Comment is a collection of views, opinion and insight from Edge Hill University’s academics about topical issues, current events or areas of expertise. Commentators from across the University use this space to discuss their views as well as sharing their own knowledge, research and interests.
In the UK the scheduled May elections were delayed for a
year but in the US there is the Presidential and other elections in November
and, more trickily a series of primary contests to select candidates.
Primaries (and caucuses) select delegates according to
candidate. The delegates then go to
Conventions which nominate the chosen candidate.
Normally this time of year would feel like a parade of
never-ending contests. Instead the coronavirus crisis has meant many primaries
are postponed, and some have now become all postal vote affairs. And even though there is no real challenge to
Donald Trump on the Republican side, and the main challenger to Joe Biden
(Bernie Sanders) has
suspended his campaign on the Democrat side, the primary votes will happen.
The shutdown and postponed votes however means more to the
Democrats than Republicans. Normally
this succession of contests would be a massive profile raising opportunity for
a challenger. Instead Joe Biden finds it
an increasing struggle to stay politically relevant. While State Governors and Federal legislators
have an obvious platform, he doesn’t.
Biden can of course organise on line Town Hall meetings and
he can broadcast statements. But the logistical challenge is more easily
solvable than that of message and profile.
In news terms the only game in town is coronavirus and the response of
Donald Trump. Biden is campaigning
heavily on this, tweeting to attack previous lack of preparation, for example
this one from April 4 “In January, while
Donald Trump was downplaying COVID-19, I wrote an op-ed calling for immediate
action to combat the growing threat. In it, I also said Trump was the worst possible
leader to deal with a public health crisis. I stand by that statement.”. The Democratic presumptive nominee is taking care however to accompany his
attacks with proactive suggestions such as the Biden
There is one primary date that didn’t change –
Wisconsin. Most primaries are run by the
State so the State legislature makes the decision. And in this case Wisconsin
kept its date (7 April) with a small window of opportunity for postal
ballots to arrive back seven days later.
The Democratic Party Convention, at which the Presidential
and Vice – Presidential candidates are nominated, has
been shifted back to mid- August but even with the new date it is not at
all clear how much of the normal Convention can take place.
And of course in the Democratic Party the focus now moves even more closely to the Biden Vice-Presidential pick.
For many UK politicians, the question of votes for prisoners
is politically toxic. David Cameron said
the prospect made him feel physically ill and when the issue has come up in
Parliament it’s been a rare person who has ventured an opinion in favour.
But the tide could be moving in favour of the franchise for
those behind bars.
UK legislation has long excluded prisoners from voting. This blanket ban was challenged back in 2005
in Hirst vs United Kingdom with the European
Court of Human Rights ruling that a whole group could not be excluded in
that way. The government however was
reluctant to make any changes arguing that part of the punishment of being in
prison was losing those sort of rights. The
stalemate on the issue continued until 2017 when a handful of prisoners, those out on temporary licence, gained the franchise. It’s worth saying here that those on remand –
in a prison but not actually convicted
of anything – have always retained the right to vote, whether aware of it or
The number of those on temporary licence is small enough for
few people to notice. But changes in
Scotland and potentially in Wales this year could open the door to more
pressure to bring prisoners into the electorate. In Scotland a Bill to, among other things, extend voting
rights to certain prisoners – those with a sentence up to 12 months – gained
royal assent in early April and is now a law.
That means the right to vote in local elections and the poll for the
Scottish Parliament. There won’t be
polling stations in prisons. Instead
inmates will be registered at their old address and will make their choice by
post or proxy.
In Wales another Bill on voting will be discussed in the
Senedd plenary session today (8 April).
The Welsh Government is intending to add amendments
so that prisoners with sentences of up to four years could vote in Welsh local
Opinions on voting for prisoners vary dramatically. In some countries voting rights for prisoners
are widespread. This includes Ireland,
which saw inmates vote for the first time in 2007, and Canada. Some countries, such as Ukraine, set up
polling stations inside prisons, sending the votes back to the prisoners’ home
Yet in other parts of the world it is not just prisoners who
can’t vote also but those who have served their sentence. In the US some States ban those with felony
convictions from ever voting again. (Felonies are the serious crimes) This is being challenged with a
potentially significant court case later this month. In Florida,
voters supported a plan to allow give the vote back to a large number of
ex -felons. (In the US there are often referendum type votes on policy issues
at election time). The State legislature
thought differently however and came up with a plan to block the scheme. Now a Florida Court is to rule on whether the
legislature or the voters will get their way. The whole thing is all very
technical, but the upshot is that the
franchise could be extended in a meaningful way. And of course civil rights campaigners from
elsewhere in the US are keen to build on any success in Florida.
