There is a fair amount of evidence that in the Police and Crime Commissioner election Independents are seen by a decent number of people as a Good Thing.
I’ve never been persuaded that it was enough to just be Independent to be worthy of voters’ support, but a number of candidates offer more than this, and it is to be hoped that this is not lost in the wider point of their not belonging to a political party. But if, as the Government’s attempts to secure successful people to run on a non-partisan basis suggests, Independents are a Good Thing, we should be entitled to ask whether it is possible that we will have too much of them.
Have a look at the TopOfTheCops list of declared Independents. You will see that some areas don’t have any, but that others have whole collections of them, and this is the problem I am seeking to highlight. A portion of the electorate will do a little bit of research before they cast their vote. They may read leaflets from candidates, search the web, watch an item on the television. They may even read this site. But many more will pick up the ballot paper at the polling station or straight off their doormat and will make a decision there and then as to who to support.
The problem at that point is that Independents are just that – described on the ballot paper as Independents and nothing more. They have no other distinguishing features or party descriptions to help voters make their decisions. No party emblems to represent a safe and familiar choice. So where there are a bunch of them on the same ballot paper, they become their own worst enemy. Anyone wanting to vote for an Independent in such circumstances has too much choice in a market seriously far from ‘perfect information’.
True, voters have two votes in this election, so people can lend their first vote to an Independent before having a party as a back-up plan to keep the ‘other lot’ out, but this doesn’t work so well when there are 6 to choose from, because it compromises the chances of any of the Independents to get through to the top two candidates from whom the winner will be picked.
And in some areas the decision is even more problematic. In Gwent you have a choice of a seasoned local ex-Police officer Independent in the form of Chris Wright, and a seasoned local ex-Police officer Independent in the form of Ian Johnston. I’ve met and spoken to both, and they have a lot to differentiate between them, but most voters will not meet or speak to even one of them, and so may struggle to choose. ‘Independent’ lacks a Unique Selling Point.
In some ways it would be helpful if Independents could cluster into groups with a similar set of skills or policies to offer, and if this could be represented on the ballot paper. Ironically, some would call this a political party, and legally that might be the requirement, but I think it harsh to treat this as an Either/Or thing. My own view is that one of the main things people value is that Independents are some of the people clearly not beholden to a political party, but it’s also fair to recognise that the Kevin Hurleys of this world are not the same as the Mervyn Barretts, and it would be helpful to have a way of distinguishing between them that did not require the average voter to follow this election as closely as you who are reading this are currently doing.
If I recall election law properly I remember coming across the phrase “groups of Independents”, but I don’t know if they have the same flexibility as parties on the description part of the ballot paper. I think, however, that they should.