Political Figures: Can independents win?

Once a month we are going to hand over to Alan Collins from Medway Elects who is going to dig into the Medway electoral data, and try to tell us what it all means..

This week marks Medway Elects’ fourth anniversary and, in that time, like this very blog, it has gone from strength to strength. I am incredibly grateful to everyone who has helped and supported the project – and will continue to be open to ideas for new features over the coming months and years.

But given this important milestone, it is, perhaps, fitting that this is the week I post my last article in this series, on the very blog I launched Medway Elects four years ago. If you thought Jennings’ analysis of the candidates in each of Medway’s 22 wards was long, strap in tight: you ain’t seen nothing yet…

Can Independents Win?

One of the oft-used arguments against proportional representation in national and local elections is that we vote for individuals, not parties.

Whilst that is technically true (we mark our cross next to the name of a candidate, rather than a party, and if there is more than one seat available, we get more than one vote), history tells us that those candidates who belong to the mainstream parties stand a much better chance of winning – and the same parties who argue against proportional representation on the basis that we vote for individuals fight elections urging people to vote for their “local [insert party here] candidate”.

But if we assume that people genuinely do vote for individuals rather than looking for parties on the ballot paper, then we must consider the hypothesis that, all other variables aside, those candidates who stand as independents stand as equal a chance of winning an election as those who stand for a party. Most readers will not need to read beyond this paragraph to realise that this hypothesis is nothing short of a complete nonsense, but for the data geeks out there, let’s examine exactly what has happened in Medway since those first elections to the (then shadow) authority in 1997.

Independents

Independent candidates have appeared on ballot papers 37 times since 1997, including those who described themselves as “Independent” and those who gave no description at all. Of those, 7 were elected, a return rate of 19%.

To be fair to those who stand as independents, that is a marginally better return rate than the Liberal Democrats’ 18% – and significantly better than UKIP’s 5% – but it falls well short of the Conservatives’ 51% and Labour’s 32%. Indeed, of the 389 seats contested since 1997, 323 have been won by either the Conservatives or Labour, which suggests all other challengers, including independents, face difficult odds from the start.

Parties can provide funding and campaign volunteers most independent candidates have little or no access to, with the Conservatives and Labour having significantly more of both resources than any other party. The Conservatives and Labour are arguably the most recognisable political parties, and, as the two largest parties nationally, receive the most prominent coverage in the media.

With such heavy odds against success, the obvious subsequent question is how have almost one-fifth of independent candidates been successful where UKIP, a party with national prominence, or even the Green Party, who have yet to have a councillor elected despite appearing on ballot papers 51 times, have not?

Let’s start by looking at each of those independent candidates in turn.

In 1997, Alan Green and Rupert Brennan (remember those names, they might come up again) stood as independent candidates in St Margaret’s & Borstal, coming last with a respectable 10.8% share of the vote.

Medway-wide, independents managed a slightly less respectable 0.4% share of the vote in 1997.

Three years later, independent candidates got their first taste of success as Independent Liberal Democrats Ian Burt and Doris Wheller took both available seats in Hook Meadow on 54% of the vote. Both had been elected as Liberal Democrats in 1997, but left the party and managed to retain their seats as independents with relative ease.

Slightly less successful in this endeavour was former Labour councillor Wynford Thomas. Elected as the only Labour councillor in the three-member ward of St Margaret’s & Borstal in 1997, he left his party and tried his luck on his own. Not only was his seat taken by the Conservative he had beaten three years earlier, he was also beaten by all three Labour candidates, polling just 13.6%.

Thanks, mostly, to the Hook Meadow independents, Medway-wide non-party candidates achieved 4% of the vote in 2000, despite there only being three of them.

The 2003 election saw yet another increase in independent candidates, despite there being 25 fewer seats to contest following boundary changes. In Rochester West, Alan Green (remember him?) and Maurice Sparham managed to beat UKIP, but with just 6.4% of the vote, were not in danger of troubling the successful Conservative candidates.

In Strood Rural, incumbent Conservative-turned-Independent councillor Ian Martin also failed to trouble his former party, coming in behind Labour, UKIP and the Liberal Democrats and receiving a poor 7.1% of the vote. Ouch!

Somewhat more successful in 2003 were independents Ian Burt and his new running mate Kieran Magee, standing in the newly-created Walderslade ward. Although they managed to win both seats with 43.2% of the vote (against the Conservatives’ 34.2%), that Magee only beat one of their challengers by 12 votes suggested that victory was not as easily won as it had been in 2000 – and that a concerted effort by the Conservatives in 2007 could be enough to unseat at least one of them.

