I must admit to becoming more and more confused by Esther Rantzen’s ‘Independent’ candidacy for Luton South. For my sins I’ve recently started following her on Twitter and reading her website and, while I have to say she does her best to engage with her followers (up to a point, anyway), I couldn’t honestly tell you that I’m any nearer to understanding what she believes or why she’s descended on Luton.
I suppose it’s an attempt to catch a public mood in the way Martin Bell so famously did during the 1997 Election, but the situation is rather different in Luton South than it was in Tatton (now home to the lovely George Osborne, of course). Bell’s candidacy had a clear purpose, an obvious villain in Neil Hamilton and enough national media coverage to keep the unfolding drama at the forefront of everyone’s minds throughout the election campaign. So far Rantzen has none of these.
Bell’s clear purpose in 1997 was a crusade against sleaze, which had bogged John Major’s Tory government down so badly for the previous three years that it had ceased to function as an effective administration. Some may say that there is a comparison to be made with the current Labour government, but things are actually quite a lot different now. In 1997 the focus on sleaze was entirely directed at the Conservatives, and with very good reason. Aside from John Major’s ill-fated ‘Back To Basics’ campaign, which seemed to inadvertently blow the lid off an endless stream of ministerial affairs and auto-erotic asphyxiation scandals, a significant number of senior Tory MPs were found taking large sums of cash and ‘benefits in kind’ from a variety of foreign business interests. Libel cases collapsed, perjury trials ensued, and two high-profile Conservatives, Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer, ended up in jail. We’re not quite that far down the road yet and, for those who bother to look beyond the skewed media coverage, the MPs’ expenses ‘guilt’ is spread across the parties (in fact, it’s still the Tories who appear to come out worst).
Rantzen also lacks a clear enemy in Luton South. Bell had Hamilton, implicated in the ‘Cash For Questions‘ scandal, and there was high drama as the two men famously met in front of the cameras for the ‘Battle of Knutsford Common’. In contrast Margaret Moran, the sitting MP for Luton South, has bowed to the pressure in the wake of the expenses scandal and will not be Labour’s candidate in 2010. Had Moran stayed, Rantzen would have been able to ride the wave of media outrage and may even have seen the other parties withdraw, as Labour and the Lib Dems did in Tatton. Instead she has reverted to simply being a fringe candidate.
I suppose what troubles me the most is that I’m never quite sure what an ‘Independent’ actually stands for. Here in Cornwall there is a long tradition of Independent councillors, although their numbers have seen a steady decline over recent years. This label seems quite appealing to many people, particularly those who are disillusioned with mainstream party politics. “I vote for the man, not the party” is the refrain I often hear during local election campaigns. While this may initially seem like a seductive argument, it does beg the question: “what do Independent candidates actually believe in”? How would an Independent MP or councillor vote in, say, a budget debate in a hung administration? “I’d assess the facts and make the best decision for my area” is often the response, but how would any of the candidate’s residents have the faintest idea which way their representative would jump in such a situation? Electing an Independent is the political equivalent of giving a blank cheque to an individual MP or councillor. At least with a political candidate you have a pretty good idea what you’re going to get. Tory, Labour, Lib Dem and all the others at least publish manifestos which are open to scrutiny during and after an election campaign.
One of my favourite questions to Independent candidates when they show up on my doorstep is “How did you vote at the last General Election?” It nearly always throws them off balance and none of them like answering it (most don’t even bother). But I don’t ask it simply to be awkward – I want to know what their political instinct is when they’re faced with a difficult situation. I tried to ask Esther the same question on Twitter yesterday but, after being quite a feisty debater up to that point, she suddenly went all shy and stopped engaging.
It will be very interesting to see how the campaign develops in Luton, and if Rantzen starts to answer the awkward questions and actually sets out what she believes in she may yet deserve to make an impact on the 2010 General Election. As things currently stand however, I really can’t see the point.