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The biggest takeaway from the local elections? They were actually local

The rise of independent candidates isn't just about the main parties' Brexit failures. It's an important reminder that people care about their communities

By Stephanie Boland  

What does the rise of independent candidates in the local elections tell us? Photo: PA

Are we entering an age of independent candidates? If last night’s results were anything to go by, we might be. According to elections expert John Curtice, independents have won 25 per cent of the vote on average across the 69 wards in which they were standing.

Of course, different areas have different issues, and it would be foolish to reduce each to a neat story to fit a national narrative. And yet the turn towards local independents is, in itself, a national narrative, with over 80 net seat gains by independent candidates already. What’s going on?

“Lazy politics” and immigration

Take Andy Preston, the new mayor of Middlesbrough. A businessman and charity leader, Preston is well-known in his local area, having formerly run for mayor and campaigned for the post to remain an elected role in the town. He launched his campaign by taking aim at the “lazy politics” of Labour councillors.

More recently, he was involved in a row over a Facebook post in which he linked gang violence with rising levels of immigration, writing that “Local residents and business owners have shown me examples of large scale anti-social behaviour caused by big groups of men who hang around street corners day and night.”

“Decent Teessiders whose lives are being blighted are angry because politicians and authorities seem unwilling to do anything.”

The post, Teesside Live reports, “lit a fire” under the mayoral race and helped win Preston support—boosted by his subsequent online campaigning and by the backing influential local supporters.

In 2015, Middleborough was reported to have the most asylum seekers in the UK, and Amnesty has reported attacks against immigrants there—although research by National Conversation suggested that attitudes to asylum seekers in Middlesbrough broadly mirror those in the rest of the country.

The way the wind (turbine) is blowing

If Preston sounds like a possible outlier, look to North Kesteven, where the Conservatives have lost the District Council having lost seats to both the Lincolnshire Independent grouping and a separate group of independent candidates.

The former, running under the banner “It’s time to put Lincolnshire first!,” have campaigned on issues like local libraries, housing needs and fewer wind turbines. (Last year, the North Sea Race Bank wind farm opened the fifth largest wind farm in the world off the coast nearby.)

The Lincolnshire Independent website explains that they seek to “represent [their] communities directly,” adding: “Close communication with local people is more important than party politics.”

Although each ward has its own priorities, this story of local independent candidates campaigning on those priorities—and winning seats off established parties embroiled in Brexit rows in the process—is being repeated up and down the country.

Potholes and priorities

So what do the main parties have to learn from this? Firstly, that their failure to handle Brexit is freeing up voters to turn towards smaller groups who represent their interests more closely. After all, if you’re not happy with how either of the two main parties is handling the biggest national issue of the day, why not vote for the person who understands the issues of your day-to-day life?

But it’s not just the failure of parties to deal with Brexit that’s at play here. After all, there’s a reason why Conservative council candidates are well-known for being photographed pointing at potholes.

While the national press and Westminster is tied up with Brexit, the stories of local disappointment and local pride—a youth centre closed here; a row about wind turbines there—continue to matter. (Of course, Brexit will impact those local communities, too; but who knows how to vote their way out of that one?)

People care about what happens in their communities, and when the national story isn’t going anywhere, that care comes to the fore. If it sounds simple, it’s because it is.

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