‘The lying got to me’: How Boris Johnson helped fuel the rise of independent councillors

The political chaos of 2022 could prove fruitful for independent candidates in Thursday’s local elections as they aim to offer an apolitical alternative to those alienated and frustrated by the main parties.

Eleanor Langford inews.co.uk

A Conservative Party source told i in the run up to the local elections that they expected many of their voters to stay at home, as they’d become “depressed” by the churn of prime ministers and the party’s poor standing in the polls. But others are turning to candidates with a more local agenda.

Samantha Harvey, a councillor in Rutland, East Midlands can understand their frustration. After winning her seat in 2019, she resigned from the Conservative Party alongside two colleagues in May 2022, just over a month before the resignation of Boris Johnson.

“It wasn’t what had been done, it was the lying that had got to me, and the covering up of the lies,” she told i.

“I still have Conservative leanings, there’s no doubt about that, I’ve not suddenly become a massive socialist. But, I think if you remain [in the party] then you condone the behaviour. I’ve got an 18-year-old son – what values am I then teaching [if i stayed]?”

She has now joined the around 2,500 councillors currently sitting as independents in England and Wales. That total has grown rapidly in recent years. In 2017 there were less than 1,600.

Independent councillors are fairly clear about why their cohort has been growing – they offer their communities an apolitical, locally-focused alternative to those disillusioned by national politics.

“As a country, we’re very disenfranchised by our national political system at the moment,” said Noel Ovenden, a councillor in Ashford, Kent and leader of the Ashford Independents.

“I think that there’s a lot of unrest out there, and a lot of people on the doorstep breathe a sigh of relief when they find that there is another option for them.”

His party – which bears the strapline “no national politics in local government” – has proven popular in the area and enters Thursday’s elections with 18 candidates, including 10 incumbent councillors.

Ashford Independents is one of dozens of non-partisan local parties operating across the UK, which act as a support network for independent councillors without requiring its members to vote or campaign in a certain way.

Marianne Overton, is the leader of a similar group, the Lincolnshire Independents, and is also chair of the Local Government Association Independent Group. She told i that much of the support for independent candidates is borne from a sense of being failed at a local level by the national parties.

“I think people are very disappointed and angry at the impact of the national Conservative’s actions, that they’re having a significant adverse impact. They’re making their lives miserable people,” she said.

Ms Overton added that issues like the cost of living crisis, access to housing, stretched NHS services and crime had led many in the area to turn to local politicians who were “independent and prepared to stand up for their communities”.

Keeping the “local” in local politics was what led Geraldine Mathieson, an independent councillor on East Riding of Yorkshire Council, to quit the main parties long before the recent political chaos.

She first stood as a Conservative, but soon realised that “all the politics of the group really got in the way of doing the job properly and serving residents”, and was successfully re-elected in her ward as an independent candidate in 2015.

“I’ve done two elections, and got much higher votes as an independent, which was really nice, because that was a personal vote,” she told i.

“Sometimes if what was best for my residents and for my ward wasn’t what was best for the ruling group, then there was scope for disagreement. And as far as I was concerned, my residents came first.”

Ms Mathieson said that many people “don’t want to get involved with politics” anymore and the main political parties “have ruined a lot of it”.

“People don’t join political parties anymore, so they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel for candidates in many ways. It’s definitely time for independents to come forth and put their head above the parapet,” she added.

For John Whittle, a fellow independent on East Riding of Yorkshire Council, the fact that unaffiliated candidates are growing in number shows that they offer more local voice than the mainstream political parties.

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating. If they didn’t want independent representation, they wouldn’t actually vote for it,” he said.

“I’ve always felt that political counsellors have to serve two masters – they have to serve both the political party and the residents of their area. An independent counsellor has the freedom to represent people as they should be represented.”

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