Over time democracies
have generally widened the franchise.
We’ve seen changes to voting ages and we’ve seen gender, class and
financial restrictions removed. It will
be interesting to see what further changes are made or resisted when it comes
to those in jail.
Edge Hill University’s politics courses include a specialist
module on Elections and Voting Systems as well as material about analysing
democracies and constitutional change.
In a public health crisis such as coronavirus, buildings
have had to be closed and gatherings banned.
That has included political institutions such as the House of Commons,
which went into recess early.
Yet if Parliament cannot meet, not only can there be no
legislative progress, there also can’t be proper scrutiny of the
The problem is not just a UK Parliament one, bodies around
the world are having to find ways of balancing protecting health with
Those familiar with the UK House of Commons and Lords will realise the problem. Members are crowded onto benches. Voting takes place in jammed division lobbies. The maze of passage ways doesn’t lend itself to social distancing. Before Easter’s early recess, changes were made to make protection a little easier. This saw a “two-shift” Prime Minister’s Questions in which MPs swapped over at half time to allow more to take part and observe distancing. Questions remain however about what might face MPs on their scheduled return on 21 April with the Speaker and others examining whether some MPs could take part remotely. If possible and agreed, that could mean a very different feel to Prime Minister’s Questions.
A Commons recess doesn’t necessarily mean an end to
activity. Select Committees have been
meeting and taking evidence remotely with, for example, the
Home Affairs Select Committee holding a video conference with witnesses on
There was some disquiet about the earlier than expected
start to the recess. Some opposition MPs
argued that the scrutiny and challenge role of Parliament could not be carried
out if Parliament was not sitting somehow.
In the weekly Questions to the Leader of the House on the day before the
recess was to start, Labour MP Wes Streeting said this: “I understand the
difficulties that we are in, but I have to disrupt the consensus: I do not
think it is right for Parliament to go into recess early, and I am worried
about how long it will be until we return. I hope that the Leader of the House
will guarantee that we will return on the date in April when we are due to do
The Scottish Parliament met to vote on its Coronavirus Bill on 1 April
and is now in a planned recess until 20 April.
The design of the chamber makes it easier for Members of the Scottish
Parliament to maintain distance. There
are individual desks, which means
members can spread out. Voting is
electronic which means no crowding though lobbies.
The Welsh Assembly meanwhile lowered
its quorum – the minimum number of members having to be in the chamber for
plenaries and then introduced on
line meetings of the body. It has
another plenary meeting to go before Easter.
As governments around the world take more powers and
Parliaments are less able to meet thought has been going on elsewhere about how
to maintain scrutiny. One of the more
imaginative approaches comes from New Zealand where a special
select committee has been set up, with majority membership from opposition
parties, to scrutinise the Government specifically over its response to
coronavirus. The committee meets on line and it is broadcast on the
Parliament’s TV channel.
In Australia there has been fierce debate about the suspension of Parliament. The Government planned a suspension until August, but has had to recall members for at least one debate for legal reasons. Opponents of the suspension argue that other crises have not stopped Parliament and that democracy is at stake.
Nearer to home, the European Parliament, surely one of the
largest single group of Parliamentarians in the world is meeting (mainly) on
line and voting on line. Changes were introduced for the late March plenary
with only a few members needing to be in the chamber but everyone
able to vote electronically, wherever they were. Political groups were still concerned that
MEPs needed to do more to fulfil their roles to represent and to
scrutinise. This has led to a
special session being organised for late this month (April).
Other European Parliaments have adopted rules to allow on
line meetings. Poland’s lower house, the
Sejm, had to have an in person
meeting to do so in late March.
Parliaments are having to walk the line between safe
operation and ensuring they do their job.
But the forced changes of these months may well cause rethinks across
organisations about how best they do their work. Perhaps some of the old customs will go.
Edge Hill University’s political degrees include advanced material on Parliaments and how they function.
