Wednesday 29 October 2014

How a disastrously bad council spawned a very good idea.

In 2009  I left Plaid Cymru. I'd been a member for 32 years but the straight jacket of the political party was intolerable. I then became an independent member of Carmathenshre County Council but there was a problem. The term "Independent" had, as in many councils, been thoroughly debased.  Carmarthenhsire "Independents" had long before formed a fully fledged political organisation which was a right wing political party in all but name. That name is the "Affiliated Independents".  The problem was that they were referred to generally as "Independents" and I was in danger of being tarred with the same brush and there was a lot of tar hanging around.

I joined a search together another Councillor, ex Labour Independent Arthur Davies to find a new label and a different and a way of working to promote and provide proper representative democracy. I left Plaid because the party was interfering with my ability to represent the people of my ward. I had only been a County Councillor since May 2008 and a Community Councillor for some 6 years before that. Suddenly, at county level, I found conflict between what my people needed and the often differing priorities of my political party . "Point Scoring" and team play, rigid group policy given priority over common sense practicality and compromise on one day, yet  the group leadership could support an issue apparently in conflict with national party policy the next. As in many "democratic " institutions, personal ambition, dominant personalities and the expectation that if elected on the "ticket" you are a team player primarily, meant that group discipline hampered any project not approved of by the group's leaders. Parties' noble aims and policies on the leaflets, delivery not guaranteed.

Arthur's experience was similar in many ways. Standing as a Labour candidate he was already suspended from the local party before he was elected. He was guilty of personally putting out a second leaflet in his ward, to address new issues.The local party had strictly instructed that one leaflet only was enough. He had subsequently used the name "People First" to brand his open community meetings.

Arthur and I didn't and still don't agree on many  political issues but that is not important. We have always agreed that representing the people is the most important thing. Representatives must be instructed by the needs of their electorate. We found Bell's Principles [listed on this website] as clear and reasoned guidance for the truly independent people's representatives we wanted to be. They are not always easy to follow but the end result is the intrinsically selfless and open democratic representatives we need.

My community, for example, may clearly decide to have or do something that personally I would not want ,but I must support them, its their choice. There is no party handbook and all issues must be dealt with by the best consultation processes you can provide. There are emergency, on the spot decisions, you must make but do so in the knowledge of what your constituency as a whole, or the people likely to be effected, would likely want, combined your own insight and experience. In practice, major issues do not suddenly appear and we must consult as fully and widely as resources allow.We must not be influenced by political dogma, political personalities or personal preference. Its not perfect, its often not simple but surely it must be better?

In this digital world a portion of my electorate are able to access me and me them, on line in various forms. Others prefer the community meeting or newsletter or all 3. It takes much more time, effort and modest sums of money, but is well worth it . There have always been good "constituency" politicians at all levels and of all colours who strive to give an excellent service in a similar way. Increasingly  politics has moved away from the people becoming stale, empty, regimented and discredited with concentration on party not people. I believe this is due to the historic prominence of old style parties, the career paths of politicians, and little reward for good grass roots community service within the parties. You are more valued as reliable vote fodder in a lobby than as a voice for your own people. Every election the choice for the voter is still primarily the least worst option. We strive to be the best option.

People First is registered as a political party because we needed the label. Without a "party" label  the ballot paper can only say "independent" [which in Carmarthenshire reads as "somewhat eccentric right wing political party"] or "no description".  We are more of a movement than a party but we do qualify as a party under the electoral commission  which means we can use the name. A party must have 3 posts, a convener or leader, a treasurer and a "designated officer". The most important elections person in People First is the designated officer, who will sign your electoral papers allowing you to use our name, logos and by-lines on the ballot paper in any election in Wales if you agree to follow Bell's Principles. Our only sanction we have is that if you don't follow the principles you will not be allowed to use the name to get elected next time. We have no formal membership, only supporters. We'll give you advice and as much help as we can. How you actually do things is up to you, the guidance of your electorate and your conscience. You have to think for yourself.

True, your chances of riches, glory, high status, titles and power are considerably less than a current standard political party career.  But if you fancy the challenges and rewards of turning a political system upside down and reclaiming democracy, the name is available.  Gwerin Gyntaf/ People First does mean what it says on the tin.

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