As an independent member of Pembrokeshire County Council since 2012, my forthright record of scrutiny at County Hall – and spilling the beans on its shady shenanigans – today receives a plaudit in the Western Mail.
The unexpected nod is part of an editorial, no less.
Apparently I’m doing “a sterling job in holding the locally powerful to account” which “exemplifies the course elected representatives should take, but few do.”
2017 hopefuls, take note!
Of Pembrokeshire’s sixty, there’s an overwhelming tendency across the county to elect ‘independent’ councillors, with over two thirds in 2012.
The problem with Pembrokeshire council politics is those successful ‘independent’ candidates who then group together post-election to form an ‘independent’ party.
In 2012, three quarters of power-grabbing ‘independents’ formally joined a group with fellow ‘independents,’ losing all semblance of the term.
These so-called ‘independents’ are easily controlled, possessing maniacal levels of obedience the properly established parties could only dream of.
What’s more, these eager beavers not only bypass the levels of accountability and scrutiny ‘proper’ party candidates are subjected to, but many still try in vain to deny they’re part of a political bloc!
There has been a growing number of ‘true’ independents elected in Pembrokeshire over successive elections, like me in 2012, who have raised awareness of this issue.
For several years following his 2004 election, Pembrokeshire had a lone councillor/blogger voice in Milford Haven’s Cllr. Mike Stoddart, aka Old Grumpy, who had covered council antics for over a decade beforehand at the Mercury newspaper – which he and his family founded.
Soon after my 2012 election I acquired a huge haul of behind-the-scenes files relating to the council’s ruling ‘independent’ party that were strictly not meant for public consumption.
This blog was in its infancy when I explosively serialised my publication of these secret documents. The ensuing saga soon became known as Partygate.
These files removed any doubt that Pembrokeshire’s ruling ‘independents’ were a party.
Not only did they have well-oiled machinery behind them, but they were ruthlessly unprincipled with it.
I exclusively revealed how two of this independent party’s cabinet members – entrusted with great power and influence at the authority – were so desperate to keep their grip on power that they threw their codes of conduct on the bonfire and breached all the rules.
The gruesome twosome used council computer equipment to make election leaflets and posters for several ‘independent’ candidates at the 2008 and 2012 council elections, all in breach of a ban on public resources being used for party political purposes.
The files, which I showcased, include party strategy documents, prediction charts, campaigning timetables, the lot!
The guilty pair were Rob Lewis – who, despite being suspended from office following a local government ombudsman probe, now seeks re-election in the Martletwy Electoral Division, and David Wildman – who threw the towel in as soon as the ombudsman felt his collar, resigning from the council and moving away to England.
Writing an editorial in today’s Western Mail, which I reproduce below, the newspaper’s chief reporter Martin Shipton discusses the status of ‘independent’ political candidates.
If you’re wondering whether to vote for an ‘independent’ candidate, it may encourage you to ask some questions on the doorstep.
And if you’re seeking election as an ‘independent,’ it may inspire you to make a pledge about your post-election intentions.
Of course, councillors not remaining true to their word has been a recurring feature of the 2012-2017 council term, but that story can wait for another day…
Later this week I intend to post some observations of the impending county council poll.
— Editorial, Monday, 17th April, 2017 —
‘Independents’ can keep true party allegiances from voters
Chief reporter Martin Shipton argues that ‘Independent’ election candidates should have to declare if they belong to a political party
Two weeks ago the vice chairman of Ukip’s Delyn branch, Shaun Owen, made a statement to the media that was strongly critical of his party’s North Wales AM Michelle Brown.
He was, of course, perfectly entitled to do that.
For those of us who want a transparent society, however, it’s unacceptable that he’s allowed to describe himself as “Independent” on ballot papers for a Flintshire ward in the May 4 election.
In failing to tell people that he’s an office-holding member of Ukip, Mr Owen is not providing the voters he wants to elect him with a crucial piece of information about himself.