Saturday’s (4 April) “reveal” of the Labour leadership
result would under normal circumstances be a big news event. The coronavirus crisis however means the
contrast with the big noisy 2015 announcement event will be stark. There will be no room full of party
activists, candidates, journalists and MPs, no clapping, no leaping onto a
stage after handshakes for the photographers.
Instead there will be a simple announcement and the screening of a
filmed victory speech.
But the loss of the drama doesn’t change the fact that the
new leader will have a massive task on his or her hands. Even without COVID19, the situation facing
Labour is tough. There are real
questions about direction, about electability and about party unity. Those who’ve studied party leadership
contests argue that those doing the choosing particularly prize unity, but
there is little point in being united if elections can’t then be won.
In normal times the new leader would have a couple of
obvious platforms to use to build profile and do some opposition. These are Parliamentary sessions after the
recess, in particular Prime Minister’s Questions and the annual party
conference. These are not normal times
however. Parliament may have to return as
a virtual chamber for a while and doubt must hang over the September
conference. (The Lib
Dems for exampleare to take a decision on cancellation shortly)
The first test of the new leader would have been in just a
month’s time, with a set of
elections including the contest for
London Mayor. The cancellation of these
means a year- long build up to a massive test in 2021 when this year’s
elections join next years. This brings the Scottish Parliament and Welsh
Assembly into the equation. This is a
mixed blessing. A set of elections this
May could have produced “better than expected” results for the leader. Labour was highly likely to hold on to some
significant positions. Putting Scotland into the mix, as will happen next year,
risks bad news stories overshadowing anything good. But at least the delay to 2021 means that the
party can do some planning on messages and direction and put 2019 a more
distant view in the rear view mirror.
So what are the urgent tasks and
challenges facing the new leader?
Sort out the party machine. This is easier said than done. Media reports have pointed to a dysfunctional
set of relationships at various levels.
The National Executive Committee is the centre for most decision-making
and the new leader will need to find a way to use this to make changes.
Work out key messages that are
believable. The problem with the 2019
election policies wasn’t that people didn’t like them. Some were very popular. It is that there were far too many and it
wasn’t clear what was important or how some of it would be paid for. To be
credible the party has to have core policy offers and avoid the temptation to
produce a shopping list.
Find a way of describing Labour’s
mission in a way which is simple and
clear. Politics is about more than
slogans, but slogans often take us to the heart of the matter. We all knew what Tony Blair meant by “tough
on crime and tough on the causes of crime”.
“New Labour – Because Britain Deserves Better” is good communication and
has the benefit of appearing to apply to everyone. Compared to these, what does
“For the Many not the Few” actually mean, or convey?
Find a (tactful) way to get
though. In normal times an opposition
politician could just blast away. Today
he or she runs the risk of appearing to politicise a crisis or to be focusing
on the wrong issues. Yet there are ways
of communicating during a crisis which combine an understanding of what people
are willing to listen to with a clear message of change. Chief among these is looking and sounding like
someone who could deal with a crisis.
Finally, although this will be
difficult, find ways of ending internal party fighting. Parties are never entirely peaceful, but
internal arguments which break out in public are damaging. They drive away supporters and voters, they
can lead to the loss of activists and they generate a lot of bad press.
The electorate in this contest
have been labour members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters. The new leader will need at the very least to
take the first group with him or her.
This is going to need an understanding
of what the members believe, but also the courage to challenge at times.
Whoever wins will certainly have
their work cut out!
The long-awaited phase one report of the public inquiry led by Sir Martin Moore-Bick into the fire at the Grenfell Tower has been published. This report examines the events of an extremely complicated situation on the night of June 14, 2017, which resulted into the tragic loss of 72 lives. It investigates the cause of the fire, how it developed and the steps taken by the London Fire Brigade (LFB) and other emergency services.
Understandably, the response to the findings – which underscore failures by emergency services – has been immediate and intense, with survivors calling for the resignation of London Fire Brigade chief Dany Cotton. Yet the report runs over 830 pages, and it will take time to examine and understand the findings in detail. For now, I’ve drawn on my expertise in the management of emergency services to summarise the report’s key findings and recommendations.
1. Require owners and managers to share information about building design and materials.
While the report was critical of the fact that LFB was unaware of the combustible nature of the materials used in the external cladding that surrounded Grenfell Tower, it concluded that the cladding was largely responsible for the fire spreading so quickly.
