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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 April 2006, 09:18 GMT 10:18 UK
The rise of the Independents
Analysis
By Anna Hakala

The state of the NHS, Town Hall bureaucracy and local schools are just some of the issues inspiring independent candidates to put their name forward for election on 4 May.

Ballot paper
Independents can give voters more choice on the ballot paper

An estimated total of 500 independent candidates are standing in this year's local elections, together with many others from smaller community and single issue parties.

According to the Local Government Association, there are more than 2,000 independent and minority party councillors in England and Wales, which accounts for about 10% of the total number of councillors.

Independents do not have to abide by a party line or manifesto and can vote as they see fit, according to their conscience - making them a potentially attractive choice for voters disenchanted with the big, established parties.

They are not a new phenomenon. There have been independent councillors serving their communities in England for more than 100 years.

Numbers in flux

But the number of independents running in local elections has increased in recent years.

In the 2003 local elections, 3,524 candidates were listed under "independent" or "others", not including the Greens or nationalist parties - up from 2,995 in 1999.

But over a longer time span, the number of independents being elected has been in gradual decline. The number of councillors from outside the main parties fell by more than 5,000 in the early 1970s to 1,973 in 1999.

The 1974 shake-up of local government is seen as a prime factor in the decline - making wards larger and hence more difficult for independent candidates to canvas.

Urban takeover

Traditionally the majority of independent candidates have run for office in rural areas.

But according to the Local Government Association Independent Group, there has recently been a shift towards more independent candidates standing in urban areas.

We've got individuals from a cross-section of community, from both Labour and Conservative backgrounds
Ron Fisher, Barnsley Independent Group

This development is thought to be linked to the growing disillusionment with the established political parties, especially in areas dominated by a single party for a number of years, such as Doncaster, Wigan, and Barnsley.

As a result, there has been a rise in the number of independent candidates in the traditional Labour heartlands.

In this year's elections, independent candidates are standing in predominantly urban areas, in London and other metropolitan areas.

Getting organised

In several districts, independent candidates have organised themselves around single issues.

Examples of such groups are People Against Bureaucracy, Local Education Action By Parents (Lambeth), and Kent Campaign Against Increasing Council Taxes.

NHS and other health concerns have also prompted Independent candidates to become organised.

For example, Save Huddersfield NHS and Kidderminster Health Concern have placed health issues at the forefront of their agenda.

Good chance

Barnsley Independent Group is among those independent groupings with a good chance of winning seats in their district.

In Barnsley, there are a total of 21 seats up on election. Barnsley Independent Group is running with 17 candidates and is defending seven seats.

"This is the first time we're registered as a political group," chairman of the group, Ron Fisher, says.

"We're wanting to have provisions for more effective and economic services. Barnsley has been underfunded because of council tax capping."

"We've got individuals from a cross-section of community, from both Labour and Conservative backgrounds," says Mr Fisher.

Another group with good prospects is the Community Action Party (CAG).

With the slogan "Bringing Honesty and Integrity into Politics", CAG is running candidates in Wigan, where it has a fair chance of winning seats.

Minority parties

Normally absent from the British party political scene, religion also features in the upcoming elections.

Christian People's Alliance has 70 candidates running predominantly in London but also in Leeds, Sheffield, and Milton Keynes.

The Alliance first set candidates for election in 2000 London Mayor and London Assembly elections.

"We have our roots in Christian Democracy, with links to similar parties on the continent," Peter Flower, president of the Alliance, told the BBC News website.

Real power?

But are the independent councillors able to wield any real power in local authorities?

If one takes the number of councils controlled by Independents as an indicator, then the answer is positive.

In England, 10 local authorities are controlled with independents/other. In Wales and Scotland the number of such councils is three and four, respectively.

Independent councillors also form the administration with other political parties on 35 other local authorities.

The local elections on 4 May will show whether the independents can further increase their impact on England's political make-up.



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