I was selected as Parliamentary candidate for Castle Point in 2007. Shortly afterwards Bob Spink, the then MP for that constituency, jumped before he was pushed and resigned from the Conservative Party, adopting a number of labels over the years, but essentially becoming an independent. I called for a by-election, and Bob used the time-worn excuse of him remaining true to his principles and that the Tories had effectively moved away from him. He remained in place until the 2010 General Election when Rebecca Harris replaced him at Westminster.
Switchers invariably are hailed by their new party, and are called on to resign by those they have left – invariably these calls are ignored. Outrage is expressed by some of those who voted for them, although there will be others cheered by their candidate’s supposed bravery.
No-one can force switchers to resign, and this is simply because of the principle that we elect individuals. That this is contrary to the reality that most voters turn up to vote for their party of choice, largely ignorant of who is representing that party at the time, is conveniently ignored. Supposedly I am elected because of who I am, yet I know that it was my Labour credentials what won it for me.
Should switchers resign? Whilst some like to believe there is one simple answer (invariably ‘yes’) there are a number of complicating factors. Cllr Alex Kaye’s recent return to the Conservative Party has animated many in her ward, not least because her switch in a finely balanced council chamber has repercussions beyond what directly affects her Thorpe residents. She has turned the chamber from NOC (no overall control) to a Conservative majority administration (albeit that I believe they will be ejected from power in a year’s time). The memorandum of understanding signed by all three Thorpe Independents made it a de facto Tory administration anyway. Despite the pretend collegiate nature of scrutiny there is little compromise (q.v. the budget).
So, what needs to be considered, what are these complicating factors? The first is timing; a change when an election is just around the corner is pointless. Cllr Kaye is up for re-election in 2014.
The type of election is important. European elections are conducted using a party list system, and so the personal mandate argument is decidedly weak. Roger Helmer MEP may only have moved from the Conservatives to UKIP (two right-wing parties) but I am baffled as to how he finds this acceptable.
Switching can be forced on someone, particularly if the whip is withdrawn. Under such circumstances resignation is not needed. Eric Joyce, for example, may have many personal failings and may have brought upon himself the ejection from the Labour Party, but his refusal to quit is understandable.
Independents are elected, so we are told, despite their personal politics. That they later choose to make this more obvious by standing under a party banner may irk, but is hardly a shocker. Many find the concept of an independent politician somewhat dishonest, and so Alex’s jump could be construed as an act of honesty (at last). As it happens, she was indistinguishable from the Tories in her voting in the council chamber and her move only confirms publicly what many have known privately – she is a Conservative.
There is the matter of cost. When we cannot even fund a school uniform grant, the essentially navel-gazing exercise of a by-election in Thorpe is an indulgence. Democracy should not be bound by cost, but neither should profligacy be encouraged.
It is also true, and this is the bit that will annoy most non-aligned voters, that political gamesmanship comes into play. A Labour MP walking the floor will be lambasted by his former colleagues, whereas most will be silent should the reverse occur.
To cut to the chase, to switch when you have been elected by the party list system should mean resignation. To switch pretty quickly after having been just elected is also a resignation matter in my eyes. Otherwise it becomes less certain, and the rights and wrongs will largely depend on whether you have gained or loss by it. Ultimately, though, the decision rests with the switcher, and this is as good a place as any.