The report recommends that owners and managers of every high rise residential building (over 18 metres in height) should provide their local fire and rescue service with information about the design of its external walls and details of the materials of which they are constructed. This is a significant recommendation, which should help local fire services to recognise the nature of each fire they face, and make contingency plans to deal with specific types of fires.
2. Develop national guidelines for the evacuation of high rise towers.
Moore-Bick praised the firefighters who attended the tower for their extraordinary courage and selfless devotion to duty, but concluded that the absence of an operational evacuation plan was a “major omission” in the LFB’s preparation for a fire at a building such as Grenfell Tower.
The report argued in length whether the “stay put” policy – whereby tower block residents were advised to stay inside their flats, to compartmentalise the fire – could have been reviewed by the brigade earlier in the night, so that more lives could be saved. This is undoubtedly one of the most emotive and controversial issues brought up by the report.
The report also called for a legal requirement on owners and managers of every high rise residential building to draw up evacuation plans and need for contingency planning, including speakers and siren systems, to alert residents to understand the evacuation drill when needed. This may prove more difficult to implement, especially in tower blocks with single staircases. Fears for the safety of elderly people and young children in such scenarios may require the government to bring in new laws to specify planning requirements for the number of stairs and lifts.
3. Improve the response, training and communication within the fire service.
The report was critical about the response of LFB, both on the ground and in the control room where 999 calls were handled – especially regarding how information from callers was processed and shared with ground commanders. The inquiry found that senior control room staff lacked the training to manage a large-scale incident, while operational commanders lacked the training to recognise the need for an evacuation – or organise one.
The report concluded with recommendations to improve call handling and staff training, and develop better communication channels between staff on the ground and and in the control room to facilitate direct communication. It also recommended providing an integrated system of recording fire safety guidance information.
4. Strengthening cooperation between police, fire and ambulance services.
The report also identified lack of coordination between the three emergency services (the LFB, police and ambulance), particularly in the “area of communication between control rooms” and in relation to the “advice to be given to callers” trapped in the tower.
Their failure to share declarations of a major incident – which calls for extra levels of command, control and coordination between emergency services – went against protocols and hampered a joint response between police, fire and ambulance services.
What lies ahead
The report identified massive communication and command challenges for the LFB – and makes a compelling case for organisational learning across the emergency services. My own research has also identified governance challenges and a lack of coordination between emergency services – as did the Kerslake Report on the Manchester Arena tragedy of May 2017. So clearly, these are persistent problems.
Giving staff proper training, re-assessing the way decisions are made and undertaking rigorous risk assessments – as recommended by the inquiry – will go a long way to reassure the public about fire safety in high rise buildings, and the conduct of emergency services. But it will require additional investments in the services, which are already grappling with spending cuts.
Fire services alone have witnessed a 12% spending reduction in real terms between 2010 and 2015.
Doing “more with less” is also proving difficult for ambulance services.
And central government funding to police and crime commissioners has been reduced by £2.3 billion (25%) in real-terms between 2010-11 and 2015-16.
Phase one of the report has been revealing, but the public will be in a better position to exercise judgement after phase two of the inquiry has run its course, and identified the aspects of the “design, construction and management of the building that were primarily responsible for the disaster”.
No sooner than they were back, they’re set to be off again! The Government plans to prorogue Parliament on Tuesday (8th) to prepare for the following week’s Queens Speech. That means no Prime Minister’s Questions and generally less of everything. (There could still be time though for a vote on the latest Brexit plan as the order of business early in the week looks very light indeed).
Of course the Commons isn’t the only game in town and over in Cardiff Welsh Assembly members are set to vote on….whether to change the name of the Welsh Assembly. That might sound flippant but the point of the name change is to emphasise the changed nature of the body. Those in favour say Senedd better expresses its Parliamentary nature. It does a lot more now than when it started and the name should show this. It’s not just about nomenclature though. The Bill also gives 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote in Assembly (or Senedd) elections. This week is Stage Two – a Committee of the whole Assembly. The whole thing goes on to a plenary debate later.
There’s rarely a week without an election of course, and this week sees Poland go to the polls on Sunday (13th) to elect a new Parliament. At the last contest the Law and Justice Party won enough seats to form a Government with Civic Platform (Donald Tusk used to lead this) becoming the main opposition party. Since then the Law and Justice Administration has stirred up some controversy, with rows over attempts to control the judiciary and stand offs with parts of the EU. The ever useful Europe Elects site tells us that Law and Justice are currently polling 47 per cent with Civic Platform (and partners) on 28. (Poll fieldwork 2 October). That’s quite a gap.