Finally, in Watling, newcomer Barry Archer (remember that name, it might be important) managed to get more than double the number of votes as UKIP, but still only achieved an 8.8% share – falling far behind the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour.

Overall, despite two independents once again being returned to the council, the Medway-wide share of the vote fell to 2.7%.

2007 is an important year for this article. Although there were officially just 8 independent candidates, there were a total of 25 who were not standing for a national political party, which has never since been beaten (but more on that later). In Hempstead & Wigmore, home to the then-Leader of the Council Rodney ChambersNoel McAllister and (fresh from fighting two consecutive elections as a Conservative candidate) Rupert Brennan gave the Conservatives a strong fighting, coming in second place on 28.7% of the vote.

Over on the PeninsulaGeorge Crozer also came in second behind the Conservatives, this time with 27% of the vote.

In Rainham Central, sitting Conservative-turned-Independent councillor Matt Fearn sought re-election alongside newcomer Peter Rodberg. Despite being the sitting councillor, Fearn only managed 19.2% of the vote, coming third behind the Liberal Democrats. Rodberg was a further 400 votes behind him. Since then, of course, Fearn has returned to the Tory fold, being elected in Cuxton & Halling in 2015 and fighting to keep his seat this time round, while Rodberg was elected as a Conservative councillor in Strood Rural in 2011 and fought to defend his seat as a UKIP candidate in 2015 (spoiler: he lost).

Another former councillor sought re-election as an independent in Strood Rural, albeit not as an incumbent. Chris Fribbins was Labour councillor for Thames Side ward from 1997 until he was defeated in 2000. He stood in Strood Rural in 2003 as one of Labour’s three candidates, but as an independent in 2007 he managed to not only beat Labour, but also poll 17.2%. However, it was not enough to win election to the council.

Remember when I said a concerted effort by the Conservatives could have been enough to unseat at least one of Walderslade independents Ian Burt and Kieran Magee in 2007? Well, both sought re-election but, despite Burt topping the poll with 39.1%, Magee lost his seat to the Conservatives, leaving Burt as the sole independent voice on the council.

Medway-wide, despite the number of independent councillors halving, their vote share rocketed up to 7%, while all candidates not standing for a national party (more on that later) polled a combined 11.7% across Medway.

2011 saw a record (until now) 13 independent candidates, of whom two were incumbent councillors seeking re-election. Gillingham North saw four independent candidates: three of whom stood on a joint ticket with a fourth seemingly standing to confuse the situation. Liberal Democrat-turned-Independent incumbent Andy Stamp topped the ballot, ensuring the independents took 35.1% of the vote, with his first running mate, former Liberal Democrat councillor Pat Cooper, taking the second seat. Their second running mate Dan McDonald came in behind all three Labour candidates, while wildcard independent Alan Austen was beaten by just about everyone except the Greens and TUSC.

In Gillingham SouthGillian StampDan Hilder and Stuart Stamp had somewhat less luck, polling just 4.1% and with the latter two even being beaten by the British National Party.

Noel McAllister and Rupert Brennan should, by now, be familiar names, and they once again took to challenging the Chambers’ dominance in Hempstead & Wigmore. Whilst they held on to second place, their vote share fell to 18.5% while the Conservatives took over half of the vote. Chris Fribbins also stood again in Strood Rural, and was not only beaten by the Conservatives, but Labour also managed to win more support as he was squeezed to just 15% of the vote. None of these have sought further election attempts in Medway.

Incumbent Ian Burt sought re-election in Walderslade, while his former colleague Kieran Magee sought a return to the council. Their vote share dropped to 30.5% and both seats in the ward went to the Conservatives. Neither of them have sought re-election since.

As if to prove that 2011 was a year to put people off repeating election attempts, Barry Archer’s last-placed election campaign in Watling, winning just 5.9% of the vote, was also his last attempt to get a seat on the council.

Overall in Medway, the independents’ vote share dropped to 5.1% while the number of independent councillors doubled to two.

Fast-forward to 2015 and the last all-out elections in Medway, where just four independent candidates appeared on ballot papers. In Chatham Central, the Christian People’s Alliance’s general election candidate for Chatham & AylesfordJohn Gibson, stood without a party label. Ironically, whilst he only received 133 votes across the whole of Chatham & Aylesford, he got almost twice that number (263) in Chatham Central. However, this equated to just 4.1% and he won neither election.

