Page last updated at 14:25 GMT, Wednesday, 21 April 2010 15:25 UK

Martin Bell launches Independent Network campaign

By Brian Wheeler
Politics reporter, BBC News

"It is an independent network, not a political machine. I would describe it as a contraption."

Martin Bell
Martin Bell believes the time is right for Independent candidates

Martin Bell, The former BBC correspondent who became a sleaze-busting independent MP in 1997, seems pleased with the idea that he is part of a contraption. He rolls the word around his tongue.

"Contraptions don't have policies," he says, expanding on the theme.

"Let's call it a network," says Brian Ahearne, director of the Independent Contraption, sorry, Network.

Whatever they want to call it, it is something quite new in British politics, although former Tory grandee Sir Paul Judge is trying something similar with his Jury Team project.

Independent candidates at general elections used to be confined to the ranks of single-issue campaigners or the terminally-deluded and exhibitionists in fancy dress, hoping for two minutes of fame when the returning officer announces the result.

But with the loosening of traditional party allegiances and widespread anger and disillusionment about the traditional parties, there is a growing hunger for MPs who are not beholden to party machines and the whipping system.

Dr Richard Taylor, in Wyre Forest, who was elected as part of a campaign to save his local hospital, Dai Davies, in Blaenau Gwent, and Mr Bell himself, have established the idea that independents can not only get elected to the Commons they can also make an impact once they get there.

'Extraordinary events'

Mr Bell believes the time is now ripe for more independents - "If not now when?," he says in an open letter to independent candidates - to take their place alongside Dr Taylor and Mr Davies, if they are re-elected.

Mr Bell, who only served one term in Tatton and failed in his bid to unseat Tory chairman Eric Pickles at the 2001 election, is not standing this time.

The volatility of the electorate, as evidenced by the sudden surge in support for the Lib Dems, is a symptom of a "sickness in the body politic", he says at the network's campaign launch at the Frontline Club, a West London watering hole for war correspondents, appropriately enough.

There a lot of good candidates not endorsed by the Independent Network. Some others are oddballs no doubt
Martin Bell

"If all was well with the two party system then we wouldn't be seeing these extraordinary events."

But the trouble with the TV debates, he argues, is that it will "confuse" the public into believing that they are voting for a leader, as in the US presidential system, when in fact what they are voting for on 6 May is an MP.

The Independent Network aims to provide credible independent candidates with the sort of support their big party rivals routinely expect from head office - although on a much smaller budget.

Mr Ahearne stresses that they have only hired the room for an hour and a half and expresses gratitude for a £100 donation they have just received. The candidates are also paying their own costs - estimated to be about £5,000 each.

They do, however, get to share a platform with Mr Bell, who has donned his famous white suit for the occasion.

There are about 20 of them lined up behind him and after he has had his say, they fan out to different parts of the room to meet the press, standing in themed areas such as "foreign policy" and "home affairs".

Publicity stunt

They are a disparate bunch. Some are disgruntled former members of other parties, others are entirely new to politics. All share an earnest sense of public duty.

Hugh Salmon, who is standing in Battersea, is a corporate whistleblower who fought a long legal battle against his former bosses, said he was inspired to stand by the expenses scandal.

"I cannot believe that every one of the MPs independently worked out how to flip their houses and get out of capital gains tax," he says.

Showing an ad man's flair for a publicity stunt, he plans to tour the seat in a milk float, to appeal to floating voters.

Paul Swansborough, a small businessman who is standing against former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, also decided to stand as a result of the expenses scandal, although he insists he is mostly campaigning on local issues, such as a controversial new housing development.

Jim Thornton, is taking on Labour's Jim Fitzpatrick and Respect's George Galloway in Poplar and Limehouse, is a property manager and former Conservative district councillor in East Herts, who says he was "thrown out" of the party after he decided to stand as an independent in 2007. He went on to form a local independent network and wrote a guide to standing as an independent.

Randy Kellman, the only black candidate at the launch, is a student at East London University and fizzes with excitement at how he is mobilizing his friends on the campaign trail in West Ham.

'Good character'

Essentially, what the Independent Network is offering is a kind of "kite mark" for election candidates. It has no policies of its own, beyond being non-racist and non-discriminatory.

But the 47 men and women it has endorsed (on the strength of the 20 or so at the launch it is mainly men) have all been checked out and certified as being of "good character".

The have also signed up to the "Bell Principles", which means they agree to the "spirit and letter" of the Nolan committee's standards in public life and to be "guided by considered evidence, their real world experience and expertise, their constituencies and their consciences".

A number of would-be candidates have been rejected because they do do not measure up to these exacting standards.

Martin Bell insists is not calling for an end to party politics - what he has in mind is a small "ginger group" of Independents in the House of Commons, to keep the big parties honest.

They would be free to vote with their consciences on every issue although, interestingly, he suggests that if they succeed in getting "about six MPs", he foresees Richard Taylor, who is not at the launch but has backed the network, as being their "natural leader".

Mr Bell is also quick to point out that that the Independent Network is not setting itself up as the ultimate arbiter of moral probity at this election.

"There a lot of good candidates not endorsed by the Independent Network. Some others are oddballs no doubt."



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