And as if there hasn’t been enough legal excitement recently, the Court of Sessions in Scotland is due on Monday (7th) to make an initial ruling on another Brexit related case. This time it’s about what could be done if Boris Johnson refuses to ask for the Article 50 extention as specified in the Benn Act. There are some key features of Scottish law which don’t exist elsewhere in the UK, and one of these is the brilliantly named nobile officium power. Could be another nail-biter for the Government!
This week sees the Boris Johnson speech at the Conservative Party Conference, potential co operation byanti-Brexit MPs in the Commons, the formation of a new Government in Austria and a key debate in the Canadian General Election.
Firstly, the PM speech. Party Conferences are designed to fulfill a range of roles. They are about enthusing party members, deciding policy (at some conferences), announcing policy, gaining positive media coverage and generally acting as a shop-window on the party. Usually Parliament takes a break so that the three main parties can have their events uninterrupted by Parliamentary process. This year however the recess has been refused for the Conservatives, who meet in Manchester.
Leaders speeches are generally the final act and crescendo of the conference. This year Johnson is scheduled as final speaker (2 Oct)and will be hoping for a good reception, both in the hall and elsewhere. Of course last time the Conservatives were in Manchester Theresa May had a coughing fit, a comedian attempted to hand her a p45 and various bits of the stage fell down. (I saw it all being in the hall with a group of Edge Hill students). Of course Johnson is more of a showman and you can imagine him working disasters into his act in a way that May couldn’t manage. However this time he will be focusing on delivering a message to people outside the event. It is a vitally important moment for him. Expect plenty of “surrender” and ” Get Brexit done”.
Back at the Palace of Westminster, while the cat’s away….. Pundits have been saying that these few days are a chance for anti-Brexit MPs to come up with more moves designed to make attack the Government and to reinforce the so-called Rebel Alliance. Some of this punditry is based on anonymous source briefings, and of course it’s worth remembering that some sources don’t actually have much in the way of information. However, with cross-party working very much to the fore these days, it makes sense to look out for signs of further moves. The tricky issue is yet again the Vote of No Confidence. Will it happen? Will there be enough in favour? Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (2011) a vote of no confidence doesn’t mean an immediate General Election. But it could lead to one in pretty short order. Parliament doesn’t officially resume until around 2pm today (30th) but that won’t stop the behind-the-scenes work.
In the UK we tend to have our elections on a Thursday, meaning a rush before or after work for some. On the continent they are a little more civilised and have polling on a Sunday. So there are often election results on a Sunday night. This time we’ve had results from Austria where it appears the Austrian People’s Party (in Government before) will be the biggest party but may need Coalition Partners. The Austrian People’s Party is the mainstream Right Wing Party (OVP). Previous Coalition partners have done badly so it remains to be seen who they can team up with. Incidentally, for election and opinion poll junkies I highly recommend the Europe Elects twitter feed. We cover European Politics as well as Elections and Voting on our Politics course at Edge Hill.
Finally, October sees the Federal Elections in Canada. Last time (2015) the Liberals left from third place to first, installing Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister. His brand was great then, young, fresh, open. Today however he struggles as first a row about alleged interference in a legal process and then revelations about previous “blackface” incidents have tarnished the brand. Both other main parties have changed their leaders since 2015 so it’ll be a case of seeing whether the newbies can overtake the Governing party. This week (2 Oct)sees one of the few Leaders debates – a French language one in Montreal. Trudeau is good in debates and the next few weeks will be crucial if the Liberals are to hang on.
There is a growing rumble of discontent against multi-level marketing (MLM) businesses. As well as a growing backlash from former MLM recruits, regulators are getting involved, too. Unfortunately, however, these businesses that have been likened to legal pyramid schemes are unlikely to disappear altogether.
Multi-level marketing is the model of selling products through a network of distributors. Distributors buy stock in the company’s product and then sell it on, keeping a cut of the profits. Money is not just made from selling, but also from recruiting new distributors – if someone signs up under you, you become their “upline” and receive commission from their earnings, too. If your recruits sign up anyone beneath them, you also take a cut of their profits, and so on.
