The recent formation of an Independent Group in Parliament drew considerable publicity but can it last? The breakaway group of 8 Labour and 3 Conservative MPs has many policy differences but is united by opposition to Brexit and a desire for a ‘new type of politics’ although this is more of a vision than a detailed plan of action.
There is no party structure behind them but there are donors and they play to a wider demand to shake up UK politics which has struggled to respond to the 2016 referendum result. Our first past the post system mitigates against new parties – the SDP never achieved a breakthrough and for all their high profile, UKIP suffered the same fate. The Greens have only gained one Parliamentary seat and this is seen as a considerable achievement.
However electoral systems that involve elements of proportional representation can give small parties an important foothold. The approaching London election has such an element – and it takes place in a city that largely voted to Remain in the EU, bucking the national trend.
The London Assembly is a small organisation with only 25 seats. Fourteen of these are very large first past the post constituencies. Big seats favour the main parties and all fourteen have always been held by Conservative or Labour representatives. There is no hope for a new party here.
But the eleven London Wide List seats are a different matter. Elected by a modified De Hondt system, they have consistently provided smaller parties with representation. In every election the Greens have secured two of the seats – in 2000 they secured three.
In 2004 UKIP won two of the seats, though the members walked out of the party before they could face re-election in 2008. In 2016 history repeated itself, with two UKIP Members elected, then walking out to form their own group.
In 2008 the BNP managed to take a seat but they lost it four years later.
If parties from the anti EU right have been so successful, why not a party hailing from the pro EU soft left, which would be much better aligned with London’s values? With just one seat remaining, the Lib Dems are struggling to recover, whilst disillusioned Labour voters and a smaller contingent of pro EU Tories are looking for a new home.
Taking votes from both major parties and the Lib Dems, a party based on the TIG group and promoted by Streatham MP Chuka Umunna could have enough appeal to win two or even three seats.
Why this matters
The London Assembly has the key power to overrule and reject the Mayor’s annual budget proposals by a two thirds majority. An elected Mayor needs nine supportive Assembly Members to safeguard his vital cost plan. Second term Mayors tend to be returned with fewer AMs – Boris had eleven in his first term and nine in his second. Ken had nine in his first term and seven in his second – forcing him to work with the two Green Members. Sadiq starts with twelve members but this number is likely to fall and winning ‘Tiggers’ may be his best option if he needs to secure the support of Members outside the Labour Group.
Since it’s formation, the Assembly has had its powers augmented by legislation. It can now also reject the Mayor’s important London Plan and Transport Plan by a two thirds majority. So, a small group holding the balance of power could have significant effects on key policy as well as the budget.
Assembly Members also have to confirm Mayoral appointments at a senior level, creating the possibility that these may be blocked until power is shared more equitably.
London 2020 could provide the first real opportunity for The Independent Group to make an impact and to demonstrate what their ‘new politics’ actually looks like.