January 30, 2024
Elected by and for their community
The town of Frome in Somerset first came to prominence in 2011 when a group of local residents concluded that local politics should be about local issues rather than national party political affiliations. Town Council elections were approaching and they decided to stand on a ticket of ‘Independents for Frome’. Winning ten of the seventeen seats at the first time of asking, they went on to win every seat at all subsequent Council elections. More accountability, greater transparency and more engagement in community affairs all sound like strong arguments for more independent councillors. Evidence suggests that it’s happening.
The number of independent councillors in England and Scotland is on the increase. Elections during the past decade have seen more councillors without an affiliation to a mainstream party elected to local authorities, while others have switched from a major party to sit as independents.
Independence in the council chamber is far from a new phenomenon. In the mid-seventies 20% of councillors in England were categorised as independents. Their number declined over the decades, before rising again as voters became tired of mainstream politics.
In 2019, with political attention focussed on Brexit, independents made more than 650 gains at elections in England and Wales. That trend has continued, though some independents lost seats on unitary councils in 2023.
According to the independent group at the Local Government Association, they now make up 17% of all councillors in England and Wales (up from 9.7% in 1997). The group has just over 2,000 independent members (including councillors from resident associations), as well as encompassing Greens, Plaid Cymru and smaller parties:
“This has been increasing over the last year through by-elections and councillors leaving other parties to become independent,” says group leader Abigail Gallop.
Some councils are led by independents, usually in coalition with other parties, while independents also play roles in the administration of other local authorities. Councils run by independent groups include Central Bedfordshire, Epsom and Ewell, and Havering, where the residents’ association governs with Labour [see below].
In Scotland, following elections in May 2022, LGIU calculated that 152 out of 1,227 councillors were independent – equivalent to 12%. In Orkney, Shetland Island and Western Isles councils, independents control the councils, with just a handful of councillors from mainstream parties.
Why are so many councillors independent?
Disaffection with party politics ebbs and flows, but in England, at least, it peaked about four years ago. With parliament bogged down by Brexit, voters became more dissatisfied with larger parties (and their leaders) and started looking for somewhere else to turn.
Residents’ associations, however, have fielded candidates at council elections for years. In addition, people sometimes opt to stand as independents over single issues, such as planning disputes.
In recent elections, some Conservative councillors have distanced themselves from the national party, with a few leaving the party altogether. They include Johnnie Wells, mayor of St Ives, who quit the Conservative Party last September, saying it had become “a hindrance”.
In November, a flurry of Labour councillors resigned over the failure of Keir Starmer to support a ceasefire in Gaza. They included 11 councillors in Burnley, who now sit as independents and control the council in coalition with other parties.
Other councillors leave mainstream parties due to local disputes, sometimes falling out with party colleagues.
How to be an independent?
With the number of independent councillors in England and Scotland growing, what is the best advice for those tempted to become, and hopefully remain, a councillor without any party affiliation?
Unless you are already a councillor for a recognised political party, you need to get elected to a local authority. Even if you declare independence between elections, it won’t be long before you need to seek the electorate’s backing again – without wearing the same rosette that adorned your jacket last time around.
It’s good to know that, according to a study carried out in 2022 for the LGA, about half of electors would consider voting for an independent. But that is only the start. It helps if you have a history of activism in the community but, unless you are a member of an official residents’ association, candidates without a political affiliation must meet challenges and costs normally covered by parties.
Friends and family make extremely useful bedfellows when it comes to knocking on doors, says Adam Paynter, who left the LibDems in 2020 to sit as an independent on Cornwall Council. There are also bills to pay, not least for election leaflets, the cost of which can easily run into hundreds of pounds. “It’s not cheap if you want to run a proper campaign,” says Cllr Paynter.