The difference with illegal pyramid schemes is that there is a product. But critics say that many MLMs have a business model that focuses on recruiting “downline” and getting new distributors to buy the product, rather than on actual sales to consumers, making them akin to pyramid schemes.
A recent report in The Guardian newspaper revealed the “cultish grip” that some of these businesses have on many recruits. They offer people a life-changing financial opportunity, but many lose money – and their friends – when they sign up to MLMs. Only the few at the top of the pyramid profit.
The Guardian focused on beauty sales business, Younique. But you may have seen a number of brands on your social media feed, including Herbalife which sells weight-loss products, Arbonne which sells skincare and many others. In fact, these businesses increasingly rely on social media to grow, both selling their products and recruiting new distributors online.
Women are the main target. According to the US Direct Selling Association, the trade body for the sector, 73.5% of those involved in MLMs in 2018 were women. The European Direct Selling Association suggests 77% are women in the UK.
Young mums, in particular, are inundated with requests to “support the businesses of their friends”. They are promised an easy way to make money from home, while balancing childcare. Another appeal of MLMs is the community they offer to distributors. Recruits are given coaching on how to make their side hustle a success and get support from others in the network.
This often results in vulnerable people being targeted by the allure of making easy money, fitting work around your own schedule and entering a supportive community. But some of these companies have an alarmingly cult-like mentality, encouraging distributors to cut negative influences and naysayers from their lives.
Bearing in mind that only 1% of people turn a profit, those naysayers may have good reason to sound the alarm. And the constant drive for sales can alienate friends and family who don’t want to get involved in the MLM.
The number of people that have been burned by their experience as an MLM distributor has led to the rise of an anti-MLM movement. The anti-MLM group on internet forum Reddit has almost half a million members. It states that: “Multi-level marketing (MLM) schemes are a drain on our society. Its participants either build the pyramid taller, or get squashed by it.” The Facebook group “Sounds like MLM but ok” has more than 100,000 members and a podcast to discuss MLMs and what it describes as “their poor business structure, obnoxious marketing practices, and all around awful nature”.
Clothing MLM Lularoe is a particular target for online activists and has been the subject of a recent Vice documentary. Lularoe had an initial buy-in cost of a minimum US$5,000 – an enormous sum in the MLM industry. A litany of subsequent scandals has culminated in the Washington state attorney in the US filing a lawsuit against the company alleging it is a pyramid scheme – something Lularoe says is completely without merit.
Activists have many major MLMs firmly in their sights. The Netflix documentary Betting on Zero, for example, features the fight against Herbalife by LatinX community activists in the US. The Pink Truth assists “women in freeing themselves from abusive pyramid schemes and predatory multi-level marketing companies like Mary Kay [cosmetics]”. Activists often feel they have been personally victimised by the industry, either as former distributors or as targets of them.
End in sight?
With this renewed media attention and a burgeoning grassroots movement against MLMs, it is interesting to see that AdvoCare, a diet and nutritional supplement brand headquartered in Texas, decided last month to abandon its MLM model. The company stated that the Federal Trade Commission took issue with “how AdvoCare compensates its distributors”.
The FTC talks that led to this decision were confidential so it’s hard to know exactly why AdvoCare decided to terminate its 100,000 distributors. But its MLM model had experienced difficulties in the past few years with an ESPN investigation into its practices, a class action lawsuit by former salespeople claiming it was a pyramid scheme, and an Olympic swimmer alleging that their products were responsible for her testing positive for a banned substance.
Despite all of this, it is unlikely that we will see an end to MLMs any time soon. While specific MLM companies have risen and fallen, the model itself – which promises easy money and an alluring community – has withstood a number of court challenges over the years. But hopefully the anti-MLM movement will bring about change through consumer education and pressure, as well as supporting the many people who fail to reap the rewards that these businesses promise.
We asked for comment from the MLM companies referred to. Only Lularoe responded. They insisted they offered participants an opportunity for “responsible entrepreneurism” and “a journey towards new freedom in their life”, suggesting failures just hadn’t put in the “required effort”.
British politics is in a state of flux. In the space of less than a year we’ve seen at least two new parties formed – The Brexit Party and the Independent Group for Change (formerly Change UK). We have seen MPs leave parties to join others. Chuka Umunna, for example, left first the Labour Party then Change UK to end up in the Liberal Democrats, while various other MPs are sitting as independents in the House of Commons. And the most recent national election, the European election in May, showed that voters are increasingly willing to forsake the traditional two main parties.