Yet as the law stands, he is doing nothing wrong.
Equally, the former Police and Crime Commissioner for North Wales, Winston Roddick, was allowed to describe himself as an Independent when standing for election in 2012, even though he was a card-carrying member of the Liberal Democrats.
In 2012 the Liberal Democrat brand was freshly toxic following the party’s decision not just to renege on its promise to scrap student tuition fees, but to go along with Tory plans that saw them nearly tripled. It is doubtful whether Mr Roddick would have been elected as Commissioner if he’d described himself as a Liberal Democrat on the ballot paper – and he’s shrewd enough to know that.
There are those who argue that Independent candidates should never be trusted because they refuse to accept the discipline that comes with belonging to a political party. I disagree. Over the many years I have taken an interest in politics and written about it, I have known some excellent Independent councillors, a number of whom were originally elected as members of a political party.
The manner of their becoming Independent has usually followed a pattern. They have been trying to do the best thing for the people they represent, but have been thwarted by control-freakery from group officials who insist they toe the party line even when they do not believe what is being proposed is in the interests of their ward constituents.
It is, of course, entirely reasonable for a party group to expect its councillors to vote for policies that were included in the manifesto they were elected to support. But in several instances I have been aware of, group officials have sought to impose their rigid will on councillors in circumstances where no manifesto commitment is in play.
In one case, a councillor I knew left his party because he was instructed not to vote for the creation of a children’s play area in his ward. He did so, resigned from the party, and was a thorn in the side of his former colleagues until his untimely death 25 years later.
Those with power in political parties don’t always make the right decisions, and sometimes good representatives are driven out. It’s healthy for democracy when they stand for election as Independents.
In 2005 the Labour Party was taught a lesson in Blaenau Gwent when it prevented its popular AM Peter Law from going for the Parliamentary nomination by imposing an all-women shortlist. He stood as an Independent and trounced the official Labour candidate who had been imported from London to stand against him.
Not all Independents are former members of political parties. They too can be excellent public representatives.
In Pembrokeshire there’s a young councillor called Jacob Williams who has done a sterling job in holding the locally powerful to account. He has exposed a succession of scandals on his own website and has been able to use his elected position to scrutinise further the actions of the authority’s administration and senior officers. In doing so, he exemplifies the course elected representatives should take, but few do.
Pembrokeshire, of course, is a strange kind of place in local government terms. It is run by an Independent group now calling itself Independent Plus which has become the local establishment.
To distinguish himself from Independent Plus, Jacob Williams – a different kind of Independent – has to point out that he is not aligned with it. Another way of putting it would be that he is an Independent Independent – but that’s probably making things more complicated than they need be.
There is, despite this, some truth in the argument that certain especially local authority candidates consciously disguise their true political allegiance when standing for election. In some cases such individuals are simply broadly sympathetic towards a party, but in others they are actually card-carrying party members. As with the case of Mr Roddick, it’s reasonable to assume that those in the latter category would not be elected if they stood under their true colours.
Something should be done, I believe, about such candidates. I’m pleased to say I’m not the first person to have made such an argument. Four years ago David Hanson, the Labour MP for Delyn, proposed to the House of Commons a Bill that would have sorted the issue out once and for all.
Under his proposal, candidates who stood as Independents would have been obliged to declare their membership of a political party.
Mr Hanson told MPs: “My proposal would add transparency to our democracy and help ensure the public have the information they need to make an informed choice. It will not add undue stress or expense to the election procedure and could be done simply, without the need for a particularly big shake-up of electoral procedures. This small bit of information could go some way to ensuring that voters get what they think they are voting for, rather than for what they are actually voting for without realising it.”
“Candidates who broke the rule would find their election declared void, the member disqualified from standing again and a by-election called.”
Sadly the proposal was voted down and we are left with a situation where candidates can conceal their true political allegiance and get elected under false pretences. This is a stain on our democracy and I hope our Assembly will ban it in Wales.
© 2017 Media Wales Ltd.