Georgina Hill was elected as an independent county councillor in Northumberland in 2017, and re-elected four years later. She previously sat as a Conservative on Berwick-upon-Tweed Town Council but left the party in 2015. Winning by 60 votes in 2017 was exhilarating, she says. In 2021, people told her she would most likely sail home, but she still spent about £800 on leaflets. Her supporters were right, with Cllr Hill gaining 75% of votes the second time around. “At the back of your mind, you want to get a bigger majority,” she says.
As an independent, it can sometimes be difficult to explain exactly what you stand for, says David MacDonald, an independent in East Renfrewshire. “Many voters don’t have a clue what various independents stand for and, therefore, you must work a lot harder to get one’s message across,” he says.
To be an effective independent, it is important to find like-minded people who, while they may not agree with you on everything, also sit as independents. By joining together as a group, you can influence local authority decisions more, not least by taking up seats on a committee or scrutiny panel.
Joining an independent group allows you to discuss issues ahead of meetings, even if you end up voting in different ways. “Being part of a group means you can ask other people questions,” says Geva Blackett, a councillor in Aberdeenshire who left the Scottish National Party to go independent in 2021. Here again, it almost certainly helps if your first taste of council politics is not as an independent. “When you become a councillor, it’s huge,” says Cllr Blackett. “You are dealing with so many different things that you need a group to hold your hand.”
In Northumberland, Georgina Hill is part of a small group of eight independents. The main thing they have in common, she says, is they oppose the controlling Conservative administration. Being part of the group means Cllr Hill qualifies for places on two committees and two working groups. However, it is not unusual for independents to vote in different ways. “We don’t really meet that often. We tend to have WhatsApp chats,” she says.
In Runnymede, a district council in Surrey, resident association members have gone from being virtually the only opposition to forming a more multi-party opposition with Green, LibDem and Labour members. A smaller group of independents votes with the controlling Conservative group.
All changed in 2019 when the Conservative Party lost overall control. Opposition councillors now have an agreed agenda and meet prior to meetings, even if they don’t always vote together. “If we put up a really good argument then we have a chance of winning,” says Linda Gillham, who was first elected as an independent 23 years ago and now leads Runnymede Independent Residents Group. “There is a feeling that we can sway opinion and make a difference.”
Keeping up a profile
Retaining a reasonably high profile is especially critical for independent councillors. “Being an independent is like being a one-man band,” says Kevin Etheridge, who has been an independent councillor in Caerphilly for most of the last 20 years.
For Cllr Etheridge, the most important thing is visibility and being well-regarded in the community. He can generally be found in cafés in Blackwood up to four mornings per week and replies to every query with a hand-written letter. He aims to have at least two letters in local papers each week and fires off regular press releases based on answers to questions he asks at council meetings. “You should always concentrate on the ward,” he says. “Never personalise issues against other councillors. Always be constructive and attack the policy.”
Cllr Etheridge is less keen on social media. “I prefer knocking on doors and holding surgeries where you meet people face to face,” he says.
Talking to journalists (especially local democracy reporters) generally works to the advantage of independent councillors, depending on what you say. But there may be opportunities to grab the limelight in other ways.
Last year, Geva Blackett appeared on the TV programme Master Chef, saying she wanted to step out of her comfort zone and inspire young people to become chefs. She did not last long. “I made one pancake and left,” she recalls.
In any case, Cllr Blackett believes she did not require TV exposure, having won re-election in 2022 due to her long-standing reputation and work as a councillor. “I’m pretty bloody minded and opinionated,” she says.
Getting on with other councillors
As a member of your council’s independent group, you will probably be allowed to vote however you wish without a party whip being brandished in your direction. Conversely, independence also attracts like minds, meaning that people who once opposed one another in the council chamber suddenly find that they agree on most issues.
In Cornwall, the independent group includes ex-Conservative, Labour and LibDem councillors who, says Adam Paynter, generally get on well in spite of contrasting political backgrounds. “We laugh that the independent group votes together more than other political groups!” he adds.
