One of the interventions people frequently call for in Northern Ireland politics is the creation of new parties. It came up again last night as one of the first questions at Platform for Change’s event: “Why can’t the [middle ground] politicians sitting around the table unite and form a new party?”
I’m not so convinced that we’re ready for new parties. Even before NI21 launched and fell apart, I’ve longed for a surge of independents to flood the local government scene and shake it up.
The number of votes needed to win a council seat isn’t so great that an individual with an existing reputation couldn’t capitalise on it to become electable. With two or three years of effort, solid canvassing, surveying households, newsletters, getting hands on with local issues and taking advantage of the local paper as well as social media, getting 900–1200 votes is plausible … if still very hard work.
15 out of the 57 independent candidates in the May 2014 local government elections won seats. Eight reached the quota with their first preference votes. Another three reached the quota in subsequent rounds.
In fact, percentage-wise, fewer independents were successfully elected did so under-quota (26.7%) than any other party in the election (other than the PUP whose four successful candidates all reached the quota): Alliance (28.1%), DUP (29.2%), UUP (29.5%), SDLP (33.3%), UKIP (33.3%), Sinn Fein (35.2%), Green Party (50.0%), TUV (53.8%), NI21 (100%).
Even looking at candidates as a whole, the chance of an Independent candidate being elected in May 2014 was just 26.3% … well under the 56-76% rates for the SDLP, DUP, Sinn Fein and UUP. Alliance managed 39.0%. But Independents were still more likely to be elected than candidates from the TUV, PUP, UKIP NI21, never mind the plethora of smaller parties. So it isn’t impossible.
Independents have the advantage of being able to make alliances on an issue-by-issue basis. They don’t come with years of baggage that backs them into a corner on old issues. They have no awkward party whip that makes them vote against their conscience. [Ed – instead they have an electorate that can force them to swallow their feelings and vote to stay in office?!] But they can bring expertise to challenge service delivery and established council practices. Over time, independents might realise that they have much in common with existing parties – or form working coalitions with other independents – having the space and time to feel out whether longer-lasting alliances and common policy-based parties are worthwhile and sustainable.
There do seem to be big drawbacks to being an independent. The lack of support from fellow party members, a lack of organisation and back office to fall back, shared services like leaflet design and instant policies on everything. But those could be overcome.
While NI21’s entry onto the NI political stage was perhaps always going to be a difficult act, their poor performance and bad review will make others reluctant to form new parties. But there does seem to be a gap in the market for an independent-friendly administrative assistance service.
Between 11am and 2pm on Saturday 22, a group are meeting in the Skainos centre (239 Newtownards Road, Belfast, BT4 1AF) to discuss what sounds like an umbrella support group for independent candidates in future elections. The organiser of the Northern Ireland Independent Network explains:
Imagine a new political party or group in N.Ireland that puts candidates forward for election but not under their own banner, party lines or strict ideology but as independent representatives.
A political party or group is NOT obliged to submit their own candidates for any election. However individuals can register as an independent candidates, for elections, while being a member of a party or group. Furthermore a group or party that does not submit their own candidates for elections is not obliged to register as a political party or minor party and therefore not tied to the regulations that a registered party is.
One possibility would be that candidates could “get administrative and financial support from the party” in return for agreeing to “carry out their work as an independent representative and work towards a progressive, inclusive and non sectarian Northern Ireland”.
Their views on how it might be made to work are still fluid. But if you’re interested I’m sure they’d be glad to see you to hear your views.