As the number of groupings increases, perhaps parties are losing their hold. So does this open up opportunities for those who want to go it alone?
Former Labour MP Frank Field recently announced that he is to stand as an independent candidate in the next election, after quitting the Labour Party in 2018. The Birkenhead on Merseyside MP had clashed repeatedly with the Labour leadership over its handling of antisemitism in the party before resigning the whip and complained of a “culture of intolerance, nastiness and intimidation” in local parties.
Field, who has represented his constituency since 1979, has applied to register the Birkenhead Social Justice Party with the Electoral Commission to make his bid possible. The party is more of a vehicle for getting noticed on the ballot paper, however, rather than an attempt to start a new movement. To all intents and purposes, Field is striking out alone. Of course he’ll have helpers and supporters, but he is independent of party.
Modern British politics, particularly at Westminster level, is not that kind to independent candidates. The main parties have huge machines and most voters pick the party rather than the person when entering the ballot box. Even when a politician has a personal vote, it’s hard to beat the machine.
There are some examples of independents succeeding, though. One of the best known independent candidates must be the former broadcaster Martin Bell, who triumphed in Tatton in 1997. Bell stood as an anti-corruption candidate against incumbent Conservative Neil Hamilton, who had been part of a “cash for questions” scandal. Bell’s path to victory was smoothed by Liberal Democrat and Labour candidates, who stood down to give him a better chance. Both parties also provided support to Bell. He did. however, pledge to only serve one term, so we’ll never know if he could have won the seat again.
When MPs go independent, it’s generally because they are unhappy with their party. In 2005, Peter Law, a member of the Welsh Assembly, caused quite a shock when he quit the Labour Party to stand as an independent candidate for the Westminster seat of Blaenau Gwent. The seat had become available when the Labour incumbent announced his retirement but the Labour Party angered some local activists when it decided that his replacement would be chosen from an all-woman shortlist. Law was among the dissenters and caused quite a shock when he won the seat – supposedly one of the safest for Labour in Wales.
Another famous case is Labour MP Dick Taverne, who fought a by-election in 1973 as an independent in Lincoln after falling out with his local party over Europe. Taverne defended his seat successfully in the first of the two 1974 elections, but lost in the second.
History tells us that independent candidates find it difficult to win election and even harder to retain a seat. One of the few who has successfully stayed in place is Wyre Forest’s Richard Taylor, a retired doctor who stood on a single-issue campaign to save his local hospital.
He won in 2001 and defended in 2005. On each occasion, the Liberal Democrats stood aside. He lost to the Conservatives in 2010.
Lessons for Field
Historically, successful independent campaigns in the UK have all involved a big issue, like the health service or sleaze, and a party row which effectively provides plenty of manpower and motivation or tacit support from potential opponents. They have also included some element of personal vote, although it is important not to overstate this. Bell’s triumph, for example, also included a good dose of anti-politics.
Field does have an issue, but frankly “social justice” is too broad and too open to being claimed by others. He has rowed with the Labour Party over antisemitism and over Europe (he campaigned for Brexit) but, again, these are too broad to make the difference for him as an independent candidate.
Field has certainly had a row with his former party, but will this deliver the person-power needed to mount a campaign? It is hard to see the Liberal Democrats standing down to help Field. The party has councillors on the Wirral and disagrees with Field on lots of issues – particularly Brexit. The Greens have been making progress locally too. Labour has just selected a new candidate and says it will contest the seat vigorously. Labour, after all, has since 2017 had a massive majority there. It is also hard to see the Conservatives walking away from this one – although the Brexit Party might step aside to give Field a better chance.
Field has a personal vote but, based on previous examples of independent campaigns, this is not enough for a victory. But politics is in flux today and maybe that big issue will come along.
As the election gets nearer, it will be intriguing to see if any others decide to strike out on their own. The risks are great, but the current talk about de-selection in both the Labour and Conservative parties may make some think more seriously about it. With most positions in the political marketplace clearly occupied at the moment though, any potential independent will need to keep his or her fingers crossed for that elusive local issue.
This week’s by-election in Brecon and Radnorshire will be the first formal test of the so-called Remain Alliance. The unusually short list of candidates in this contest is partly because parties such as the Green Party and Plaid Cymru, have stood down in favour of the Liberal Democrats. Campaign visits have also been made by those who originally formed Change UK, such as former Conservatives MPs Anna Soubry and Heidi Allen.
