referendum, so why not become a parliamentarian? But I’m standing for more than that”.
Mr Keatings has been an unpaid carer for his mother for the past ten years and also volunteers to help people with appeals against Department for Work and Pensions benefit decisions.
“Social justice is at the heart of everything I do,” he says.
“Unpaid carers are probably one of the most under-represented sections of society and their voice needs to be heard in Holyrood. These are people who have been in lockdown with the people they care for since last year and they’ve been forgotten about, and those on legacy benefits have not even had the £20 Universal Credit uplift.
"I believe I have a different perspective from most politicians and I know I can change things – I already have.”
Mr Keatings says he has been instrumental in changing SNP policy on the Carers’ Supplement because he has friends in the party, who raised the issue locally before it was ultimately adopted at the party conference.
Similarly he spoke to friends in Labour and the Greens about the Forth Rail Link after the closure of Longannet power station, to transform a freight rail line into a passenger one that could carry people from Dunfermline to Glasgow without having to go through Edinburgh.
“Phase one is already done,” he says, “and it attracted a train manufacturer to the area and created 1,000 jobs. If I’m elected I would push for phase two.”
Mr Keatings admits the campaigning is tough.
“You don't get the same chances as party candidates," he says.
"I’ve been invited to one hustings and, of course, there’s no TV broadcasts or anything like that, but I keep going.
"If 18,000 people choose to vote for me, I could be there and my voice would carry the same weight as any other MSP and I believe I can make a change. You’ve got to, otherwise you wouldn’t put yourself through all this.”
A message from the Editor:Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by Coronavirus impacts our advertisers.
If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.