Allied to this, and depending on electoral arithmetic, you may be asked to join, or at least vote with, one of the major parties. During the mid-2000s, Kevin Etheridge turned down the offer of a cabinet post made by Plaid Cymru, which was just short of a clear majority in Caerphilly. “My principles and integrity would not allow me [to be a cabinet member]. I’m a free spirit,” he says.
In Southend-on-Sea, independents support the minority Conservative administration on most issues. “They can’t survive without us,” explains Ron Woodley, who was elected 17 years ago and now sits under the ‘Residents First’ label. Seven years ago, Cllr Woodley was briefly council leader when independents ran the council with LibDem support. But he would prefer to remain outside party politics. “I cannot be told what to do,” he says.
Thinking and behaving independently
Going independent is normally a sign that, while you may agree with some people on some issues, there are few that you agree with on everything. Geva Blackett parted ways with the SNP in 2021, mainly because she was tired of being told what to say. “I’m capable of making up my own mind,” she says.
Though independent, Georgina Hill believes the party system facilitates democracy, providing controlling administrations with a mandate. Her independence, however, gives her more opportunity to support decisions that directly benefit her residents – regardless of who proposes them. This includes supporting the controlling group’s budget when it provides additional money for Berwick-upon-Tweed. “My philosophy does not allow me to be pigeon holed under a political umbrella,” she says.
Independent status affords councillors the ability to speak freely on issues they are passionate about without fear of being muted or given a pre-arranged script, says David MacDonald in East Renfrewshire. The level of freedom normally depends on whether independents play any part in the administration, including backing other groups on a ‘confidence and supply’ basis. “I have the unique and very privileged ability to be a clarion voice for the people that I represent,” he adds.
But beware: independence can equate to a heftier workload. In Southend-on-Sea, Ron Woodley believes he and other independents generally work harder to show voters they are working on their behalf. “I’m there for the ward and I’m at their beck and call,” he says. “People need to be happy that an independent councillor is looking after them.”
But being independent is also a privilege, says Linda Gillham. “I can sit through a debate, take into account what my residents want, and then make up my own mind without referring to a party,” she explains.
Power to the residents
Councillors who stand on behalf of residents’ associations represent a particular form of independent. While not affiliated with a major party, they normally sit as a group and, depending on local circumstances may behave in a similar way to a party.
In May 2022, Havering Residents Association took control of Havering Council after decades of opposition. It runs the London borough with the support of Labour, after falling short of winning a majority of seats.
“It’s a good relationship,” says council leader Ray Morgon. “We’re pretty much on the same page with Labour on most things. You’re mostly dealing with day to day operational things, so there are not huge differences or political choices.”
Traditionally, residents association members made up the second largest group in Havering, behind the Conservatives. Cllr Morgon says he is trying to take the toxicity out of local politics by, for example, inviting all councillors to suggest where money should be spent on potholes.
He also tries to be “open, honest and transparent” with residents over the council’s perilous financial situation. “Opposition is a fairly hard place to be. Whatever you put forward, you are never going to change anything,” he says. “Opportunities are limited due to the financial situation, but we’ve made some changes. We’re improving things.”
Orkney: leaving party politics behind
All but two of Orkney Island Council’s 21 councillors are independent, and it is unusual for the two Greens to toe any party line, says deputy leader Heather Woodbridge.
Cllr Woodbridge was elected as an independent in 2020 and quickly saw the value of councillors thinking and voting independently. “We work together as a team, trying to do the best for the people of Orkney,” she says. Opinions change, and other councillors do not always vote how you expect them to, she adds. “With a party system, you know how votes are going to go.”
But independence is valued and respected in an island community where people are more likely to be on first-name terms with elected representatives. “It’s like a coalition of 21 different parties,” says Cllr Woodbridge.
Other island councils, such as Shetland and Western Isles, operate along similar lines with little recourse to party politics. This is partly down to the island culture, she suggests, drawing on the Nordic tradition of egalitarianism. “Very small populations have to get along,” she says.