It is rare in British politics for parties to stand down in favour of their usual competitors. And while this isn’t the first occurrence, or the first initiative, the Brecon agreements could well lead to something more formal. A little earlier in the summer, former Change UK (now Independent Group for Change) leader Heidi Allen launched Unite to Remain. The idea is for Remain-supporting parties to work together to maximise the chance of electoral, and therefore policy, success. This would include the use of a common title or strapline to make the point.
There have been attempts to achieve a common purpose in the past. The 2017 general election, for example, saw the promotion of the so-called Progressive Alliance (of which more later). But what marks out the latest attempt is the move to register a name and logo (Remain Alliance) with the Electoral Commission. Current electoral law means that ballot papers can only include registered names and logos (or the word “Independent”).
To understand whether or not the current initiative can succeed, it is worth looking at cross-party cooperation, or the lack of it, in the past.
British politics is usually very tribal. This tribalism has meant that past efforts at cooperation have generally been motivated by negative factors, such as a desire to defeat a particular party (usually the Conservatives).
But the nature of the electoral system also means that tactics could trump tribalism. In a first-past-the-post system, which is used for UK parliamentary elections, a horse-race narrative often develops. It is in the interests of a challenger party to appear as the only participant with a chance to overtake the favourite and win.
This in turn means supporters of lower placed, unlikely-to-win parties are targeted to “lend” their votes to defeat a less-preferred option. This has given birth to idea that only certain parties are worth supporting.
Resistance, however, can come from the candidates and activists of those lower-placed parties. While the Green Party did stand down in favour of the Liberal Democrats in the 2016 Richmond Park by-election when the Lib-Dems successfully took the seat from Zac Goldsmith, for example, parts of the local Green Party felt very aggrieved and voiced their annoyance quite publicly. This in turn means that cooperative arrangements are often rare.
Who wins, and loses?
It can be very difficult to negotiate cooperation, particularly when one party will feel it is losing out. Anyone who thinks this is easy needs to look further into the SDP-Liberal Alliance.
The SDP was formed in 1981 and almost immediately began working with the existing Liberal Party. The idea was that one of either party would contest each parliamentary seat. This was generally achieved, but only after tortuous negotiations which rather ruined the image of cooperation and which are well described by participants such as the then MP, now Lord, Bill Rogers and the authors Ivor Crewe and Anthony King.
In fact, the Croydon North West by-election in 1981 was fought by the Liberal Bill Pitt – rather than by the leaders’ preferred option, Shirley Williams – because Pitt simply refused to budge. Pitt went on to win.
Of course, parties do not need to be working together explicitly for voters, or organisations, to urge tactical outcomes. While tribalism has a long history in UK politics, so too do attempts to persuade voters to make tactical decisions.
TV87, for example, referenced in an article in Political Behaviour, was a campaign set up to focus voters’ minds on the possibility of lending votes in the 1987 election. And it became common for publications and campaigns to produce lists of seats where incumbents were vulnerable to temporary tactics.
The current initiative, which goes well beyond leaving decisions to voters alone, can perhaps best be judged against more recent projects. The 2017 general election saw the promotion of the so-called Progressive Alliance. The thinking was that Progressive parties (generally centre-left or left wing) could stand down for each other in seats where this might help defeat a Tory, or assist a vulnerable Progressive incumbent. The book All Together Now by Barry Langford lists 42 seats in which this happened, but it was not always successful and it was only really the Green party which played a full part.
So can the Remain Alliance work?
The Brecon and Radnorshire by-election result may provide part of an answer, although we need to remember that this has been a Lib-Dem seat in the past and the party has been campaigning there for some time (in other words, the cooperation between parties may not be the crucial factor here).
Perhaps more telling will be any negotiations ahead of the forthcoming Sheffield Hallam by-election as well as what happens when more than one party has a justifiable claim to stand.
The big issue, however, must be Labour’s role and how one can define a Remain party. Labour played no active part in the 2017 Progressive Alliance, so what would the Remain Alliance do if Labour was the clear challenger to the Conservatives, or Brexit party, in a tight contest? Only time will tell, but the answer hangs on whether or not Jeremy Corbyn ever comes out as an unequivocal supporter of either Leave or Remain.