On the Peninsula, parish councillor Ron Sands, who had stood for the English Democrats in 2011 and the Conservatives in the 2014 by-election, received 9.1% of the vote and came in behind UKIP, the Conservatives and Labour. He is one of four independent candidates standing in Peninsula next month.

In Rainham CentralKaren Streatfield, who had stood for the English Democrats in Chatham Central in 2011, took the independent route. She came last on just 1.1% of the vote.

And in Rainham Southfavourite of this blog Mike Walters, who stood for the English Democrats in Strood South in 2011, as an independent in the 2015 general election in Gillingham & Rainham and is standing as a Liberal Democrat in Rainham South next month, received 3.4% of the vote and came behind the Conservatives, UKIP and Labour, only beating the TUSC.

Overall in Medway, the four independent candidates polled a combined 1% of the vote and, for the first time since 2000, not a single independent candidate was elected.

So wherein lies the difference for the independent candidates who were elected and those who were not?

Looking closer at the independent candidates who have been elected, a clear pattern emerges: five of the seven successful candidates were sitting councillors standing for re-election, while the other two were standing on a joint ticket with a councillor who was standing for re-election, and one of those had previously been a councillor in the same area. I’ll be considering why this might be a little later in this article.

An independent party for Medway

New kids on the block Medway People’s Voice (MPV) may feel they are on to something by applying to register as a political party and standing 19 candidates in eight wards in Medway, but they are not the first to try this approach.

In 2007, newly-registered Medway Independent Party (MIP) fielded 17 candidates in 14 wards. On election day, however, they received just 4.7% of the vote and not one of their candidates were elected to the Council. Indeed, only the English Democrats and the British National Party fared worse – and they both fielded significantly fewer candidates.

At ward level, MIP came in last place in all but four wards: Rochester East, Strood Rural and Walderslade, where they beat UKIP, and Princes Park, where they beat the BNP.

Where MIP had an important advantage over MPV was in its registration – they were officially registered as a political party on 21 March 2006, 14 months before the election. It’s not known when MPV applied to register, but the fact that notice of their application wasn’t published until 22 February suggests it was late in the day. I am reliably advised that the application was submitted before the Electoral Commission’s deadline for local elections of 4 February, and that their application may have been delayed by an application to register “The People’s Voice”, notice of which was published on the same day. Awkward!

Whatever the underlying cause, MPV candidates will not appear as MPV candidates on the ballot paper. Instead, they will be listed as “Independent”. Which perhaps makes this section of this article somewhat redundant. However, this was written a few weeks ago when it still seemed as though MPV may have been registered in time. One does not simply discard a considerable amount of research and labour. Or something.

So, who stood for MIP in 2007?

In short, a Medway-wide party of independent candidates has been tried in Medway before and failed. As to whether MPV’s independents can fare any better, given they are starting with a sitting councillor and a group of experienced political campaigners, we will have to wait until 2 May to find out.

Why do independents struggle?

I have endeavoured to ensure that my articles in this series have been strictly limited to analysing historical electoral data, with minimal supposition not backed up by the facts. However, there is limited scope for that in this article, and if I don’t try to answer this last question, I’m concerned I won’t be welcomed back to write for Messrs Jennings & Keevil again. So here goes…

I have (to varying levels of time and effort) been involved in at least ten election campaigns since I first became active in politics in 2007.

Election campaigns take work to win. Like, a lot of work. Serious hard work for months and months, particularly if you are battling against a prevailing wind. It is physically and emotionally exhausting, and I have an immense amount of respect for any candidate or campaigner (of any party) who is involved in campaigning.

My own election campaign in 2015 was not exactly a shining example of how to win bigly (it will be up to the good people of Watling to decide if I am any more successful this time round), but as my first as a candidate, it was quite an eye-opener.

If one is standing for election, it is not enough to simply put your name on a ballot paper, drop a few leaflets through a few doors and hope that the local or national mood carries you over the line. The established parties know how much hard work goes in – and they also know that, no matter how hard you work, it still may not be enough.

Why have five of the seven successful independent candidates been sitting councillors? Why have the other two piggybacked over the line with them? And, going back to a previous article, why do sitting councillors fare better than their running mates, even if they appear lower down the ballot paper?

