Could more independents stand and be elected in council elections?

The majority of councils in Northern Ireland have at least one independent elected councillor. Around half have two or more. Independents received just over 5% of first preference votes in the May 2011 elections, less than Alliance’s 7.4%, but more than the TUV, Green, PUP and UKIP combined.

In the last Scottish council elections, independents picked up 10.9% of the votes and over 15% of the seats.

Many independent councillors seem to align to parties – often having left them or not quite yet joined – and since the May 2011 election there has been some redesignation. Many independents are independent nationalists or independent unionists.

Watching the recent series of Bob Servant Independent – as Broughty Ferry’s cheeseburger tycoon sought electoral success in a Westminster by-election – has made me wonder again about the potential and the practicality for more people to stand as independent council candidates in their communities. Bob wasn’t standing for council … though that didn’t stop him commenting on council issues!

It wouldn’t be easy. You’d need to already have a local reputation, or be able to build one quickly.

You’d need to put in a lot of hours for a year or two before the next election pounding the pavements, surveying residents, turning up at community events, getting articles into your local weekly paper, leafleting households about local issues.

And you’d need spare cash – though no deposit is required to stand at local government elections – and even more spare time. And yet more time to serve if you were successfully elected.

But if every district electoral area had an independent candidate, if every council had 3 or more truly independent councillors, perhaps holding the balance of power in the council and voting not along tribal lines but by grappling with the issue at hand, it would surely change the nature of local council politics?

Qualification: many people don’t want NI politics to change. But some do.

Is it so far fetched to imagine a hundred or so extra independents stepping forward? Who would encourage and mentor them? Could they build a quota of support?

Of course they’d need committed helpers at election time to help canvass and to put up posters. Bob Servant learned from experience about delegating poster design …

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  • son of sam

    Sadly,Alan your idea of a large number of genuine Independents stepping forward is unlikely to happen.As you point out, most Independents at the moment seem to align to existing partiesl.I seem to remember at the last Assembly elections two former S D L P councillors formed an unholy alliance to attempt to frustrate the election of Joe Byrne in West Tyrone.Technically they were independents but in reality they had scores to settle with their former party.I’m sure that scenario is not unique to Tyrone.

  • The simple answer is yes they could. But on one hand the changes in boundaries might break up old fiefdoms. And conversely higher quotas would mitigate against Independents.
    Some areas (Moyle and North Down) are maybe more Independent-friendly.
    But as has been mentioned with Strabane above….it seems that at least some Independents are former party members who have had a fall out…that’s something that affects all parties. But at heart a lot of nominal Independents are in the gene pool of some party….or more broadly unionist or nationalist.
    A few years ago, there was a Ratepayers Party in Newtownabbey and now one of them is a prominent member of Alliance.
    Even if elected Independents naturally caucus with other like minded people and are head hunted or find that they have a lot in common with the closest party.
    There are of course people who stay the course as Independents but people enter politics as a party member and become discontent…or enter as an Independent and find quite properly that they can achieve more by membership of a party.

  • aquifer

    It should be easier nowadays with the internet to motivate people to turnout to vote, but it is also a question of having the time to walk the streets.

    Healthy retired people could do it, and more older people vote.

  • SDLP supporter

    Assuming that the 11 council, 460 councillors model (10 by 40 plus 60 for Belfast) comes into effect, one of the beneficial consequences will be that it should establish roughly the same number of voters per wards, 3000 or so.

    The current 26 council model has thrown up some ludicrous anomalies. For example, at the last 2011 council election the quota for Giant’s Causeway DEA’s 5 councillors in Moyle was 270 votes whereas the quota for the Upper Falls DEA’s 5 councillors in Belfast 2084 votes. This was a differential of almost 8 times, which was clearly undemocratic and flouted the principle that every vote should have broadly equal value.

    Micro-Councils like Moyle historically have had higher than average numbers of ‘independents’, quite often eccentrics, curmudgeons, soreheads, head-bangers and the like who were able to take advantage of the low threshold for getting elected.

    There were honourable exceptions like the late Dungannon Councillor Jim Canning, who was very committed to the town of Coalisland, and who on other questions basically was the late Fr. Denis Faul’s representative on earth.

    I think it will be harder than ever for ‘independents’, who are rarely true non-aligned independents, to get elected. and that overall is no bad thing.

  • son of sam

    S D L P supporter
    Am I correct in thinking that some of the “independents” in Moyle gravitated towards Sinn Fein?

  • SDLP supporter

    SoS, don’t have detailed knowledge of their individual political provenance, but you may very well be right.

    IIRC, 30 years ago there was a proposal to merge Moyle and Ballymoney councils and SDLP was asked to take up negotiations on behalf of some independents in Moyle in order to preserve Moyle’s status. Some of those guys signed up to SDLP membership and, once Moyle was safe, they upped sticks and left.

    Anyway, with additional powers going to councils on planning etc, councillors will need to be very well briefed and, unless they are polymaths, they’re not going to get that without a well-functioning and policy research party structure.

  • Barnshee

    “Anyway, with additional powers going to councils on planning etc, councillors will need to be very well briefed and, unless they are polymaths”

    Polymaths ?? Try literacy and numeracy first (a GCSE maybe) A glance at any NI local council will show that “polymaths” are in short supply.

    Party hacks waiting their turn for the 10K ( or whatever) of mayoral allowance and the 60 p a mile for using their car on council business

    “additional powers ” for this lot– its enough to make the blood run cold

  • SDLP supporter


    Was being slightly ironic there. At present, they decide on very little, on planning they only have consultative power but soon they will have to carry the can for real decisions. People get what they vote for. If there are moron dummies or kleptocrats in elected office, it’s the people’s fault, whether George W. in the US of A or Fianna Fail down South.

    There is no bigger lie than ‘vox populi, vox Dei’ [‘the people’s voice is God’s voice’]. Well, maybe second biggest lie after ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’.

  • Seamuscamp

    Here in rural England “Independent” is generally a nom de guerre for “Conservative”. In some cases they don’t like the dominant voices in the local Party; in some cases they oppose the notion of Party in politics at the most local level. So you can find the same individual is “Independent” at Town Council level, but “Conservative” at District Council level; or “Independent” at District Council level, but “Conservative” at County Council level. There are a few genuine Independents, who get elected because they are locally well known to have “sound” (ie conservative) views. This is an area where forelocks traditionally have been very long.

  • Independents really work better in a system using first-past-the-post franchise than using a PR franchise of any sort, since the latter is really organized around parties. In Israel, which has a straight PR-list system independents are usually politicians with an established reputation that have fallen out with their parties for one reason or another–often maneuvering from one party to another within the same sector of the party spectrum.

    I know that in Omagh there was an independent who ran on the issue of the local hospital. I think that unionist politics is more suited for independents than is nationalist politics because there are simply more parties i.e. more flavors and being an independent is just another flavor.