Sitting councillors have already had the all-important conversations with residents. They are known throughout the ward and will (if they’ve been fulfilling the contract with the electorate) have built up a track-record of action. Simply put: at local elections, some voters like to vote for people who get things done, and if it’s a choice between an effective independent councillor or a fresh face from an established party, the sitting councillor will often come out on top.

This is demonstrably true for every party. While 51% of Conservative candidates have been elected, the return rate for councillors standing for re-election is considerably higher at 89%. For Labour, 74% of councillors standing for re-election were successful, compared to 32% of Labour candidates overall. The Liberal Democrats’ success rate of 18% is dwarfed by the 55% of sitting councillors re-elected. Even UKIP have a 20% success rate for sitting councillors (if you count the other 2014 by-election), compared to their overall success rate of 5%.

And independent councillors? While just 19% of independent candidates have been elected, 50% of independent councillors standing for re-election have been entrusted with an additional term of office.

There are a record 24 independent candidates standing in Medway this year, including the 19 who would otherwise have stood for MPV. 3 of those independents are sitting councillors in Sam CravenMike Franklin (yes, really) andMick Pendergast (the only incumbent MPV candidate).

History tells us those candidates will struggle, but also suggests, on a pure statistical analysis, that we could see at least 4 independent councillors elected this year, including one who is an incumbent in the council chamber. However, whether the election on 2 May follows the historical pattern will be up to the voters of Medway to decide.

So, wherever you put your cross(es) on 2 May, your vote really will matter, as long as you are registered by Friday!

2019 Medway Council Election Projection

So now for the final “headline” figures before the election. If you’ve read all the way to here, well done! Once again, I would urge you to note the various caveats in my first article. The projected vote share and estimated seat distribution as at today’s date is:

As I’ve consistently reiterated, the above figures are a projection of what the level of support should be for each party in Medway at the date they are produced. They are not a prediction as to how people will vote on 2 May. Ultimately, it is up to the candidates themselves to persuade and encourage the electorate between now and polling day. Whether the actual results match the projections, or even the patterns of voting behaviour I’ve analysed in my previous articles, will be discovered in the early hours of 3 May.

Medway Elects will be updated with ward-by-ward results throughout the night – and thanks to the considerable amount of work and testing we did while we were offline last week, key data such as vote share will be automatically updated after each result is added.

Alan Collins is the creator of Medway Elects, which is committed to building a complete electoral history for Medway.

A lot of work goes into keeping The Political Medway running. We are a volunteer based, non-profit project, and yet we are still trying to produce daily content, cover council meetings as they happen, as well as provide as much information about elections as possible. If you appreciate what we do, please consider making a small donation – one-off or monthly – via Ko-fi to help us cover our costs and keep this ridiculous project going.

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5 Replies to “Political Figures: Can independents win?”

  1. I stood as an Independent on the Isle of Sheppey on a campaign to get the 140,000 tons of live TNT on the WW2 Wreck the S.S.Richard Montgomery defused before there’s an accident or deliberate terrorist attack to explode it , which would very likely kill thousands of people and spread rusty red hot confetti all over Hoo Peninsula and the oil refinery , I came last on 144 votes, clearly voters in general would prefer to be blown up or drowned by tsunami rather than actually vote Independent. (as a Christian 144 has a special meaning, so taking biblical prophecy to heart , it wont happen unless I am on a hillside in Israel ). phew that’s ok then.

  2. A very interesting article. St Margaret’s and Borstal ward (as it was until 2003) – had a history of Independent Cllrs since the late 1960s. It was then ‘plain’ St Margaret’s Ward. Indeed, all three Cllrs had for years been Independents until Peggy Saxby was elected in May 1976. She was the only Conservative elected in 1979. I was the first Conservative to oust a sitting Independent Cllr (Helen Colvin) in May 1983. Only Cllr Chris Nickless remained as an Independent. He was re-elected in 1987 but did not seek re-election in 1991. Three Conservatives won that May (Cllrs Bailey, Chamberlain and Saxby).

  3. 2019 is going to be interesting for independents in Medway for two reasons – the B(rexit) word and Local Plan implications on the Hoo Peninsula. It is a sad fact that national politics plays such a big part in local elections, with only a small number of exceptions.

  4. Another issue is the size of wards in Medway. They used to be a lot smaller (when there were more councillors) but after reducing the numbers, the wards got much larger and even the larger parties often struggle to cover the area – independents may build a base in an area, but can be swamped by the rest of the area.

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